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Mistakes in Online Draw Poker: Playing Shorts

I find I don’t make nearly as much in online draw from the brilliance of my own play as from the generally poor play of my opponents. In this and upcoming columns I’ll discuss common mistakes.Michael WiesenbergMichael Wiesenberg made his living playing poker for 10 years before turning to a career as a writer. His books include 'Free Money: How to Win in the Cardrooms of California'; 'The Dictonary of Poker', and 'The Ultimate Casino Guide.  Check out his writings on everything online draw poker!  If you don’t make these mistakes, you won’t lose to the few players who don’t make them — and you’ll win a lot from those who do.

Playing shorts may be the biggest mistake made in the online draw games. Shorts, in draw poker, is any pair 10s or smaller. The strategy I presented for online draw specified your minimum opening hand from the first three positions to the left of the big blind in an eight-handed game is a pair of aces, kings in the next position, jacks in the cutoff (to the right of the button), and 10s on the button. Your minimum opening hand from the first position to the left of the big blind (under the gun) in a five-handed game is a pair of kings, jacks in the cutoff, and 10s on the button. The small blind is special, and I’ll get to it in a moment. From any of these positions, you should always come in for a raise.

This strategy may seem unduly tight and will be particularly boring in the eight-handed game, because you’re not going to get that many opening hands. (Play five-handed games if you want to play more hands.) You’ll see people in lots of pots, players who have come in on far worse hands than those I recommended, and you’ll see them win pots, too. But if you pay attention, you’ll see that those who stick to the strategy win more than their share of pots and those who don’t win far less. Better to play 20 pots in an hour and win 15 of them than to play 40 and win 20 — particularly when many of the 20 losses cost more than the wins.

You frequently see this: Someone limps under the gun. The next player raises. Everyone folds to the big blind, who calls. The opener calls. Everyone takes three cards. After the draw, everyone checks. The big blind shows his hand first when there has been no betting, and in this instance shows a pair of sevens. The opener mucks his cards, indicating that he started with a pair worse than sevens. The raiser shows his cards, and takes the pot with a pair of aces. The opener lost two bets on a substandard hand, a hand he shouldn’t even have played. To compound the error, this player consistently limps on weak hands and raise-opens on better. Observant players take advantage of this by raising with any hand that is at least jacks when he limps. If I am on the button when a player like this opens, I raise with a pair of 10s. But the players behind the opener don’t even have to be observant, because most players automatically raise with a pair of aces — and of course with any better hand. In all of these situations, the opener has way the worst of it. If you regularly play hands when you have the worst of it, you must lose in the long run.

True, you often see a play like this: Someone limps under the gun. The next player raises. Everyone folds to the big blind, who calls. The opener calls. Everyone takes three cards. The big blind checks. The opener checks. The raiser bets. The big blind calls. The opener raises. The raiser and the big blind both call. The opener shows three threes and wins a nice pot. If you check the hand history, you see that the original raiser has two pair, aces up, while the big blind has kings up. It’s pots like these that keep players drawing to shorts, but they don’t realize how much they give away the times they don’t make big hands. And often when the opener improves, someone else also improves. When both players improve, the player who started with the better hand generally wins a bigger pot. That is, the player who started with two threes, makes three threes, and loses to three aces, loses a much bigger pot than the average big pot he wins when he improves to the best hand. Fortunately for the winning players, though, the losing players remember only the big pots they win when they buck the odds.

The big blind also made a mistake here, but his mistake was not as bad as that of the opener, because it cost him only one bet. Nonetheless, calling with shorts on the big blind is usually a losing play. You’re getting 5-to-1 to call, but the odds against your winning are nearly always worse than that. Also, your position is terrible, first to act after the draw. The best you can hope for is that both players are drawing three cards. If your pair is better than that of the opener, you win 20 percent of the time, while anything better than 16-2/3 percent is nominally profitable. But you will rarely know your hand is best when you do improve — and you have to improve to win. If you make two pair and bet, what do you do if either player raises? Likely you’re beat. If you fold, you have just cost yourself one small bet and one big bet. Even when called, you’re often beat. So, you improve and check, and both players check behind you. You lost a big bet from a potential call. Or, one of the players behind you bets, and you call. You lose most of those bets, also, even if the opener is a frequent bluffer or the raiser sometimes bets his one pair without improvement. The only hand you like in this situation is three of a kind, and the odds against that are worse than 6-to1. And when your trips lose, just as in all situations in which both players improve, the player who started with the better hand generally wins a bigger pot. In a raised pot against two or more players, you won’t go wrong if you never call in the big blind with worse than jacks. Against one player, you have to know your opponent. If your opponent generally follows the strategy I presented, you should not call in the big blind with worse than one hand better than the hand he would have opened with in his position. That is, if the player opened in the five-handed game under the gun, you need at least a pair of aces; if he opened from the cutoff, a pair of queens; if he opened on the button, a pair of jacks.

I said the little blind is special. The little blind is the only position from which you should limp, and what you do depends on your opponent. If your opponent in the big blind calls a raise with any pair — and sometimes worse! — you should generally limp with any pair 2s through 6s and raise with anything better. If your opponent calls a raise only with a pair of jacks or better, you should raise with any hand, because he will fold three-fourths of the time. (You won’t find many players like that. Mostly they call too much.) Against a player you haven’t figured out, you can limp with any pair up to about 9s and raise with anything better.

Two plays involving shorts are even worse than limping with them.

One is calling with shorts when someone has raised. If you know a player never comes in for a raise with worse than a pair of kings from a particular position, then calling with even kings is a very bad play. Against some players, the only one-pair hand I call with when they raise in early position is a pair of aces. You rarely get odds to call with the worst hand in draw poker. Of course, if you don’t know a player never comes in for a raise with worse than a pair of kings from a particular position, then calling with shorts is something you might very well do — and it’s a very bad play. (If you don’t know what a player raise-opens with either you’re not paying attention or you don’t have enough data. In the latter case, assume he plays properly until you have more information.)

The other is opening for a raise with shorts. Some players think they need to mix up their play and sometimes come in for a raise with shorts. Others are maniacs, and come in for a raise with any hand they play — including shorts. The trouble with mixing up your play in small-limit online draw games is that it isn’t necessary. Few players are observant enough. When you get called, you are almost certainly beat and then going uphill with considerably the worst of it. And most players who make this play do it far too often, so the deception value they get that gives them more action on their big hands is offset by how much they lose those times they come in with those shorts. Everyone, however, notices the maniac who plays almost every hand and always for a raise. The weak players may not adjust properly, but all they have to do is call with the hands they would have played anyway and they’re coming in on average with much better hands than the maniac. The proper way to play a maniac is to raise with any hand that you would have raised had someone limped. (For example, if you’re in the cutoff and a maniac raises under the gun, reraise. Calling is bad because you make it easier for remaining players to come in. You want to freeze them out.) And of course call when the maniac caps. You’ll lose some big pots when the maniac starts with a big hand or when he improves, but the pots you win will more than make up for that. You may look silly sometimes calling a capped pot with just a pair of queens — but fortunately looking silly is not really something you have to worry about at a computer where no one can see you and when you’re already hiding behind an anonymous name. You’ll also lose some big pots when someone besides the maniac holds a big hand, but, again, that’s not something to worry much about. The nature of draw poker is that multiple big hands are rarely out in one particular deal and drawouts are much less common than in any other game. It’s just because of these not very common confrontations that the original brick-and-mortar cardroom form of draw poker almost faded away. The reason draw remains playable online is for the very reason that I’m writing these columns: The competition is generally so abysmal that any good player (of which there are not many) has to win.

I’ll present more mistakes in future columns.

This article originally appeared in Card Player Magazine.  © 2006 Michael Wiesenberg.
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