Category Archives: Pocket Quads
This is the third installment of Pocket Quads, my bi-monthly column on poker for Cardplayer India. It appears in the issue dated March-April 2011.
Poker is a beautiful game, but one poignant truth about it is that the vast majority of poker players are losers: in the long run, they put more money on the table than they pick up. The element of luck in the game ensures that they have a few winning sessions, and many memorable hands, that serve as oxygen to their hopes of becoming poker sharks. But in the end, just a few people end up profitable. What do all these losing players have in common that separate them from long-term success? In this column, I’ll tackle a few common leaks that I’ve observed in local cash games (and have tried hard to eliminate in my own play).
1. Losing players play too many hands.
There seems to be a common misconception among poker players that the game is about winning as many hands as you can. It is not. It is about winning as much money as possible. In a recent Cardplayer column, Dusty Schmidt cited a study by Kyle Siler of Cornell University, which analysed 27 million hands played online and found that “the more hands you win, the more money you’re likely to lose.” Losing players typically enter many pots, win many small hands, and lose a few really big ones. This is the exact opposite of the formula to poker profitability.
Television is partly to blame for this. Televised poker gives edited versions of long poker sessions, or tournament final tables with relatively high blind structures, and to the casual viewer, there is action every hand, and any two cards (‘ATC’) are playable. Thus, we have players in my local game who call 10x BB raises with 79o or 36s, with no grasp of the situational nuances that prompt top players to play them once in a while. Occasionally, they’ll flop two pair or a straight and bust aces with them, which will make them feel like Rambo, so they’ll try it again and again. But with two random cards, you will flop two pair or better once in 34 hands. (And even then you may be behind.) In the long run, such holdings are simply not profitable.
2. Losing players don’t know how to fold.
Besides not folding enough preflop (see previous point), losing players also don’t fold enough after the flop. If they see a flush draw, they will chase it to the end, regardless of whether the pot odds offered to them are profitable or not. If they play suited connectors (say, TJs), they will overplay their hand if they hit top pair, which misses the point of playing suited connectors. There is an old poker jungle saying, “Never go broke on one pair.” They will do exactly that, especially if that pair is pocket aces or kings. They will fall in love with their hand, and will indulge in wishful thinking about what their opponent might be up to.
This is why flopping a set is the most profitable situation in poker against your average donk. If he has hit top pair, he will simply refuse to put you on a set. The thought of winning that pot is too precious to him to accept the possibility of someone having a better hand. He. Will. Not. Fold.
3. Losing players ignore the math.
You’ve reached the turn, are chasing a flush, and are offered 2 to 1 odds to play on. Do you do so? You’ve raised to 1200 in a 100-200 game with TJs, a short stack has gone all-in for 3200, you are sure he has AKs, and there’s no one else in the hand: do you call him? You’ve missed your straight draw at the river but a third heart has hit the board, you think there is a one-third chance that your opponent may fold to a bluff bet of 75% of the pot, should you make it? Every decision we face in a poker game is a mathematical one at its core, once we account for our reads and the psychology of the game. Losing players ignore the math, and go by their feelings, their intuition or their ‘judgement’. It works for them a few times—but in the long run, they cannot win if they ignore the numbers.
4. Losing players don’t build big pots with their monster hands. (And vice versa.)
It is a fundamental axiom in poker that you must build big pots when you have a big hand, and keep the pot as small as possible when you have a marginal hand. Too many players, I have seen, will flop a monster (say, trips or a set), and will check the flop, and check the turn, and perhaps value bet the river and moan when they don’t get paid off. This is crazy.
When you have a monster hand, you need to calculate how to get as much of your opponents’ stacks in the middle as possible. Start building the pot right away. Make them pay for their draws (even if they’re drawing dead, they may not know it). Monsters don’t come around often and you need to maximise them.
Sometimes, of course, slow-playing works, especially if you’re up against a compulsive c-better who will certainly bet if checked to. But in general, betting your monsters is a good idea. Don’t take it too far, though, such as I did once when my pocket aces turned into quad aces on the flop, and I c-bet because I surmised that a check from a compulsive c-better like me (as I was at the time) would seem suspicious. Everyone folded.
5. Losing players make too many moves.
There are few things more satisfying than a successful bluff at the river to win a large pot, or a check-raise at the turn with a gutshot draw to make two pair fold. But, carried away by youth and the dopamine rushes that characterise gambling addiction, many players make way too many moves. They may not build monster pots when they have huge hands, but they sure make small pots huge in their urge to steal them with tricky plays. They make ill-timed squeeze plays, throw out large bluffs on the river without first telling a plausible story about their hand on preceding streets, and lose more money on stone cold bluffs, for pots that were tiny till they pumped it up, than they win with pocket aces.
This does not mean, of course, that you make no plays at all. If you sense weakness, it is your duty as a poker player to exploit it. But it’s easy to stretch this too far. One young man in my local game plays every pot, always bluffs if checked to, and once called himself the “Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala”. He drops, on average, five buy-ins per session. Dwan would cringe if he saw this guy invoke his name. To be a successful loose-aggressive player, it is not enough to be loose and aggressive—you also have to be successful. If you do not have the incredible psychological and situational skills of a Dwan or Ivey, it is better to keep it tight, and keep it simple.
6. Losing players let the game get to their emotions.
They lose a big pot, and they steam. They play perfect poker for five hours, get a bad beat in the sixth, go on tilt and give away their stacks away in the next ten minutes. They get tired and play hands they wouldn’t otherwise have played. They take the game personally, and let their ego drive them into wrong decisions.
These are all traps I’ve fallen into myself. (Indeed, at some phase or the other, I’ve committed all the mistakes I speak of in this column. Who hasn’t?) And I have come to realise that more than technical ability or mathematical skill or psychological acuity, poker is a game of character. It demands great discipline, patience and self-control. If you have these qualities, the rest will come.
Click here for the earlier installments of Pocket Quads.
Posted by Amit Varma on 12 April, 2011 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
Pocket Quads |
This is the second installment of Pocket Quads, my bi-monthly column on poker for Cardplayer India. It appears in the issue dated January-February 2011.
I must be the worst tourist ever: in the second half of 2010, I went to Goa half a dozen times and never saw a beach. I suspect there are many others like me, for whom Goa conjures up images not of the sun and the sand and the awesome food, but of full houses and quads and grown men banging tables as they’re delivered yet another bad beat. A decade from now, 2010 might well be remembered as the year Indian poker started coming of age. Goa is the epicentre of that.
This is especially so when it comes to tournament poker. High stakes cash games now abound in all the Indian metros, but if you want to play regular well-organised tournaments, there’s no place yet quite like Casino Royale. I’ve played multiple editions of the IPC, the IPS and the Aces Unlimited Tourneys there, reaching seven final tables out of about twice that number, and the turnout keeps growing at a staggering pace. The quality of play has gone up at the final tables—but so, I’m afraid to say, has the amount of donkamental play before that.
At the last IPC tourney I played, four of the first six hands dealt at my table saw all-in moves. Almost a fourth of the hands dealt in the first two levels saw someone moving all-in. (The only time I called one, my KK got busted by KTo.) The game can become a bit bingoish when the blinds go up too fast (though I’d contend there is much skill involved there as well), but it was sick to see such wild play so early in the tourney, when everyone at the table had between 50 to 100 big blinds. It also made me wonder what these rinse-and-repeat all-in pushers thought the game was all about. Perhaps they’d learnt their poker from Facebook, or even television, where selected hands shown from the last stages of tourneys feature a much higher percentage of shoves than you actually see in actual play.
To be successful in the long run in tournaments, though, it isn’t enough to be fearless enough to shove every time you think you’ve been dealt a good hand. Poker is about situations and the people you’re playing with, and the cards you’re dealt are just a small part of the puzzle. In a tournament, context is important. And to understand context, you need to keep in mind, always, during every single hand that you play, your M Ratio.
This is not complex mathematical jargon. The M Ratio is a number that is, quite simply, the figure you come up with when you divide your stack by the cost of a round. (The term was popularised by Dan Harrington in his series of great books on tournament poker; the CSI, or Chip Status Index, is an independent formulation by Lee Nelson and Blair Rodman that means the same thing.) For example, if you start a tourney with 5000 chips, and the blinds are 25 and 50, the cost of a round is 75 and your M is 5000/75, which is 66.6. If your stack is 10,000 and the blinds are 400 and 800, with antes of 100 on a nine handed table, the cost of a round is 2100, and you have an M of 4.8. These two situation require drastically different kinds of play, and while it is correct to go all-in with AQ with an M of 4.8, it would be moronic to do so with an M of 66.
Basically, the higher your M, the more play you have in the tournament. When your M is over 20, you can afford to play speculative hands, but it is pointless to commit too much to the pot without a seriously good holding: the risk-to-reward ratio just isn’t worth it. This is a good time to play suited connectors, suited gappers and small pairs—because you are deep-stacked, and so, presumably, are your opponents, you have the implied hands to play hands like those. When you hit a set or a straight, you are quite likely to bust a high pocket pair, as many players find it impossible to let AA or KK go on a 89T flop with two to a flush.
There are two approaches to playing with deep stacks in a tournament. The old-school, classical approach is to play really tight, wait for premium hands, and not try fancy moves. A newer, more aggressive approach, exemplified by the likes of Gus Hansen and Daniel Negreanu, is to play lots of hands very cheap, try to outplay more conventional opponents on the flop, and build your stack by using the power of your deep stack, instilling fear in your opponents, who are scared of taking too many risks early. The old-school player, if he starts with AsJs and sees a flop of 9TJ with two hearts and a player pushing all-in, will consider folding, given how wet the flop is. The aggro internet pro, if he has 67o with one heart on such a flop, puts his opponent on AJ, and senses fear, will gladly raise and reraise as a semi-bluff to get top pair to fold. Depending on where you come from, both the AJ fold and the 67o push make sense.
The aggressive players can go bust early, but they can also become chip leaders on the final table, because they know how to accumulate lots of chips without putting their entire stack at risk. The conventional players are less likely to go bust early, and if they loosen up as the blinds rise and their M goes down, they’ll do just fine. If you’re a beginning player, and are less likely to outplay other players after the flop, I recommend you stick to the conventional style: play tight when your M is high, and loosen up as your M comes down.
When your M reaches 15 and below, speculative hands lose value, and you’re better off playing more premium hands. For example, if you have 22,000 chips with blinds/antes of 400/800/100, you have an M of just over 10, and a standard raise to three times the big blind would be 2400. If you have, say, 89s, it doesn’t make sense to call a raise for more than a tenth of your stack. That hand would be good for a call if you had a M of, say 30, with high implied odds. The same logic applies to small pairs. You’ll hit a set once in eight hands, but your implied odds need to be far more than 8 to 1 because very often you won’t get paid off. (For example, if you have 33, the opponent has KK, and the flop comes A32, the A is a scare card for him.) As a rule of thumb, I play small pockets when I have implied odds of 15 to 1, or a really small M—but we’ll come to that.
When your M goes below 10, you’re in the danger zone. You have to play your premium hands strongly, use position without fear, and take a few risks to take your M higher. If you have an M of 6 and everyone folds to you on the button, for example, and you look down at A8o, you might want to shove here. Unless the small blind or the big blind are also either short-stacked or desperate, or really deep-stacked, they are unlikely to call: their chances of having a better ace or pockets are negligible, and the situation demands that you take the risk. Early in the tournament, it is unadvisable to play a marginal hand like A8o; but desperate times call for desperate measures.
By the time your M reaches 5, you have only two moves in your arsenal: all-in or fold. If your M gets any lower, your stack will be so small that you won’t have fold equity left: with an M of 2, you’re practically guaranteed a caller when you go all-in. So you have to make your moves right away. Any pocket pair or medium ace or two face cards could be good for a push here. One important principle to remember, though, is that you should always try to be first to the pot with whatever move you make, unless you have a truly premium holding: KJo is good to make a move with if you’re first to the pot, but you should probably fold it if two other people with similar stacks have gone all in before you.
Naturally, the M Ratio is a very basic concept, and there are hazaar situational complexities to consider during a journey through a tournament. You have to consider the other players at the table, your table image, your position during every hand, the stage the tournament is in (during the bubble, when most players are scared of not making the money, it pays to be aggressive and steal blinds and antes), and so on. But without keeping in mind your M Ratio, you will not know where you stand in the greater scheme of things, and are likely to miss making the optimal play. So do remember the key to success: Dial M for Poker.
And yeah, the next time you go all in preflop on my table in the first hand of the tournament with KTo, and make me fold AQs, I will rise from my chair and physically kick your ass. Be warned!
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 January, 2011 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
Pocket Quads |
This is the first installment of Pocket Quads, my bi-monthly column on poker for Cardplayer India. It appeared in the issue dated November-December 2010.
I played an interesting hand recently in a local cash game, blinds 50-100, stacks 15 to 30k. I was in the big blind when the player to my left, under the gun, a loose aggressive player, raised to 1500, just above the standard raise for this game. Everyone folded. I put him on JJ or TT, looked down at KQ, both clubs, and called. The flop was K72, with one club. I checked, expecting a continuation bet, planning to raise that. My opponent bet 2k, I check-raised to 7.5 with top pair. My opponent insta-shoved, putting me all-in. (I had 7k left.) He then revealed his cards. (The house rules for this particular game allow that when it’s heads-up.) He had AA. “You should fold,” he said. “I have you beat.” And indeed he did.
I revealed my cards, went into the tank, and thought for about five minutes. Then I called. I spiked a queen on the turn and won the pot. My opponent started steaming and called me insane. He told his bad-beat story the next day to all the players in our circle, and they all thought I was nuts. And yet, I maintain that, regardless of the outcome, I made absolutely the right play, that it was a no-brainer, and that the only embarrassing thing about that hand was how long I took to make what should have been an insta-call. Let me explain.
His all-in move took the pot to 25k, and I had 7k to call into that pot, getting odds of slightly more than 3.5 to one. I had five outs: two kings and three queens. That came to 20% over the next two cards. Plus, the backdoor flush draw gave me about 4% more. That comes to 24%, odds of just about 3 to 1. Even discounting the cards that help my opponent, I’m just about better than 3.5 to 1 to win the pot. (Cardplayer.com’s Odds Calculator puts it at 22.8%.) Therefore, the right decision is to call.
Ironically, had my opponent not shown me his aces, I would have folded. When he shoved, I put him on either AK or AA, and AK made my king outs redundant, thus mandating an easy fold. Counter-intuitively, AK was actually a better hand for him to hold than AA. Also, I made my opponent an offer before my last decision: return 5k to me, and I fold, and the pot is yours. Given that 5k was 20% of the 25k pot at the time, and his chances of losing were greater than that, he should have insta-accepted—but like most players I play with, he doesn’t do the numbers, and his aces looked good to him.
Indeed, this is the huge weakness of many of the players I play, and the reason many of them will lose money over time: they take poker hand-by-hand, and don’t understand that it is a long-run game. Here’s a basic truism of poker: In the short run, good decisions can lead to bad outcomes, and vice versa. But in the long run, good decisions will make you money, and bad decisions will wipe out your bankroll. A good player recognises this, and aims to just keep making good decisions, and not get disheartened by their immediate outcomes. As the Bhagawad Gita, that fine poker guide, says, keep doing the right thing, don’t worry about the fruits of your actions.
Now, let’s define a good decision in poker. Every time you put money in a pot when the odds of winning the hand are better than the odds the pot is offering you, that’s a good decision. It’s as simple as that. Obviously there are many subtleties here: poker is a psychological game, and you have to get your reads right to calculate your odds. Also, there are all kinds of plays one makes at the board, like bluffing when you sense weakness, that may not seem like they have much to do with maths—but they all do. If you’re last to act on the river, with a hand that’s missed its draw and cannot win, and you put your opponent on a similar missed draw, and think of bluffing out into a pot worth 10k, how much should you bluff? If you think your opponent will fold one in three times, then a bet of half the pot is break-even for you. If you think he will fold half the time, a bet of 9k is profitable. (Naturally, he may expect you think like this and reraise what he sees as a bluff while holding nothing himself, but even this should be based on his estimation of the probability of winning the hand.)
All poker decisions, at their heart, involve maths. The psychological aspects are a bonus, and separate the great players from the merely good. But you cannot be good in the first place without mastering the math. That is essential to winning in the long run.
And yet, in the local poker games that I play in, I see many players who ignore the science behind the game and try to coast from one good hand to another. They play for the thrill of gambling, for the dopamine rushes they get during big hands, for the false sense of achievement that showing down a good hand gives them. But every serious player knows that the game is a cold, hard grind, and winning it requires you to control your emotions, to observe and remember, and to do the hard work required to make as many correct decisions as possible, especially when those decisions involve folding a hand and missing out on action. (Learning how and when to fold is perhaps the most important part of a poker education.) It takes a heck of a lot of discipline—and perhaps the good sense not to insta-fold a pair of kings when the opponent goes all in and shows a pair of aces.
* * * *
Let me end this piece with another example of a hand in the same game that led my fellow players to look at me as if I was crazy. I had 78o in the small blind, and called a preflop raise. The flop came 99T rainbow. I bet my open-ended straight draw, one player flat-called. The turn was a king, I again made a bet 2/3 the size of the bet—a common-sized bet for me whether I have the nuts or pure air—and my opponent called again. The river was T, making the board read 99TKT, with no flush possible. I had missed my draw, and checked, suspecting that my opponent had also missed his draw, and we’d split the pot. My opponent bet 2.5 into a 7.5 pot. At this point of time, I was playing the board. And yet, I sensed weakness, and felt that my opponent had also missed his draw—he probably had 8J or the same hand as me, or maybe lower pockets. I had to put 2.5k into a 10k pot, but I was only playing for half of it: 5k. So if I got that split pot more than one in three times, it was a profitable call.
I called, and my opponent, who indeed had nothing, assumed that I surely must have a piece of the board to have called, and actually mucked his cards. I picked up the entire pot, and, to get the poor guy steaming, showed my hand. Mouths fell open across the table. How could I call with air? (Thinking of it later, it’s clear that raising was also a viable move, making a play for the full pot instead of half of it. But, given my read, even if I felt there was a 40% chance of my opponent having nothing, calling is also positive equity.) To my fellow players, this was just one more example of my unpredictable play. But while I do mix it up with regard to pre-flop play and betting patterns, in decisions like this, I’m immensely predictable: I play by the numbers, and I play for the long term. There is no other way to play winning poker.
Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in
Pocket Quads |
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