Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2010) in Bluff magazine.
They say nobody is perfect. Last month I might have told you that the aphorism wasn’t quite true. I might have playfully declared that I was perfect. Of course, I’ve never thought of myself as a perfect person, even though I hold myself in high regard. Instead, I would have been suggesting that I could play perfect poker anytime I decided to do so.
Au contraire! I’m about to share the worst poker hand I ever played. And I didn’t even realize it at the time. Before I get to the hand, let me give you some background.
Many online poker web sites have hired top-name pros to populate their games. These pros play promotionally to attract everyday players who enjoy the challenge. Doyle Brunson is one of my closest friends, and our adventures together date way back to the 1970s. It’s only natural that I’ve been endorsing his site, Doyle’s Room (www.doylesroom.com) for the past five years. Recently the Cake poker network, on which Doyle’s Room resides, began offering “Pro” tables, where Doyle, Todd Brunson, Hoyt Corkins, myself, and other well-known players mingle with aspiring pros and amateurs.
The stakes are more affordable than the games poker stars typically compete in, so that gives opponents an opportunity to play against some top-names they may otherwise not have the bankrolls to confront. I think this trend is good for poker. At Cake, the pro games are no-limit, most commonly with $5/$10 blinds. Granted, those are big games for some casual players, since you can easily win or lose $4,000 or more in a session, but not so large that many serious players are priced out.
One of the great innovations, and one I like to take credit for advocating 20 years ago, is the maximum no-limit buy-in. You can’t sit down with more than $1,000 in the $5/$10 game. I always believed one of the reasons that no-limit wasn’t popular in casinos before its resurgence was because anyone could just sit down with $100,000 against opponents buying in for $2,000. This scared most players away, because their stack was always in jeopardy. With the maximum buy-in rule, any player – even a billionaire – must start with $1,000 and accumulate chips in order to terrorize the table.
So, we started playing these games promotionally. I decided to use my hand histories as lessons for correct play and incorporate them in a book. I took notes. I played as perfectly as I knew how. I quickly ran into the worst month-long run of cards in many years. I kept thinking, “This isn’t going to make a very good book!” But, I was actually relieved in a way, musing that this run could have happened in much bigger games. So, I just giggled and thought, “Look at the money I’m saving!” Meanwhile, most of the other pros were winning and telling me how easy the games were.
Fine. So, I decide to take a couple days to examine my hand histories, session by session, play by play. My decisions look fine to me. And I look at other showdowns and discover opponents confronting each other all-in with hands that suggested horrible errors. After looking at a thousand or so hands, I’m astonished. I realize that in the majority of my all-in confrontations, I’d had a significant advantage, but was losing overall on these. Being statistically minded, I understood this was just a very bad streak and that you should expect that to happen now and then. But it gave me a better understanding of the frequent complaints you hear online about the random shuffle being broken or rigged. That’s usually an illusion. Random is random, and that means sometimes incredibly bad things will happen for long periods and sometimes incredibly good things will happen. If you’re not prepared for that, poker isn’t your game.
Okay, so, after reflecting on my hand history, I’m proud of my play and decide I don’t need to make many adjustments. Winning is inevitable. Then I stumble on this heads-up hand I played the night before. What the hell? Did I actually play it that way?
I’d been in two games at once and answering e-mail at the same time. I believe I can do this with only slight sacrifice in profit, because poker decision-making has become routine to me over the years. But, still, there was this hand…
My heads-up opponent had been running over me. He must have thought I was throwing way too many hands away heads-up. He probably believed I didn’t defend my hands nearly enough. Of course, I’m usually appropriately aggressive heads up, but the cards had given me no opportunity to demonstrate this. I was looking for opportunities to take a stand, but they were few, and I was probably being perceived as the tightest heads-up player alive. I either had to ride this out or do something.
I start the hand with $1,030, just above the maximum buy-in allowed. My opponent has me covered with about $3,800. Blinds are $5/$10. I’m dealt K♦ 7♠ in the small blind. I bring it in for $20 (a $10 raise), although $25 or $30 would have been my more usual wager. Very rarely would I fold. Occasionally, I might call $5. Opponent calls. Flop is 4♦ 6♦ 4♠.
My opponent now acts first, even though he’d had the big blind. In this heads-up game, the dealer button goes to the small blind — meaning the big blind only decides last on the initial betting round. Anyway, he checks to me. Often I would take a small shot with overcards here, since I’ve been throwing away so many hands and have the illusion of being tight. Otherwise, I would seldom bet, because those aren’t scary cards to my opponent, considering that I raised before the flop, suggesting big cards and the flop is small. In any case, I just check.
The turn card is Q♦, making the board 4♦ 6♦ 4♠ Q♦ to go with my K♦ 7♠. If my opponent checks, I’m going to bet, hoping to take the pot outright because the queen might scare him and I have the second-highest potential flush to fall back on. Furthermore, I doubt that my opponent has an ace, because he’s been very aggressive in reraising before the flop and didn’t this time.
But he doesn’t check. He bets $40 – the size of the pot. You could argue that I should fold here, but that wouldn’t be a typical decision. In heads up play against an aggressive opponent, you should definitely call this size of bet, having the king as an overcard and a significant flush draw. You could also argue in favor of taking a stand by raising, having a good chance of chasing the opponent out if he were bluffing, held a vulnerable hand, or was pushing a weak flush draw. I choose to just call the $40.
So far – although these decisions are debatable – I’m satisfied with the course I’ve taken. There’s no really right or wrong answer here, as there often isn’t in the ebb and flow of heads-up combat. So far it’s just a normal hand – almost a yawn. Now A♦ hits the river. I should be thinking, well, that’s the nut flush and I can only lose to four of a kind or a full house. But clearly that’s not what I’m thinking. Somehow, the pair of fours on board hasn’t registered, and I don’t look back, being involved at another table. (You can play multiple tables simultaneously online.)
I’m thinking that I don’t just have the nut flush but an unbeatable hand. So, my opponent checks, and I tease with a pot-size $120 bet. He quickly raises to $408. I don’t remember what went through my mind at the moment, being otherwise preoccupied, but most likely it was, “He must be bluffing.” And, in my mind, he had picked the wrong time to bluff, because I couldn’t be beat. Instantly, I clicked all-in for $850 total, hoping for a miracle call from a weaker hand, and was called by 4♣ A♠ – fours full over aces. Had I been focused, I might still have bet the $120, but would likely have folded when he made it $408. He wouldn’t have done that with a smaller flush, and there was only a slight chance of a bluff in that situation. I definitely wouldn’t have made the suicidal all-in wager.
Oddly, I didn’t even realize I’d lost the pot until I finished another hand at a different table and looked back to find myself chipless and needing to rebuy. And – even stranger – I never bothered to examine the hand until I was reviewing my hand histories. And there it was – the worst hand I’ve ever played. But, then, I’m wondering if there are other hands I’ve played poorly and never noticed. You should always look back at the board and double-think a hand before committing your chips.
Obviously, I won’t be including that hand as an example in my next book – Caro’s Professional Hold ’em – Play by Play. Let’s keep it a secret, just between us. — MC