Saturday, November 27, 2004

Table Image Leads to a Tourney Win

If you have read any of my previous posts, you know that I primarily prefer to play NL ring games. However, I also get the itch to play low buy-in NL hold’em tournaments and recently won a $5 buy-in tournament at Bugsy’s. However, I do not tell you this to pat myself on the back but rather to discuss a different strategy that I employed and found highly successful.

First a little background though. As a NL ring player, I tend to be a tight player and see the flop on average about 24-27% of the time at a 9-player table. I rarely chase after the flop unless I have top pair or better, or the ability to improve to the nuts. This formula is very successful for me in ring games. However, it sucks for tournaments!

I only play about one tournament per week, because I do not like the luck element of tournaments and I have historically played tournaments tightly which does not win often. My tournament record is marginal at best, during the past year I participated in 70 low buy-in tournaments – of at least 50 participants. Most of these were at PokerStars which is the king of tournaments, however any low buy-in tournament at PS always has at least 1,000 participants. I have made it to the final table 5 times and this was my second win.

From the beginning I decided to play this tournament much more loosely in the beginning with the idea of either building a decent stack or busting out. The tournament was a $5 buy-in with 109 participants. One of the things I really like about Bugsy’s tournaments is that you start with 10,000 chips and the initial blinds are 25/50, so you start with a stack that is 200x the BB. At PS, Full Tilt Poker and Poker Room, you start with 1,500 chips and the blinds start at 10/20, for 75x ratio. I no longer play tournaments at any site with less than 1,500 chips – Paradise, Party, TruePoker all start with 1,000 chips and 10/20 blinds for a 50x ratio – the lower the ratio, the more luck involved. The higher the ratio, the clearer the advantage for good players.

Initially, my strategy did not work so well. During the first half hour, I had whittled myself down to about 5,000 chips by seeing about 44% of the flop. At that point I decided it was time to make a stand, so with the blinds at 150/300 I was two off the button with A5o. Three players had called and with the blind money in the pot, I decided to move all in hoping to take down the pot right there. Everyone folded to the BB, who had about 17,000 chips. Weighing his risk options, he decided to call with 66, everyone else folded and our cards were shown. While this was not a good position for me, I liked my move because of my short stack position -- only 16x the BB. I ended up catching an A and a 5 in the community cards and ran my stack up to 11,000. After my hit, there was some talk from one player about what a bad play I had made and I simply ignored the comments.

On the very next hand, I had KJs one off the button and faced a middle position raise who made it 900 to go. One other player had called and I also called. The BB also called the bet, so we were four way to the flop of J93 with two to my suit. The preflop raiser bet 2,000, the second player folded and I decided to call. I knew I could be beat here, if the preflop raiser had a big pair in the whole, but with 14 outs to make a two pairs or better, I decided to gamble again and moved all-in on my opponent hoping he would think I had trips or two pair. I assumed he had a big pair or two overcards with his preflop raise. The BB surprised me and called with A9o and the initial raiser called with JJ, both players outchipped me. I had run into a run into a trainwreck, but still had hope of catching my flush card. I ended up hitting the flush card on the river and jumped into 3rd place with almost 40,000 chips.

Now as you can imagine, there was a lot of chatter at the table about what a terrible player I was. I had made two ridiculous moves and was completely lucky to be where I was. I simply listened and did not offer any explanation of my plays.

Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. I was now in 3rd chip position and by far the largest chip stack at my table, but even better than the whole table believed I did not know how to play and was lucky and loose. I knew that I would get callers for all of my good hands and could afford to sit back a bit. However, I also wanted to continue to foster my image so with the big stack I was raising preflop about 25% of the hands. This worked to steal a couple blinds and if reraised I would evaluate my cards versus my opponent’s chipstack.

After the first break, I was at 48,000 chips and still had not seen a good flop with my new table image. Then with the blinds at 300/600, I got KK in middle position. It was folded to me and I raised to 3x the BB. The button must have thought I was speeding and pushed his 17,000 all-in hoping I would fold. Everyone else folded and I called. He showed JJ and did not improve and I took over the chip lead. Thank you table image.

From here, I kept cultivating the table image with raises about 25% of the time. When it was reraised, I would call if I had decent high cards or a pair and my opponent’s chipstack was small enough that I would not lose the lead if I lost the hand. If you watched the WSOP this year, Greg Raymer used this strategy very effectively with the chip lead. While you may not have the odds, you will win your share of head-up pots and it does not risk your chip lead if you lose. Most importantly, though, it keeps that table image rolling that you are playing footloose and fancy free.

This hand is a perfect example of what table image can do for you. I had just over 100,000 chips with about 30 players remaining and the blinds at 500/1000. A good player that had recently run his chips up to about 58,000 with a nice win, raised to 4,000 preflop. Everyone folded to me in the BB with J9s and I called. Again one might say this looks like a bad loose play, however with my chip stack and the size of the raise, I felt it was worth the price to see the pot. Especially, with a hand with nice potential to surprise someone with the right flop. In fact, at this time in the tournament I was seeing about 40% of the flops. My catch on this hand is a great example of why the chip leader should see a lot of flops.

The flop came 78T rainbow and I had made the nut str8 on the flop. The preflop raiser led out with 8,000 chips and I flat called. A Queen hit on fourth street and I still had the nut str8. My opponent led out again with a 15,000 bet and I flat called again. I debated raising in this position and it would have been a good play, but I analyzed what could hurt me here. I figured my opponent for AK, AQ or maybe TT. I figured he would have moved all in with QQ, AA or KK and probably with TT also. Analyzing the hand, I thought about what could hurt me. If he did have trips, he could full up but that seemed remote. He could also catch a str8 on the river, but again that was remote unless he had JJ and I had one of those Js. Lastly, he could have hit a flush if he was currently four suited but that also seemed remote. I decided to flat call again.

A 9 hit on the river so that the final board was 78TQ9 with no flush possible. I did not like this river, because there was a remote chance we would be splitting the pot but I knew that was the worst that could happen. Because of my table image as a wild chaser, he led out again with 20,000. With my previous two calls his radar should have been going off, but my table image made him think I was a weak player and that he was counting his chips for a double up. I immediately raised him another 20,000 and he called his final 11,000 chips. After he mucked, with what I assume was two pair or trips, he muttered about what a ridiculous catch on the river – because he was so clouded by my table image he did not even realize that I had milked him for all his chips with a str8 on the flop.

I was not planning to point out his error, but one of the other smart players at the table pointed it out for me. From here the tournament was fairly straightforward. I came to the final table with a commanding chip lead and over 25% of the chips in play. I was very happy with the win and even happier with a new weapon in my Poker Toolbox. I played a completely different style and had won with it. I wouldn’t recommend this style for every tournament, but it is a nice change of pace strategy. If you tend to play tournaments with the same consistent style, I highly recommend that you mix up your tournament strategies and see how a different approach works for you --- you might just surprise yourself.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

AK - Woe is Me!!

Most inexperienced players get very excited when they see Big Slick in their hand and start salivating about their potential winnings. However, wily veterans have learned from experience that this is the trickiest No-Limit hand in the deck. I have personally lost more money with AK, early in my No-Limit days, than any other hand. So, when I look down and see Big Slick, I tend to say "woe is me". In my experience, AK tends to either win a small pot or lose a very big pot -- ouch not good options!

TJ Cloutier and the Texas gamblers that developed No-Limit Holdem nicknamed AK -- "Walking back to Houston", because anyone who plays NLHE long enough will eventually lose his shirt (and his possibly his car) with this hand and end up walking home. If you are going to play NLHE you should read TJ's books. His advice is particularly relevant to ring games, where you try to reduce gambling to a minimum, but it is a bit too conservative for tournament play in today's "luck-oriented" tournament environment. However for ring games, if you simply follow his outline for NLHE, you will be a winner far more than a loser at online poker. If you are interested in his books, my favorite is below:

So what is it about AK that creates such danger. Well, first of all, while AK includes the two largest cards in the deck, it is not a made hand. If an A or a K does not hit the flop, you probably do not have anything but overcards. That is critical to remember in No-Limit play. In tournament play it is more of a gambling hand, many times you will reraise a raiser preflop with AK or even move all in. Your goal is to win the pot right then and there before the flop.

However, in ring games you should generally play AK more conservatively. Rarely will good ring players move all in before the flop with AK because it is a gambling hand. Unlike tournament play, there is no time restriction on ring games. Good ring players tend to be more conservative preflop, because they do not want to get into coinflip scenarios. Over the long-term (2-5 hours in online play), they know that the money will migrate from weaker players to stronger players, so there is little need to gamble.

Good ring players tend to get their chips into the pot when they know they have a decided advantage over their competition, which leads us to the second problem with AK. Against a pocket pair, you are a slight underdog (basically a coinflip). In essence it is a gambling hand preflop. I will rarely call an all in bet preflop with AK, unless I absolutely know I am up against a very weak player or a player on tilt. I am hoping then that he turns up AQ, AJ, AT, since I will have a huge edge over him to win. But keep in mind I will still lose 26% of the time with AKo against AJo. Its a big advantage, but less foolproof than flopping trips from a pocket pair.

The third problem with AK is that if you make a pair on the board, you may not know where you stand in the hand. Let's say you have raised 3x the BB with AK preflop and two players called your raise. Then the flop comes down KJ8. It is obvious that this is a good betting situation for you, but where do you stand if a player puts in a pot sized raise of your bet on the flop or fourth street? You have top pair with the best kicker, so you have a lot of confidence, but they called a large preflop raise. They could easily have JJ, 88 and maybe AQ or KJ. Against all of those but AQ, you are now a big underdog. What's worse is the strength of your hand and size of the pot makes it very difficult to fold. Good winning players will usually fold to this type of raise on the flop or fourth street, but only because of the bitter experience of losing big pots with this hand in the past.

So how do I play AK? I tend to mix it up. It is not a hand that I want to play consistently, since many good players will watch to see how others play AK. Let's start with early position -- most of the time I will raise 2x to 3x the BB from early position because I want to thin the crowd. AK plays very poorly against multiple hands. Occasionally, I will just call if the table has a lot of preflop raisers. Then I am hoping someone else will raise it and I can reraise or call depending on the situation. Keep in mind though, with a reraise you are putting a lot of money into the pot on a speculative hand. I do not tend to like to do that in ring games.

From middle position, I really vary my play. Sometimes I will make the raise with or without early callers and sometimes I will simply call. You might ask why I would ever call with AK since it plays best against few players. The reality is I don't like the hand that much and it is very easy to get away from if you simply call preflop. If there is an early raiser and I am in middle position, I will sometimes raise to try to grab the button. However, depending upon what I know about the early raiser, I may also call or fold. I fold AK more than most players simply because it is a tough hand to get away from later and it rarely wins a huge pot.

From late position, I tend to limp in more often with AK. In NLHE ring games, stealing the blinds is not as significant a play as it is in tournaments. Usually the blinds are very low compared to players' stacks, so by raising I might only win a small pot outright. By limping, I can evaluate the flop and then determine my next move.

One other note, I tend to limp and call more with AKs than AKo. The primary reason for this difference is that if I hit the flush or flush draw, I want to be able to slowplay with a few callers to really build the pot. This reduces my number of wins with pairs because of the increased number of players in the pot, but it is the big paydays in NLHE that make your win rate and I want a flush win to be very big.

To further illustrate the danger of AK, here are a couple of real world examples. In both cases, I am sad to report I lost big pots. Yes, you will win a lot of small pots with AK along the way but the key to NL poker is to minimize your losses. These examples illustrate how hard it is to do just that.

At a recent $.50/$1.00 NLHE ring game, I am in BB with AKo. The maximum buy-in for the table is $100 and I have about $80 in front of me and the other player involved has a $50 stack. Several players fold to a middle position player that raises 3x the BB, so it is $4 to go. One other player calls and I decide to call. An argument could be made for raising to see where you stand. If the first player has AQ or lower he will probably fold to your raise, but what if he has AA, KK or AK? Will he raise or call? If he raises, I am going to fold almost 100% of the time, if he calls I still don't know where I am in the hand. So to limit my downside, I decided to call.

The flop comes AT2 rainbow. I decide to check raise the preflop raiser. On the flop the pot is $12 and he bets $10, the other player folds and I decide to raise it to $20 to go. My read on him at this point is AK. If so, he will likely call my raise, but if he has AA I would expect a reraise and if he has KK he should fold. He calls and I am still thinking AK.

A blank comes on fourth street and he bet his remaining $26 to me. Now here I sit with one pair and the best kicker, but there is now $78 in the pot and I have to pay $26 for a chance at it. At this point I am pretty committed to this pot so I have to call. But this is the dilemma of AK!!! What if he has AA, could he be a more wild player that got into this flop with TT or AT. I still think he has AK, but this is a difficult spot to be in.

I call and he shows AA, playing it brilliantly. I lose a big pot to add to my AK trophy case. Ouch!!

Now here is another example, where AK got me into trouble. Again I am playing at a $.50/$1.00 NLHE ring game and a maximum buy-in of $100. This time I have $60 in front of me and my main opponent has me outchipped with $110. I am in middle position with AKo and everyone has folded to me, I raise 2x the BB making it $3 to go. The button and the BB call. The flop comes KQ8 with two diamonds. I do not have a diamond in my hand. The BB checks and I bet $8, close to 1x the pot, because I want to win the hand right now and I do not want to get outdrawn to a flush or straight. The button calls and the BB folds.

I am not feeling real good about his call at this point, but hope that he is playing the flush draw and I will check if the flush card hits. The deuce of clubs comes on the turn. Now the pot is about $26 and I am committed to bet something to try to take this pot now. I should bet the pot, but I do not like my position with only one pair and his previous call. Do I really want to risk another $26 without a good read on my opponent. I decide that I need to bet at least $12, half the pot, to convince him I am serious. He quickly raises me $20 more. Now where am I? Another AK dilemma. Most likely I am beat with QQ (although most would reraise preflop), 88 or KQ. I doubt many players would make this play with only a flush or straight draw. So I have to lay it down, losing $23 in the process.

The moral of the story is that AK is a speculative hand. Your goal should be to minimize your losses with this hand versus maximizing your gain. Let the pocket pairs that improve to trips and the high flush or straight cards that make it become your big winners. Don't let AK beat you because you will spend the rest of the night just trying to get back to par!!

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Listen to the Rhythm - The Betting Rhythm that is.

"Play the person not the cards" as the age old poker axiom goes. Reading opponents hand is a necessary skill to take your game to the next level. However, how does one do that online, without the benefit of body and facial language? Its the rhythm -- the betting rhythm that we must rely on. Of course before you can rely on the rhythm, you have to observe your opponents and determine their skill level, since unskilled players will bet erratically and very skilled players will often bet unpredictably.

Assuming you have a good feel for your opponents skill level, then betting is the key to reading your opponents hands. Much of that rhythm falls into predictable patterns based upon the hands players hold. Hours of experience, watching betting unfold for all varieties of hands is the only way to learn the betting rhythm.

A recent hand in an online NLHE ring game will serve as a good example of betting rhythm. It was a low limit 9-handed ring game, $1.00 big blind (BB) with a maximum buy-in of $100 (stack sizes ranged from about $20 up to $150). I was in cutoff position with one limper in front of me. I decided to limp in with AJs, hoping to keep the small and large blind playing. This is different than how I would play this hand in a tournament, but in ring games most of your money is made when you get a monster with several players seeing the flop, so I wanted to keep a few more players. The button and small blind folded and the BB checked, so we were three handed.

The flop came T22 with two cards to my flush suit, so I had a flush draw and two overcards. The first player checked and I bet $2.00 hoping to get one caller. The BB raised a pot-sized bet, $5.00 and the first player folded. Raising on the flop is unusual in ring games and my radar went up -- this was an unusual place to raise if he had trip 2s. Thinking that he probably had a T, I called his raise. I also had a pretty good read on this player that we was not an expert player -- capable of making a very "good" unpredictable play.

So why did my radar go up? Well let's take a brief dance diversion into betting rhythm to understand it. The traditional and by far most common way to bet trips in a ring game (tournament play is more unpredictable) is to call or check and call on the flop, hoping that another player bets. Then, on the turn a player will usually check and raise (a pot-sized bet) to put maximum pressure on your opponent. Additonally, many players will call the turn and then raise it on the river, if there is not risk of a straight or flush on the board. This rhythm is very common and can often help you to put a player on a big hand on the turn.

Back the the example at hand, a raise on the flop from a non-expert player was signaling to me that he probably did not have trip 2s. He likely had a T or maybe had another middle pair in his had such as 88. So, with my flush draw and two overcards I wanted to see another card.

Fourth street brought an A and now I had top two pair as long as he did not have trip 2s. He made almost a pot-sized bet of $8 and I was beginning to worry. Had I read his raise wrong, was he a better player than I assumed, hmm. I decided I needed to call because I was likely in the lead.

Many people would make a pot-sized raise in this spot and I contemplated this option. However, the key to winning at NL ring games is to maximize your wins and minimize your losses. If I had come over the top and he did have the 2, then he would definitely raise all in and I would have a big decision to make. Should I call all in hoping to improve to a flush or fold and lose a very big hand. If he did not have the 2, he would likely fold and I would not win anymore cash on the river. In NL ring games, if you have the chance to improve to the likely nuts, you want to see the river. I felt calling was my best option.

The river brought a J off suit, so I had not made my flush but I had made two high pairs. Again the BB bet, this time for his remaining $20 and I went into the tank. It still seemed unlikely that he had the 2, but if he did not have it I would have expected him to check to my call of his earlier big bets. That is another excellent rhythm clue that you can often read as weakness. Someone bets large on the flop and you call. Then they check to you on the river. It is often advisable to make a pot-sized bet then since their check is broadcasting weakness.

However, back to my example --- he was not showing weakness, he was showing strength!! What to do. After much thought, I had to trust my instinct. He broke the normal betting rhythm and was not an expert player, so I did not think he had trip 2s. I called and he showed 7Ts. He had indeed had the T and I won a big pot with the As and Js.

I do not like his play here and assume he is not a winning player. You should keep in mind that in low level NL ring games, you often are faced with callers. He bluffed on the turn and river with high cards. If I had called him earlier, it was likely that I did not believe he had the 2 and he should have checked to my calls.

Trusting your instinct and understanding betting rhythm often can lead you to make very good poker decisions. However, a word of caution I could easily have lost if I had misread my opponent's skill level. A good player can employ a similar strategy against a good opponent to throw them off the trail.

Best of luck in life and poker this week!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Online NLHE Ring Game Basics

I am usually going to focus on an interesting hand or betting dilemma that arises in NLHE ring games, but I thought it would be useful to start with a little playing basics to provide you with a framework for my general starting requirements.

NLHE ring games typically have a maximum buy-in that is 100x the big blind (BB) amount. So in a $.50/$1.00 NLHE game the maximum buy-in is $100. You can always buy-in for less than the maximum, but you should generally not buy-in for less than half the maximum. If you buy-in for $10 at a $100 table, more people are going to be inclined to call your all-in bets and you really will only win at showdowns. There will be people at the table that have more than the maximum because they have been winning.

NLHE ring games are a great opportunity to earn money at online poker, but you have to be disciplined. The general rule of thumb for win rates at limit hold em is between 1-2 big bets per hour. I can attest that my NLHE ring game win rates are much higher than that. Because of the ability to extract maximum bets from "calling stations" with your made hands, you can increase your win rate dramatically. However, the key to increasing your win rate is not paying off other players made hands by chasing when you are beat.

Also keep in mind that NLHE ring games are very different than NLHE tournaments. You have the luxury of being able to be very patient in ring games and to maximize your win rate you have to capitalize on that luxury. So there are many hands that I would play in a tournament that I will rarely play in a ring game, such as K9s, Q8s.

Pre-Flop Starting Requirements
From early position (under the gun or second position), there are only 16 hands that I will usually play in NLHE ring games, the 13 paired hands, AK, AQ and AJ. For the most part, I am only calling from early position unless I have AA, KK, QQ, AK or AQ. All of those hands I will open with a 2x-3x BB bet depending upon the table mix. If the hand gets raised after me, I will obviously reraise with AA and KK, I will usually call up to 1/3 of my stack with QQ or AK and I usually fold AQ unless it is a small raise.

For all other pairs, I will typically only call a bet that is less than 10% of my stack. The reason I call some of these large raises with 33 or 55 is because if you hit the set, you are usually going to extract huge value from your opponent because your hand is disguised so well. However, it makes no sense to call half your stack with a pair lower than KK because there is only an 11% chance you will get that set. And since you are likely up against a higher pair, you are a big underdog. The obvious exception would be against a very wild player that has been trying to bully the table with less than quality hands. But even then, your TT is only a slight favorite to AJ and you are basically in a coinflip scenario

Since you have the ability to be patient in NLHE ring games, you want to avoid coinflip scenarios. You are much better off waiting until you know you are a significant favorite and extract your value then.

In middle position, I will typically look at calling a couple more speculative hands, especially those that are suited, such Axs, ATo and KQ. However, I am usually quick to let them go if raising ensues after my call.

In late position, you can look at more hands and can raise with decent hands if everyone else has folded in front of you. You are not really looking to steal the blinds here, because they are so small in relation to your stack. Rather, you are trying to take control of the hand so that when you bet your hand for value on the flop, your opponent will have a tough time calling unless he has hit his hand.

After the Flop
Your play after the flop is what really determines your success in NLHE and it is the general focus of this Blog. Each week will take a look at different hands and ways to play them successfully based on my experiences in online NLHE.

There are a couple of rules of thumb to keep in mind after the flop. If you think you have the best hand, but it is a hand that is vulnerable to being beat by a drawing hand, such as two pair or trips, you are usually better off "betting for value". Betting for value means to bet an amount that puts maximum pressure on your opponent to give up hands that could improve and beat your hand. This amount varies depending upon the situation but is usually between 75% of the pot up to an all in bet.

You need to be aware of the pot odds and create scenarios that make it a bad decision for your opponent to call if you want him to fold.

On the other hand, if you have the nuts or a hand that is very unlikely to be beaten, such as a top full house or a nut flush with no pair on the board, then your goal is to drag along players and hope they can improve their hand. In other words, you want callers and may consider checking around on the flop and/or fourth street.

I hope this framework is helpful to you and I wish you luck at your next Cyber Game.