Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2009) in Poker Player newspaper.
About this series: The following entry is part of a series of self-interviews in which I get to ask my own questions and then answer them.
About the numbering: Don’t worry if you haven’t read any previous entries in this series. Each one is independent. The questions continue with number 156, but you can subtract 155 and start fresh, if that makes you happier.
About today’s word, “Hands”: The questions and answers focus on selected hold ’em hands and some related concepts.
Question 156: In hold ’em, what is more important — which hands you choose to play or how you play them?
For any player who isn’t yet competing at a professional level, which hands you choose to play is more important.
The actual tactics and finesses you use to extract the most money, or lose the least, during hands can be very complex. How you play hands is determined by a great number of factors, but usually the obvious course of action provides the greatest long-range profit. Extra profit comes by varying from the clear choice on occasion and from using deception appropriately.
Those things, relating to how you play hands once you’ve already entered a pot, can add significantly to your profit. But most profit, especially for average players, comes from knowing which hands not to play — from folding, instead of committing to pots.
Following a set of starting-hand standards is much simpler than knowing exactly what to do during the course of a hand. That’s especially true in hold ’em.
Simple guidelines are often enough to win against weak opponents, even if you only follow your good instincts once you’ve entered a pot. As basic examples: Never play hands like J-9, 9-8, K-6, or A-3 of mixed suits from an early position in a nine-handed game, and never call a raise and a reraise with a small pair.
I’m not going to provide you with a complete starting hand guide today, but keep in mind that the earlier your position, the more powerful your hands need to be to justify playing them. The K-J that most opponents play from early positions, for instance, just loses money forever and ever. Don’t do that.
Quite clearly, knowing which hands to play is more important for average players in full-handed games. Players with more expertise, however, will probably already have solid starting-hand standards, and most of their hold ’em profit will come from how they play hands.
Also, in short-handed games, and especially heads-up, most money is made from knowing how to play, not what to play. That’s because the importance of what to play is diminished when you’re playing so many more hands — as you should in short-handed games.
Question 157: Can you give us an example of a mistake that’s made during a hold ’em hand, once you’ve already decided to play?
Well, imagine that you’re in a no-limit hold ’em game with $25 and $50 blinds. You hold A♥ K♥ two seats from the dealer button.
Joe, the first player to act, just calls. He is a sophisticated winning player. Someone else calls. You raise $100, making it $150 to go.
Everyone folds except those two players. The pot is now $525 — $150 from each active player, plus the $25 and $50 forfeited blinds.
Here’s the flop. It’s A♦ 8♥ 4♣. Instantly you’re very pleased with this flop. You’ve made a commanding pair of aces with the highest-possible kicker.
Now Joe bets $500, about the size of the pot — certainly not an alarming amount. The other remaining player folds. You begin to put $2,000 in the pot, a raise of $1,500.
Wait! Let’s think about this. You know Joe is a winning player, and winning players don’t usually just call before the flop in early positions with questionable hands. But Joe did just call. This doesn’t necessarily mean he was slow-playing a monster hand; in fact, it probably doesn’t mean that, although you should be aware of the possibility.
Okay, so there’s a possibility, though not a probability, that he has A-A — holding the last two remaining aces. If so, you shouldn’t be raising.
What else could he hold that he could have reasonably called with and now is betting the size of the pot after seeing the flop? Could it be K-K? Not likely, because winning opponents seldom slow play that hand. And, even if Joe did, he’d probably be reluctant to bet it after the ace flopped following your pre-flop raise.
The same goes for any pair that’s higher than eights and less than aces. Well, maybe he would just call with 9-9 or 10-10 — winning players sometimes do that. But then it would be somewhat doubtful that he’d bet, so we’ll give a medium pair a long-shot possibility only.
Open-end straight draws and flush draws are impossible with this flop. He could have hit two pair, but that would mean he called initially with A-8, A-4, or 8-4. Joe is a winning player; he isn’t apt to do that very often, if ever.
A-Q? Joe would usually fold that hand in the first seat, and would usually raise on the minority of times he did play it. Not likely, again. And A-K, which ties you, is also unlikely, because Joe would usually have raised with that.
So, do you see what I’m saying? A great share of the time, you’re bumping heads with either a bluff or trips derived from A-A, 8-8, 4-4 — more likely one of the latter two.
Understanding that — and it’s a fairly common situation — will save you from losing a lot of money. You should just call or possibly even consider folding.
If Joe is bluffing, then you want to just call and let him throw more money your way on the next betting round. If he isn’t bluffing, you might be in deep trouble. Don’t make that raise — even if you think everyone else does.
Question 158: What’s another mistake players often make in hold ’em, assuming they’re already competing for the pot?
Here’s an example of a silly bet on the river. You’re heads up with J-9. You call in the big blind against the small blind. Nobody bets until the river, where the board shows 7-K-4-A-Q, with no flush possible.
Your opponent checks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a player try to bluff in similar cases — but it’s a big number. Yet bluffing is completely ridiculous.
At this point your opponent would need a pair to beat you — and if he has one, he’ll probably call, unless you’ve made a large and hard-to-justify bet into this tiny pot. Just show your cards and expect to win in the showdown.
If you bet and get called, you’ll lose. But if you bet and don’t get called, you would have won anyway. You’re risking something to gain nothing. Don’t.
Question 159: What’s the costliest type of hand that average hold ’em players enter pots with in limit games?
I’m not positive. It might be a category of hands that include K-10 and Q-J, both unsuited, from middle positions.
But my best guess is that the habit of playing aces with weak kickers from early and middle seats is the costliest. Some players just can’t seem to break this habit.
Question 160: Anything else?
Not really. — MC
Next self-interview: Pending