Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Battle Of Wits With An Unarmed Man

By Lou Krieger

In a cerebral game like poker, winning involves often outthinking, frequently outwitting, and generally outplaying your opponents. It's a far cry from physical sports like football, where unmitigated desire can carry you the extra yard needed to make a crucial first down, or weightlifting where a desire to push weight is always waging war with a countervailing impulse to let go of the damned thing before gravity destroys you.

In poker, selectivity and aggression are polarities on a continuum where one usually has to take a position somewhere between those two extremes to optimize the chances for success. "Do I push, do I pull, do I fold, or do I simply wait and see what develops before committing my chips to the pot?" That's the always the question, isn't it? And the answer is usually, "It depends."

All of this requires thought, but unlike chess where there is usually ample time to think about your next move, cogitate on whatever strategic ideas you are trying to implement, and consider what you might do to thwart your adversary's tactical thrusts there isn't enough time when you're playing poker. There's much to think about, and even the actions of those who have folded may need to be considered when contemplating the best course of action to pursue.

Lines of strategic thinking can vary dramatically depending on the skill and sophistication of your adversaries. That's an important point, and one that seemingly vexes some very bright players who ordinarily think deeply about poker, yet become frustrated when their sophisticated maneuvers fail utterly against shallow opposition. Shrewd, deep-thinking poker players fall prey to this all the time. Their tricks won't work because some opponents are not even aware that something's going on. The coolest of our table tactics the moves we'll boast about for weeks afterward when we pull one off and it works to perfection are all based on ploys that induce an opponent to either walk into our trap when we have a big hand, or surrender their own holding when we have nothing at all.

Mike Caro calls this "fancy play syndrome," or "FPS." We're not going to discuss FPS today, but we'll approach it peripherally by examining why your at-the-table analyses and tactical decisions should be predicated on the playing skill, ability, and awareness of your opponents.

Some of your opponents the worst of them, really don't think at all. There's no use in trying to induce them to take a certain course of action when they are not even going to notice what you're doing. Even if they were fully cognizant of your moves, they probably wouldn't care. This is the "Dumb and Dumber" school of poker, and these players are going to play their own hand. Period. End of story. But let's look at how that story begins. Suppose you raised before the flop with A-Q suited and came out betting into a K-9-7 rainbow flop. Dumb-and-Dumber will call your raise with 5-4 and keep calling until he wins by catching the four that pairs his hand on the river. Did he consider what you might have been holding? Of course not. The thought probably never even entered his mind. He's looking at his cards and his cards only. He never sees anything else. Or worse yet, he sees it but chooses to ignore the message that's staring him right in the face. And why not? He's having way too much fun bucking the odds and trying to draw out.

This is not the kind of guy you want to bluff, or even semi-bluff. The chances of our hero laying down a hand are nil. This can be frustrating to a sophisticated player because it takes an arrow out of his quiver and snaps it into twigs. Mr. Dumb-and-Dumber can turn an otherwise exciting game into a repetitive drill for the thinking player. Now it's just a game of showdown, with strategic options reduced to betting for value with the better hand, because all the cat-and-mouse elements of strategic manipulation have been removed from the contest.

But most opponents are not totally clueless. Some will put you on a hand, although their methodology often leaves much to be desired. Many players lock in on a single hand, never considering --even for a moment-- the range of possibilities one might infer from your betting action. This can work to your advantage. Just suppose you raised before the flop with A-Q suited and flop J-9-3 with two of your suit. If your opponent has locked in on you pairing a jack, he may never realize you've made the nut flush if a third suited card falls. "I put you on top pair all along," he'll probably say, while thinking to himself that you were damned lucky to back into that winning flush. Why did he consider top pair as the only possibility? After all, you could easily have raised before the flop with a variety of hands. While a big pair is a distinct possibility, so are two big flush cards. And that's not all. You might have flopped a set of jacks or nines too.

The truth of the matter is that it's not easy to put someone on a single, specific hand on the flop unless you know your opponent really well. It makes a lot more sense to consider a range of possibilities, and narrow them down as the hand develops. Here's an example. It's simplistic, to be sure, but it does serve to illustrate the point. A better than average, but fairly predictable player, raises before the flop from middle position. He bets into a ragged, unsuited 9-4-2 flop after his two opponents check. At this point he could have any number of hands, from a set of nines to any overpair, to big cards like A-K, A-Q, A-J A-T, K-Q, or K-J. There's no way to be sure, since he'd probably bet the flop at this juncture with almost any holding. But if an inconsequential turn card falls and the raiser checks after his opponents check in front of him, he almost certainly has overcards rather than a pair. After all, if he had any pair of sevens or higher, he'd probably bet the turn in order to induce anyone holding overcards to fold, since checking is a free ticket for someone to capture the pot on the river with a hand he more than likely would have folded if faced with calling a big bet.

At that point it's possible to put your opponents on big cards instead of a big pair, and it doesn't matter which big cards he holds; if you've got a pair you're ahead of him right now. If a small card comes on the river your pair will win the pot. If an overcard falls and your opponent bets, you'll probably have to call for the size of the pot. But that's poker, and you ought to snap enough bluffs off in situations like these to make calling worthwhile in the long run.

Whenever an opponent confesses that he put you on a single hand rather than a range of equally likely possibilities given your action before and on the flop, you can assume that while your opponent is thinking about your hand, he's probably doing so in a fairly simplistic manner.

When trying to think your way into your opponent's hand, you probably won't ever be able to initially pinpoint the precise cards he's holding unless he is extremely predictable or you know his play very well. But you will be able to assign a likely range of holdings and boil them down to a precious few based on his betting patterns, the shape of the board, and the actions of other players who might also be involved in the hand.

But a sharp player will not only be cognizant of the inherent strength of his own hand, he'll think about your hand too. If he's really sharp he'll even go one step further, and think about what you think his hand might be. That's three levels of thought, which is pretty deep, mind you. And you can go deeper too. There's really no end to the possibilities, but beyond three levels it's a game of wheels within wheels, and while it's an interesting logic exercise to try and decide what your opponent thinks you believe he might be thinking about what you are pondering about what he reckons you might have --you won't find players who do this regularly. Once you're thinking beyond level three, you run the risk of going one level too deep and faking yourself out of the pot. When the game becomes that cerebral, perhaps the very best thing you can do is find an easier one, or simply play your own cards for whatever inherent value they have, add a dose of game theory for the required deception, and save yourself the migraine you'll probably wind up with after a few hours at that table.

Confused? Want some news you can use? Start here:

  • Categorize your opponents. If you're playing in fairly low-limit games, most of your opponents will simply play their own cards, and won't try to put you on a hand. If they do, they're likely to use intuition or some sort of twisted, pretzel-logic and come to the wrong conclusion more often than not. Deception is usually futile against these players. They probably won't hear the message, and frequently choose to ignore it even if they do. Just play straightforward poker and assume you'll probably have to showdown the best hand to win. You'll beat these guys by winning more money with your good hands and losing far less than they would on bad ones. It's boring poker, to be sure just keep your bag of tricks locked securely in the closet but you can contemplate your angst and ennui all the way to the bank.

  • Good players will always put you on a hand or more precisely, a range of hands that they'll winnow down to a logical few. Since good players will be thinking about what kind of hand you're playing, they're susceptible to bluffs and other forms of deception. After all, the good player is trying to find out what you have concealed in front of you. It's your job to lead him down a primrose path so that he does precisely what you'd like him to do: bet into your big hands or even raise you in the mistaken notion that he's the boss, or fold mediocre holdings when you have nothing at all but can convince him that you're holding a powerhouse.
    You can't deceive someone all the time; eventually he'll catch on to your chicanery and if you persist in bluffing too much he'll simply call whenever you bet and win often enough to have far the better of it. But you can and should bluff enough to optimize your wins. How often to bluff in order to optimize your wins is grist for another mill, but whenever you sense an opponent beginning to think along with you, that's the time to begin your campaign of disinformation.

  • Every now and then you'll run into a very good, third-level player. He'll not only consider his hand and yours too, but he'll also be attuned to what you think he has. If he realizes that you're smart enough to read him for the kind of player who acts strong when he's weak and weak when he's strong he'll mix it up by acting strong when he is strong. Once you put him on a weak hand and raise what you think is a bluff bet, he's very likely to come back over the top with a reraise. After you've lost a hand or two in this fashion, you'll be like a baseball player facing an 0-2 count against a pitcher like Curt Simmons. When he's got you in this position, you can't just assume he'll waste a curve ball in the dirt. He might come with an off speed pitch, or a fastball just far enough off the plate so that you're defensive swing will either miss it entirely or ground out weakly to second base. He's got a foot is on your throat and he's not relenting. I don't know what opponents bat against Simmons when he's got them that deep in the hole, but it probably isn't much over .125, if that high.

Good poker players can do that too. They can manipulate you to the point where your response is a pure guess. If you guess, you're gambling, and if you haven't figured it out by now, gambling is not the way to win money when at poker. Against players this good, you'll either have to find another game, or play fairly straightforward against them though every now and then it pays to give them a taste of their own medicine. Broadcast a tell you're sure they'll pick up. Then broadcast it again when your hand is that proverbial horse of a different color. Once your opponent realizes that you are thinking at his level, he'll usually realize that he does not have quite the same control over you that he might have thought, and he'll begin to respect your play a bit more.

The Truth About Tells

By Daniel Negreanu

I’m going to let you in on a little secret here. If you believe that watching for a twitchy eye or a flared nostril is what poker is all about — you’re quite wrong. Many poker players (mainly those who are new to the game) are preoccupied with the notion that bluffing and the ability to discover tells are what it’s all about.

I often hear someone say something like, “Oh, I could never be a good poker player. I have a terrible poker face.” Or, “I wouldn’t be very good at poker. I just can’t tell a lie, so I wouldn’t be able to bluff with a straight face.”

Well, if you believe that, this column should be a pleasant awakening. While it is important to avoid giving away too much information with your body language, it’s nowhere near as important as learning the fundamentals of the game. In fact, I would bet that a world-class player could beat a low-limit game even if he told his opponents what he had on the turn every single time! Of course, that would work only if his opponents didn’t always believe him, but I think you get the idea.

So, what is it, then? What is it that separates average and good players from the great ones? Well, obviously, tell recognition would be one factor, but it’s simply not the most significant. The answer is: hand-reading ability; the ability to process information that you’ve gathered from your opponent in the current hand and in past hands, and to use that information to narrow down your opponent’s holdings. Picking up on your opponents’ betting patterns and understanding what they are and aren’t capable of doing, makes this much easier. So, when you hear people talk about “reading people,” what it really comes down to is reading into your opponent’s mind what he is thinking at the moment, and trying to figure out how he would play various situations. It’s not about noticing that when Al has a flush draw, he eats an Oreo cookie without opening it up first, but when he has top pair, he licks out all the cream first. That would be one heck of a tell, but obvious tells like that are pretty much reserved for the movies. However, some pros would like you to believe that their biggest strength is their ability to “see through your soul”; that is, knowing what your holecards are just by looking at you. This might be true in cases in which players have exaggerated tells, but for the most part, a great player makes his read based on the actual betting that took place, not the facial tics.

Now, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I will anyway. It’s simply a scare tactic used by many pros to make you feel uncomfortable. Think about it: When you make a bet (whether it’s a bluff or not) and your opponent throws his hand in immediately, or even calls immediately, is it intimidating? No, not really. Well, what if he takes extra time? He stares you down. He cuts his chips out to make it look like he wants to raise, and so on. Now, that might make you sweat a little bit, especially if you are indeed bluffing! If it doesn’t make you sweat, it at least might make you uncomfortable having a guy stare at you for so long. It’s all a ploy, as simple as that.

Most often, a player knows exactly what he’s going to do within five seconds. You’ll see it on the World Poker Tour telecasts quite often, thanks to the hidden cameras. There was a hand at the World Poker Open tournament in which Dave “Devilfish” Ulliot made a play with the 5diamonds 2diamonds. The player he had raised moved all in, and David went into the tank (meaning he took a substantial amount of time pondering whether or not to call the bet)! Why did he do this? After all, he is an experienced pro, and knew full well that he wasn’t going to call the all-in raise, so why waste all that time?

Well, there are a couple of possible answers to that question. He may have just wanted to save face in order to conceal the fact that he was raising with a trash hand, or, more likely, he was trying to make his opponent sweat a little bit. He wanted to make him nervous, and put him through three minutes of torment before finally releasing his hand. Many players in this situation would be so relieved that it’s finally over that they subconsciously might think to themselves, “Hmm, I better think twice about making any moves against that guy in the future.”

Well, that’s just what the Devilfish wanted from him. He wanted to scare him. He wanted him to think that if he ever tried to bluff him, he would have to deal with a full five-minute stare-down. That’s more than the average guy wants to deal with at the table, so many of them will begin playing in a straightforward manner from that point on — thus making it even easier on our pro to control the table.

Don’t be paranoid of or obsessed with tells. That’s not where your focus should lie. I remember a few years ago something that I thought was rather cute. There were a few aspiring pros in a $10-$20 game at the Mirage one night. They looked fresh and ready to play. For several hours I watched them. Their eyes were constantly fixated on the player who was next to act. They gave each and every player the stare-down — on every street, whether they were in the hand or not! I thought it was quite funny, actually. They were so obsessed with trying to figure out what people’s tells were that they completely neglected what was actually going on in the hands — who bet, who raised, and so on. Instead of watching the action of the game and studying betting patterns, they spent all of their time trying to figure out if Grandma Betty actually had a nervous twitch, and whether or not her twitch revealed something about her holecards! They clearly had a lot of passion and energy for the game, but they were wasting all of that energy exercising the wrong muscles.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Ten Online Poker Tips

1. Don't play too big too soon.

When deciding at what poker table to play, choose your game size. Start out at the smaller stakes and move up to bigger stakes gradually as you become a more accomplished player. The exact stakes depend on your bankroll. Feel comfortable with the game you've chosen and don't overextend yourself.

2. Watch other players and learn.

Observe a game before joining and after you join, look carefully at the players at your table. Look at how they play hands, the size of their bets, and the hands they choose to play. Careful observations of others can guide your own play.

3. Play good starting cards, but be patient!

If you don't have the cards, it's preferable to fold. But if you have good starting cards, and sometimes you just have to wait until they come, it's time to take action. What starting cards should you play? As a general rule, play pairs and big Ace hands (A-K, A-Q). Don't feel you have to play every single hand. Wait for the cards - they'll come.

4. Play when you're ready to play.

Play poker when you're in a good frame of mind and able to concentrate on the cards and the action. Remember that people make mistakes when they're not focused. Play when you have the time to play, not when you're under pressure for some reason.

5. Gain experience at small satellites.

Participating in small satellite tournaments, whether they lead to larger cash tournaments or mainland poker competitions, gives you the maximum chance of a big payday without a large payout. It all depends on the size of your bankroll. Small satellites offer you a good way to learn cheaply.

6. Take advantage of promotions.

Freerolls may seem like free-for-alls with many inexperienced players, but playing in them is a great learning experience at no risk. Look for other exciting poker competitions in which you can participate at a low cost.

7. Favor on the side of caution.

If you're not sure whether to pass or to bet, better to be steady and pass. Remember Rule #3 - be patient! The good cards will come.

8. Play as much as you can.

The only way to learn how to play great poker is by gaining experience. There are no shortcuts. More experience means more accomplishments. Practice in play is far better than reading poker books or trying to learn by watching television. You learn more at the table, even if several lessons of how to lose are included.

9. Never be ashamed to ask questions.

If you find yourself at a table facing a poker professional (like one of Noble Poker's poker experts), feel free to ask questions so that you can learn.

10. Choose the right game.

Selecting what type of poker game to play is important. The most popular game is Texas Hold'em and there's no need to buck this trend while learning the ropes. Only try other variations of poker when you're confident in your abilities. However, once you've mastered Hold'em, feel free to try other games. And if you find yourself losing at Hold'em, try Omaha or Omaha Hi-Lo. Shake it up a bit to get out of a losing trend. Remember, the whole purpose of playing poker is to have fun.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Secret To Conquering Tricky Opponents

By Mike Caro

My wife Phyllis walked into my office an hour ago and told me how weird I'm becoming. She had just listened to my latest poker lesson, broadcast from I'm really having a lot of fun supplying those audios free to the world on the Internet, and I'm packing them with my very best poker advice.

Phyllis said, "Those might be the best thing you've ever done, except for the strange parts. Can't you just do anything straight?" So, I've decided to dedicate this column to my beloved Phyllis. Herein, I present one of the most important poker secrets I know. And I'll share it with you in the least weird way I know how, without any gimmicks whatsoever. Here goes...

Getting Up From The Table

Imagine you're my student and I asked you to leave your chips on the table and follow me.

"Do we have to do this now?" you whine. "I'm stuck four thousand dollars and this game's too good to get up from."

"Yes, now. We need to meet away from the table," I tell you. "I know why you're losing."

"I know why I'm losing, too," you insist. "It's because I keep guessing wrong against Jack and Jill. Everyone else is easy, but they're trying to run over the game. And I'm not going to let 'em."

At this point, I provide you with a sympathetic nod that is partially fake and partially felt. But you continue to lament, "So, I try to make them pay by running over them right back. But I'm getting really unlucky by always bluffing at the wrong times and raising when they have better hands. Things will change. I can feel it."

"Get Up Now," I Repeat Sternly.

So, you leave your chips on the table and we go for a drive together. Outside, the sun is directly overhead. It's 72 degrees with a slight wind coming from the southwest. The humidity is about 81 percent. But since none of that has anything to do with poker, we ignore it and walk to my car in silence.

Poker Truth In The Mountains

"Where are you taking me?" you want to know, once we've driven 10 miles out of town.

To the mountains," I say simply.

You grumble and I drive. Sure enough, 20 minutes later we're in the mountains a hundred yards from the roadway, sitting on boulders and listening to the birds chirp unseen among the trees that surround us.

"No what?" you say.

"Now I share the secret. First, tell me what bothers you about Jack and Jill."

You fumble your first words as you try to think, slapping your hand painfully against the boulder in disgust. Then your thoughts crystallize and you blurt, "Well, Jack's a good guy, but he just keeps raising so much it's frustrating. And Jill does the same thing, and she's a bitch, besides."

"Jill's really nice once you get to know her," I correct. "And you don't have to like her. You just have to keep her from taking your money. Tell me what really bothers you about playing poker with Jack and Jill," I prod.

Well," you confide, "it makes my head hurt. Every time I think about putting my chips in the pot, I'm secretly looking at them, worried about what they're going to do. It's comfortable playing against everyone else, but against those two I feel threatened all the time. They're always betting and raising. Jack's the worst. He's always trying to bull the game, if you know what I mean."

Improving Your Poker Prospects Forever

So, I begin to tell you the powerful truth that will change your poker prospects forever - for the better. In the next half hour, I convince you that:

1. First, you've got to identify opponents who habitually use deception, since these are the ones that bother you and interfere with your prospects of making profit from weaker foes. It's easy to identify them.

They slow play hands that at surprising times. At other times, they bet and keep betting. They raise often and sometimes unexpectedly. They bluff often, along with all those other annoying and aggressive maneuvers. In short, it's hard for you to determine what they're doing at any moment.

But, even though they're hard to figure out, they're not really playing a profitable game of poker. They suffer from what I call "Fancy Play Syndrome" - the habit of trying to find the most creative play instead of the most profitable, more obvious one. (We'll probably delve into that more in a future column.)

All you know about Jack and Jill is they're tricky and, on balance, way too aggressive for your taste. Identifying these deceptive players is easy. What to do about them is what might not be obvious, but all I'm asking you to do first is identify them by their traits.

2. Now that you've identified these aggressive-and-deceptive opponents, here's the simple part of the secret. Whenever you're faced with this type of opponent, you should bet into them less often and call their bets more often. You should also raise them less often.

The governing logic is that you can make marginal "value bets" against opponents who are timid and who are intimidated by you. Remember, all this super-aggressive betting and raising, when used at the right times, means you're targeting a few extra dollars of profit. You're pushing things to the limit. But all this backfires when your opponents are aggressive and unpredictable. Those are the opponents that you don't what to value bet into and that you don't want to make marginal raises against.

Sure, sometimes you might make a forceful raise just to encourage an opponent to back off and "play nice." But this doesn't work often with players like Jack and Jill. It's especially unlikely to work if they have superior position, meaning they are seated close to your left, acting after you most of the time.

And if they're seated to your left, you should do a lot of checking and calling. That will drive them nuts and completely dismantle their aggressive-and-deceptive tactics.

Checking and calling is especially good if they bluff a lot. Repeat: On each betting round, just check and call. That way, you'll get maximum value from their bluff attempts. Betting with marginal hands isn't good (even though this would be long-range profitable against timid opponents), because they'll maximize their profit by raising too often when they do have you beat. Additionally, by betting, you give them less opportunity to lose money by making their mistake of bluffing too often.

3. Another part of the secret is that trying to get even with Jack and Jill is interfering with your strategy against the weaker players, which is where your profit lies. Even if you could fight back to an even footing against J and J by using their own tactics, you will have diminished your profit by neglecting to concentrate on extracting money from the weak, timid opponents. So, let them have the stage. Let them try to destroy you with their too-forceful tactics. Realize that it's impossible for them to succeed unless you let them.

"Wow," you whisper. "That's the secret. I can destroy Jack and Jill just by calling more and betting less."

"Yes," I say. And when I'm finished, you are energized. You have heard the truth about something that's bothered you at poker all your life. You understand it completely now. And profit waits back at the poker table.

"But why did we have to come to the mountain for this?" you wonder.

"Because it was important enough," I explain.

Thanks to Phyllis, I enjoyed talking to you today about plain poker strategy, without any weirdness. Maybe I'll do it again soon.