Brunson: Finding the courage to raise

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

For beginners, making a raise in no-limit poker feels frightening. And it should. You’ll often face sudden catastrophe by raising, while merely calling or folding is less stressful, even strangely relaxing. But the cost of avoiding stress is colossal. A player can choose to go broke in poker piece by piece, avoiding sudden agony. Sad decision. Slow death.

To me, broke is broke, whether it happens suddenly or gradually — and it’s obviously the main thing a poker player needs to avoid. No-limit poker isn’t the right game for someone who chooses to run and hide. No-limit is about putting yourself in jeopardy voluntarily when you think the odds are on your side, and hoping for the best. If you’re looking for short-term security, no-limit poker isn’t going to provide it.

All world-class no-limit players discover early in their careers that they need to raise daringly sometimes. A daring raise can instill fear in opponents, and — believe me — the fear of making the raise isn’t usually as great as the fear your opponent feels in regard to whether or not to subsequently call. Yes, in poker, there’s pressure on the aggressor. But, usually, there’s even more pressure on the opponent.

Waiting for my turn

Suppose I’m dealt Q♣ Q♦ and I’m in a late position at a nine-handed no-limit hold ’em game, waiting for my turn to act. The sizes of the blind bets, those wagers required by the first two players to the left of the dealers in order to stimulate action, are $500 and $1,000 [probably use pounds or euros instead, at editor’s discretion]. The first player to act after the blinds is a semi-solid competitor who raises $1,500, making it $2,500 to play. Now that’s a fairly typical raise, neither large nor small. It’s about what you’d often expect from the first player in the pot.

The next player folds and the following player raises $20,000, wagering $22,500 total. Now that’s a substantial raise, because there was only a total of $4,000 in the pot previously, $1,500 in blinds and $2,500 added by the first player to act thereafter. So, it’s prudent to ponder.

And I think about it this way: I have a pair of queens, the third-best possible starting hand in hold ’em. If an opponent holds a pair of aces or kings, I’m in deep trouble. If I call, everyone else folds, and the raiser has ace-king, which is a common hand for such raises, I’ll have a slight advantage and I’ll hope not to see an ace or a king on the five board cards to come — unless I improve my hand, also. If I’m up against a pair smaller than queens, I have a large advantage.

But, you can’t just play poker based on the size of the bets and the power of your cards. What does this raise mean? If I’ve studied my opponents and decided that this raiser would rather avoid major confrontations by settling for winning smaller pots without risk, then it’s likely that a raise this large means the player would prefer not to be called.

I examine the size of our stacks. I have over $400,000 left in front of me and the main raiser has about $250,000. As certain as there are tumbleweeds in Texas, I can make an argument for folding. Some raisers just won’t risk that kind of money often without aces or kings. But I’ve decided that this particular opponent probably doesn’t want a call. Is he bluffing? Does he have a weaker pair than mine? Does he have ace-king or two ranks even lower than that?

In all those cases, I’m the favorite. The truth is I don’t know whether I’m heading for a crash here. But I’m usually going to raise. I’m going to shrug off that primal inclination of ordinary players to avoid disaster by merely calling or even folding. Instead, I’m going to tempt fate — because I think I have an advantage.

See what happens

I’m going to raise all-in, not because I’d usually do this with a pair of queens, but because I believe the $20,000 raiser wants me out of the pot. If he has me beat, he has me beat. If he has any of those inferior hands, then two good things can happen, he can fold now, surrendering the $26,500 already in the pot to me or he can use his remaining $250,000 to call at a disadvantage — and then we’ll just have to see what happens.

The point is, you have to press your advantages in no-limit poker. Sometimes it’s terrifying and sometimes it turns out terrific. But you sat down willing to risk the chips you put on the table, not to keep them out of play. Those chips are your weapons, your arsenal. If you’re afraid to use them, don’t play.

See there? My opponent just folded. That won’t always happen, but this time, I’ll take the pot. — DB

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