Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Want to Win at Poker? Learn to be Afraid!

One of the best things I ever did for my Texas Hold'em game was to learn Pot Limit Omaha (PLO). The reason is that it taught me to be afraid--really, really afraid--of big river bets. Let me explain.

For a long period in my poker career/education, I refused to believe the other guy really had the big hand. No, that's not quite right. Rather, I refused to believe my own reads. I just had to see that the villain had the hand he was representing. I'd bet into the river with KK on a 9-8-7-5-2 two-tone board, but then would face a large re-shove for all my chips. There are lots of ways I could have been beaten here, and nowadays this is an easy fold, but back then I just couldn't pull the "muck trigger."

So I'd call. And then literally not be surprised when the villain turned over a straight, or a flush, or a set. Instead, I'd kick myself and mutter something like, "Damn it! I knew he had it! Why did I call!? When will I ever learn? Arghghg!"

For a long, long time, it seemed I was incapable of learning this particular lesson. But then one day I happened to overhear a discussion between a couple of players discussing a hand at a local tournament I occasionally play in. One guy was lamenting the fact that he had just called a big river shove because he thought the villain had been bluffing.

"The idiot turns over 5-4 for the wheel!" said the victim. "How the hell does he get to the river with that crap?"

"Doesn't matter," said the victim's friend. "He got there. And you called his bet. What did you put him on?"

"Well obviously the straight," the victim continued to whine. "But come one! Guy shoves and I can't believe it isn't a bluff. He's usually bluffing there, right? Repping the straight. Right?"

"Really?" the friend replied. "Just how often do you bluff the river for all your chips?"

"We're not talking about me," the victim said.

"Okay, but he bet big on the river," the friend said. "You clearly had a strong hand, and yet he still bets big. What does that say about his hand?"


"I rest my case," said the friend.

This conversation lodged itself in my brain like an ear worm. It kept playing itself over and over. The villain clearly had to know the hero had a strong hand, yet he shoved anyway. So what should that tell us about the villain's hands strength? Would I bluff in a situation like that when I thought my opponent had a big hand and wasn't likely to fold? Uh, no. I'm only betting with big hands, and only for value. So why would my opponent think any differently?

Like a cartoon bubble thought, a tiny 50 Watt "A-ha!" light began to flicker itself on over my head. How often do people actually bluff big on rivers? Answer: not very.

Yet I continued to call in those situations. Sigh. It was like I needed actual, physical proof that the bad guy actually had the monster hand, regardless of what his bet was telling me he had. I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but this continued to be a big leak in my game for way longer than it should have been. Who knows how many stacks I lost because I didn't believe those big river bets from the bad guys and wanted proof.

The good news is I started to learn. The bad news is that it was slow and costly. In fact, it actually took learning another type of poker to really absorb the lesson. See, I got interested in PLO around that time and quickly discovered that it was exactly as advertised: a game of the nuts. Holy crap, was PLO fun. But expensive. You don't last long playing PLO unless you embrace the idea of monsters.

See, it turns out that people very frequently have the nuts in Omaha. If there's river action on a board of 8-8-6-7-2, someone at least has trips, more likely a straight or a boat, and often enough they have quads. Yes, freaking quads. If you're going to play PLO, you better adjust your mindset PDQ, or you're gonna go broke even PDQ'er....

Ah, but I digress. All the villains turning over their nuts on me in PLO began to sink in. I learned that at the small stakes tables, people essentially never bluff in PLO on turns and rivers. As a collective whole, they're terrified of the nuts themselves, so they only get it in the middle when they think their hand is a stone-cold lock. Especially in multi-way pots. This means they have the nuts, or at least the near nuts. Said another way:

If a PLO villain is a-rammin'-and-a-jammin' the river, they've got a monster.

That's when the 50W bulb brightened to around 75W. Hey, I thought, maybe this is the same in Hold'em games. Hmmm. Well okay, maybe not to the same near-total extent, but for practical purposes, it's probably a good, conservative way to assume when facing big, for-all-the-marbles bets on fifth street. If I get bet large into on the river, maybe I should fold all but my strongest hands? Hmmm...

Serendipitously around that same time period in my poker education, I also heard a podcast episode by Bart Hanson in which he extolled the virtues of bet-folding and raise-folding rivers. His comment that "most players aren't capable of bluffing big on rivers" solidified this for me. I vowed to fold, bet-fold, and raise-fold all my medium strength and worse hands in river situations for the next month or so of play and see where it took me.

And the rest is history.  Profitable history, that is. And I ain't never looked back. In fact, I now have a 1000 Watt halogen bulb spotlighting all my river folds.

The bottom line is this: at the stakes most of us play ($50NL and below online, $2/$5 live), people are incapable of big bluffs on the later streets-- and this is truly a great thing. It literally makes winning poker easier. Bluffing is limited to almost exclusively the best players. And there ain't many of those guys playing at those stakes. In contrast, the rest of the player pool is dead easy to read. If they're not betting, they don't have big hands. If they are betting, they do-- and you should be afraid. Very afraid.

I rest my case.

All-in for now...

Like this post? Hate it? Have a suggestion, addition, or comment to make? Think I'm wrong about something? Please comment below and/or send me an email. I read everything sent my way, and I honestly look forward to hearing all feedback, good or bad. This blog gets better with comments from informed and involved readers like yourself. Don't be shy! Tell me what you think!


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