Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Defining Small and Big Pairs

What exactly are the small pairs in no-limit hold 'em? Depends on who you ask. Doyle Brunson considers everything below queens to be small, though he puts JJ-99 in a tier above 88-22 within that division (Supersystem, pp 453-486). Phil Hellmuth considers 88-22 small (Play Poker Like the Pros, pp 139-143). The author of Learn Texas Hold 'Em says 99-22 are small. And what about queens? Are they big or middle pairs? Again there's no consensus. The above three specialists illustrate the variety of perception regarding the "size" of pocket pairs:


Middle QQ
Small JJ-99, 88-22


Middle JJ-99
Small 88-22

Learn Texas Hold 'Em

Middle QQ-TT
Small 99-22

Let's grant that everything up to 8's should be considered small and focus on 9's. Let's also grant that aces and kings are obviously big and wonder about queens. Many people play 9's hyper-aggressively, but when playing tight at a full table I sure don't. Let's look at statistics. Mike Caro provides what he calls a "Table of Misery Index" for all pocket pairs (Caro's Most Profitable Hold 'Em Advice, p 23). The following percentages represent the chances that the flop will have an overcard and not make you a set (three of a kind) with your pair.

2-2 88%
3-3 88%
4-4 87%
5-5 86%
6-6 85%
7-7 81%
8-8 77%
9-9 70%
T-T 60%
J-J 47%
Q-Q 31%
K-K 12%
A-A 0%

This means that if I have 9's, there's a 70% chance that the flop will have a T, J, Q, K, or A and not another 9. I don't know about you, but when there's a 70% that I'll be miserable by definition, I'm not going to treat my hand like it's an Uzi. I would have to play the 9's so aggressively that it could become self-defeating. I consider 9's to be small.

Queens are harder to pin down. I don't often need to play them as aggressively as jacks and tens, and for that reason I consider them big. At the same time, Brunson's caution with queens is well advised. When there's almost a 1 in 3 chance of an ace or king (but not queen) hitting the flop -- and knowing that a lot of people like to play any ace and even kings from any position -- you have to be ready to jump ship. Queens are big with a lower-case "b".

So my own breakdown of the pairs would go as follows. (9's are small, and queens are big though in a tier below aces and kings)

Middle JJ-TT
Small 99-22

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Lure of Ace-Ten (and Ace-Jack)

"Ace-ten is one of those seductive hands that traps many players into losing a lot of money over time. Remember this about kickers -- they're on an accelerated depreciation schedule. Ace-king is a fine hand. Ace-queen is a little weaker, but still good. With ace-jack, you're already sliding rapidly down a slippery slope. With ace-ten, you've slid down the slope, fallen off the cliff, and lie in wreckage at the bottom with hands like ace-five and ace-six." (Harrington on Hold'em, Vol I, p 218)
If there's an award to be given to the most overvalued hand which ends up punishing overconfident players it has to be ace-ten. (Ace-jack is a close second.) Playing online at Full Tilt Poker I've seen AT held as if it were an AK-47, pumping an entire stack of chips over the table to a losing showdown. Quite often.

At a full table AT isn't even close to a powerhouse hand. I play it from fifth position on if no one has entered the pot. It's foolish to play it earlier -- or to call a raise from a tight player, from any position. You'll either win small or lose big. If someone's playing higher aces (typical raising hands), you're hopelessly dominated. Even a crappy 97 stands a better chance against AK or AQ than AT does. I even toss the hand if there are just limpers in front of me. With AT I want first-in vigorish, and from a relatively late position. Then I'm on better ground.

Phil Gordon has an excellent analysis on how to play AT behind a raise, which is compatible enough with my own strategy. Gordon is responding to an email inquiry from a correspondent who -- like so many beginners -- really wants to play his AT. But if the raiser is tight, you should fold:
"If your opponent is a tight, aggressive, tricky, expert-quality player, I think the right move is to fold. You want to avoid playing dominated hands against these types of players. You'll either win a very small pot or you'll lose a very big pot. Because he's tight, the hands he's most likely to play, such as ace-king and ace-queen, dominate your hand. If you hit an ace on the flop, you'll be in a world of hurt, and if you don't hit an ace on the flop, your tricky, aggressive opponent who just raised before the flop will probably be able to maneuver to win the pot from you."
On the other hand, I don't necessarily fold AT to a loose player. As I said before (following Dan Harrington), against loose aggressives who play lots of hands you can play any hand you would normally play from the same position if you first entered the pot. So if I'm in fifth or later position, and a maniac raises before me, I'll do again as Gordon advises: reraise the kamikaze (about 2-3x his own raise), in order to punish him for thinking he can get away with what I love to get away with -- bullying the table with bad hands -- and do my best to win the pot before the flop. If the kamikaze happens to have a good hand for a change, well, that obviously happens. But if he's playing his usual jack-rag or suited gapper, my ace-ten is strong enough for me to try an isolate him heads-up and win the pot.

Gordon covers a third case for "loose predictable" opponents who raise, in which case he advises calling and then maneuvering after the flop. But I'd still reraise in this case. As a moderate loose aggressive I enjoy post-flop maneuvering with unusual hands, but not with trouble hands like AT. I'm just not messing around here. Pound away, and let the chips fall where they may.

You have to be cautious with AJ too. A lot of people play this hand from early (first or second) position -- a clear mistake: in the long run it's statistically unprofitable. You should be in at least third position to play it -- I say fourth -- and play it cautiously. A step above AT, it's still no AK-47. Here's what Mike Caro says:
"Anyone who thinks AJ is profitable [under the gun] doesn't understand the power of position in hold 'em. Here's a dirty little secret: Most players enter the pot [from early position] with this hand. Another secret: Everyone who does so can expect to experience a loss by doing so for their poker-playing careers. You might be tempted to play, but if you just trust me and throw this hand away automatically from the early positions in a full-handed game, you'll save a great deal of money." (Caros' Most Profitable Hold 'Em Advice, p 38)
In Phil Gordon's little blue book, he shows how he played AJ on specific occasions. His lamenting preface: "Ace-jack, a hand that can cause you all kinds of problems, gets overrated by a lot of inexperienced's easily dominated." (pp 146, 109). But Gordon played it strong anyway -- and in all cases got smashed! In the first example he lost his entire stack (pp 109-112). In the second he ended up folding on the turn, but was left crippled in the red zone (15 big blinds) (pp 146-151). In the third he raised a bunch of limpers and again lost his stack (pp 311-313). Gordon doesn't relate any victories with AJ -- probably because victories with this hand tend to be small and not worth illustrating.

He also gives examples where he played the dreaded AT, and with results just as bad. In the first case he was dominated by a drunk holding AJ and lost his whole stack. (pp 27-31). (That's when AJ wins big -- when a fool holding AT can't lay down his hand!) In the second he won, but by bluffing: pushing all-in on the flop and getting his opponent to fold (pp 113-117). In the third he again lost his stack (pp 196-201). Yes, this is the same Phil Gordon we just saw advising such caution with AT. (He does relate an instance when he folded AT right away (pp 97-99).)

Even the pros get sucked into playing AT and AJ, have a hard time getting away from them, and lose big time. So don't get overzealous with these hands. Play them from the right positions, and cautiously, and let them pick up the small pots for you. You'll scoop bigger pots with better hands.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Daniel Negreanu and "Small Ball"

Here's some advice on how to become a more advanced hold 'em player. Daniel Negreanu talks about "small ball" strategy which involves playing lots of marginal hands with medium-size raises, and maneuvering your opponents after the flop. The idea is to create an image of yourself as a maniac while you're really not. It's a tricky strategy and obviously not one for beginners. But if you're ready to try it out and "have faith in the system", as Daniel puts it, it pays off in the long run. You give yourself more opportunities than as a tight player, are able to confuse and trap your opponents, and score unexpected big wins around smaller losses. Small ball has worked pretty well for me so far. So I'm keeping the faith, Daniel.

Daniel Negreanu and "Small Ball" (I), (II), (III).

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Seven Prerequisites

Phil Gordon lists what he considers the prerequisites to being a good no-limit player:
(1) Aggression. Do more betting and raising than checking and calling. You can be tight or loose -- either can be a winning aggressive strategy (though I think loose has the edge) -- but you can't be passive.

(2) Patience. Realize that poker isn't primarily about luck or gambling. It's about strategic investment. (There's a reason why virtually the same players make it to the World Series every year.) Be patient and wait for profitable situations to arise. Even loose aggressives know when to wind down and bide their time.

(3) Courage. Be willing to bet big (even push all-in) when you think you might have the best hand -- even if it's not the best possible hand (the nuts).

(4) Observation. Constantly watch your opponents: the hands they show down, their playing style, their tells.

(5) Resilience. Don't let bad beats bother you. Even the pros get their monster hands creamed by better monsters from time to time. It happens. Bad luck can always strike in the short term. (Poker would be pretty boring otherwise.) But good players win more than enough in the long run to compensate for bad beats.

(6) Intense Desire to Improve. Read poker books. Watch the pros play on television. Learn from other players. (Write a poker blog!)
The above qualities are also listed in Gordon's little green book (pp 1-2). But I would add a seventh:
(7) Adaptability. Change gears, vary your play, and be unpredictable. Do this especially when your opponents know you well, or start to become familiar with your playing style and methods.
Some of these will come more naturally to you than others, depending on your personality. I'm patient, observant, resilient, and studious by nature. But I'm not an aggressive soul, nor especially courageous. I am adaptable enough to do something like join the Peace Corps and be an alien for a couple of years, but I'm also set in my ways about many things in life.

So for me, cultivating aggression (the most basic and important of the seven) and courage have been the hardest in no-limit. And when I move up to higher stakes I'm sure it will get even more challenging.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Live Free or Die" -- Or Not

In New Hampshire poker halls are legal if sponsored by charity organizations. I find it curious that the home of "Live Free or Die" libertarians -- which prides itself on state liquor stores and such -- has been so resilient to gambling. But of course there are more drinkers than poker players. (It's always someone else's vice we can afford to be self-righteous about.) While I applaud the involvement of charities, I don't think they should be required. What consenting adults do with their money is their business.

But it's been nice to witness the opening of two poker halls over the last two months, in Milford and Brookline. My hometown rag announced the openings back in December:

Poker halls hit Milford, Brookline; Nashua says hold 'em

Nashua, my utopian abode, continues digging in its heels -- mostly for parking issues! Well, this is Nashua we're talking about. My fellow residents are a practical lot if nothing else.

It's the sanctimonius crusaders from across the state who really make my piles fester: the Granite Coalition Against Expanded Gambling. The article cites Chairman Jim Reubens as claiming that "gambling reduces quality of life", leading to addiction, which in turn increases bankruptcy, divorce, embezzlement, and child abuse. But all of this applies even more so to alcoholism. Sorry Jim, but solutions to these problems don't lie in prohibition.

I don't hold out much hope for Nashua. But at least there are some nearby towns making headway... and there's always Foxwoods when one needs to get away from this godforsaken state altogether.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Do Something They Don't Expect"

"Limping is not an option for me. When I'm first to the pot, I always raise, no exceptions. There are many other great players who disagree with me, but this is the style I play." (Phil Gordon's Little Blue Book, p 147)

"If there's one single place where I disagree with published contemporary theory, it's in the area of betting aggressively when you're the first to act... If you think there's a yes or no answer, you're not living in the real poker universe where you often must vary decisions." (Caro's Most Profitable Hold 'Em Advice, p 89)
I think it's a mistake not to vary your play in no-limit. Yes, aggression is key, but deception and unpredictability are also important. What does the shade of Thomas Covenant tell Linden Avery in Donaldson's fantasy series? "Do something they don't expect." That's my motto playing no-limit. Like any good player, I do more raising than limping (pre-flop) and more betting than checking (post-flop) when first to act. But I mix up my play more often than someone like Gordon does. I'm with Caro (and Covenant!) all the way here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Truth About Pocket Aces

Who's right?
"Rarely slowplay aces. This is a key insight which beginners frequently violate. Slowplaying creates a smaller pot with more participants -- exactly what you don't want... You want more money in the pot, but not more players. Aces are a big favorite against a single opponent, but winning chances start to drop drastically as more players get involved." (Dan Harrington, p 232)

"Despite common advice, you do not want to raise with aces in order to chase players out of the pot before the flop. That pair of aces usually makes as much money or more with extra opponents chasing you. That doesn't mean you shouldn't raise. But it means when you do raise, you're usually doing so hoping opponents will call, not fold. Thinning the field has its moments, but, contrary to what you've heard, raising with aces before the flop isn't one of them." (Mike Caro, p 24)
Caro is right. I can't tell how many times I've won big from trapping with aces. When I play them more straightforwardly, the victories tend to be smaller. Why settle for an anti-climax when I'm playing the best possible hand?

The advice to raise religiously with aces usually comes from tight-aggressives. Like Harrington, Phil Gordon reminds us -- quite rightly -- that any pocket pair, even the biggest, loses its winning potential as your number of opponents increases. In the case of aces, they win against a single opponent 86% of the time; against four opponents they win 55% of the time. You get the idea. And another tight Phil, Hellmuth, warns against limping/trapping with aces:
"Some players like to just call before the flop when holding [aces] in the hope that the move will trap someone into giving them all his chips after the flop. This is a dangerous theory with a risk-reward hazard that any expert in game theory would love to look at! Most of the time you should just go ahead and raise/reraise with [aces]... When trapping works out, you look brilliant; but when you bust yourself trapping someone, you look like an idiot." (Play Poker Like the Pros, p 140)
But Doyle Brunson has never been afraid of "looking like an idiot". As a loose aggressive he loves to mix up his play, limp and trap, though usually with reraises:
"With a pair of aces in an early position before the flop I would probably limp in with them hoping that somebody would raise it behind me so I could reraise. In a middle position -- if nobody in the early seats came in -- I would play them the same way. But if somebody in the early seats did come in, I'd put in a raise with them... In a late position I'd obviously raise with them and hope that somebody trailed their hand around to me -- that is, slowplayed their hand so they could reraise me." (Brunson's Super System, p 453)
Frankly I've had success limping with aces from any position. Sometimes I spring the trap (reraise) before the flop, sometimes after. It's a charm in either case. The key to not making an "idiot" of yourself is this: just get away from those blasted aces when a scary flop hits or you think someone has you beat. The problem for beginners is that they can't lay down their aces -- even when the flop doesn't improve them beyond a pair and an opponent bets big. They've waited all day for those pocket rockets and think they're by-God entitled to win. I'm able to get away from my aces if needs must.

Experience has taught me that Caro is right. Limping (or raising very small) with aces will work wonders for you in the long run, I promise. Whenever I raise with aces and win, it's usually the smaller pots -- not only have I narrowed my competition, but my opponent is aware I have a good hand. When I limp with aces and win, the pay-offs are bigger because no one suspects I have them, and more people are trapped in the pot.