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Improve Your Poker
by Bob Ciaffone
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One of the more respected writers of this generation, Ciaffone's material, now compiled under one cover, has previously appeared in a variety of publications. Here, he helps sharpen the skills of beginners and experienced players in ten different areas, including general concepts like beating a loose game, and tight/loose play. He moves to gambling skills like the mental side, and money management; then to Reading Opponents, including tells and using your eyes. A vital section on Deception and Bluffing is followed by incisive advice on Hold'em including raising and missing.
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Catastrophe Psychology in No-Limit Hold'em

The 2004 hurricane season was a horrible one for Florida residents, as their state got hit by a record four tropical systems. Shortly after the hurricane season, I was driving in my car and listeningBob CiaffoneBob Ciaffone is one of America’s best-known poker players, writers, and teachers. He has numerous poker tournament wins and placings, the most prominent being third place in the 1987 World Championship. He has been a poker teacher since 1995, with his students having earned well over a million dollars in tournament play.  Bob's website is  to an interesting radio program on PBS about the psychology of large natural disasters such as hurricanes. Apparently, when there is only the remote possibility of a natural disaster, people discount it entirely as a factor in deciding where to live.

After experiencing the 2004 disasters, a number of newer Floridians decided to move elsewhere. Yet, it would be hard to find anyone in the entire state who was unaware of the possibility that a hurricane might take place in that locale. Apparently, none of the people who chose to move away had even considered the chance of being struck by a hurricane as a factor when they had initially decided to move there. I have seen the same type of psychology at work when there is an earthquake in California and a number of people who had moved there then decide to move away, seeking terra firma.

Poker has a psychology akin to that which affects natural disasters. A poker disaster is often totally discounted in decisions if there is only a tiny chance of it actually occurring, even when its effect would be absolutely devastating. (For an event to have a truly devastating monetary effect, the game has to be no-limit, as in limit poker you are losing only an extra two or three bets, whereas in no-limit it is all of your chips.)

Here are a couple of examples in which the rare but deadly catastrophe is often discounted entirely.

1. The board in no-limit hold'em is Jheart 9hearts 3hearts, and the player holds the Aheart and an offsuit card. So what if five of the cards that complete the flush make a possible straight flush on the board; a player would need a perfect holding to make that hand. Most players treat this situation as if they are drawing to the nuts.

2. A player has a small pocket pair in no-limit hold’em and the pot is raised. Most people assume that if they flop a set, they will win the hand (along with a bundle of chips). Why worry about set over set when it is such a rarity?

There are many poker situations in which players tend to discount the unusual but very harmful outcome of a hand. However, the one I would like to focus on is the way many weak players handle their premium hands, especially before and on the flop. The trademark of the weakie is to charge only a small price to opponents when he has an exceptional hand. Then, should the hand get cracked, they pay off with big bucks. I see this trait over and over again with some of the weaker players I coach.

The weakie wants to make some money with his good hands. That’s fine, so do you and I. But he is so afraid his opponents will fold that he bets only a small amount of money. What happens most of the time is that he wins a small pot. However, the bargain hunters take cheap shots at his chips, and when someone does make a big hand, all of those chips that were accumulated by getting some action go bye-bye — plus a bunch more.

Let’s look at some concrete situations. Suppose one of these players who "wants to get action on his good hands" has the big blind in a $5-$10 blinds no-limit hold’em game in which most of the players have around $1,000 in chips. Three people limp in, the small blind folds, and it is up to him. He looks down and finds two kings. I have seen players rap the table in that spot, but our fellow is only a little weak, not insane, so he is going to raise. There is $45 in the pot and three opponents, and he has to act first on each betting round. Since he wants action, he raises $40, for a total of $50. If he gets what he wants, he will have three callers and a $200 pot. Sometimes, he will get a bad flop: an ace, a three-flush, or a three-straight. But suppose he gets a good flop (but no king). He has a little less than five times the size of the pot left in his stack, which is enough for only a bet and an all-in raise, assuming normal-size bets. Under normal circumstances, he will go broke if someone flops two pair or a set on him. This means that an opponent with a smallish pocket pair is getting decent odds by paying only $40 to see the flop. He is getting about 25-to-1 payoff on that money. Since he flops a set about one time in eight, this is plenty good enough odds to cover the times when he fails to break his opponent, or loses the pot. So, basically, what I am saying is, the player with pocket kings made the error of failing to give his opponent a bad price on improving in his desire to get action. Dan Harrington would not approve; his book stresses charging sufficiently to draw out.

Let’s look at a specific no-limit hold’em hand, one played by a student of mine. Here is his e-mail: "I picked up pocket aces in an Internet 50 cent-$1 blinds no-limit hold’em money game. I started the hand with $150. I opened from early position for $3 and the next player reraised, making it $5. The button cold-called. I reraised $10 more, making it $15, and they both called. The flop came K 6 5heart. I bet $20, the player on my left went all in for $63, and the button now went all in for $105. I thought they both had top pair, so I called. The first all-in player had the expected A-K, but the button had pocket sixes. I failed to improve against his set and lost a big pot. Did I do anything wrong by calling all in on this betting, or was I just unlucky?"

I answered as follows: "Your all-in call on the flop was not wrong, but you need to look at your preflop betting. Your thinking there was to make sure you got played with by reraising a small amount. The result was that your opponent paid only $10 to double through you and win a big pot if he flopped a set. The fact that he got a decent price is a direct result of your incorrect thinking. Your bring-in for $3 was fine. However, when you reraised, you needed to raise at least the size of the pot, not a wimpy $10. There was $16.50 in the pot at the point you called the reraise and were preparing to reraise yourself. It is your obligation to raise enough money to give the 6-6 a bad price. You had to raise at least $15. Since you had the additional burden of being out of position and acting first on the flop, I would prefer to overbet the pot size and make it $20 more, for a total of $25."

This type of e-mail is scarcely an isolated case. In fact, I have a huge number of e-mails from players who made essentially the same error of reraising a wimpy amount in order to get played with, then lost a big pot. You cannot totally discount the possibility of someone out-flopping a big pair and beating you out of a humongous pot.

Getting a big pair cracked is not the only danger in giving people too good a price on a hand. Here is a player’s story of what happened when he decided to slow-play preflop to make sure he made something with a big pair.

"In an online no-limit hold’em $1-$2 blinds money game, I was in the big blind with pocket aces. Unfortunately, everyone folded around to the small blind. That player open-raised to $4. He had started the hand with about $78, and I had more than that amount. I had position and the nuts, so I did not want to do anything to lose him early; I just smooth-called. The flop came A-4-3 rainbow, giving me top set. There was a possible straight on the board, but I was not worried about it, since my opponent had raised the pot preflop, and the only cards that could make a straight were 5-2. He bet $4 on the flop, and I called. He bet $7 on the turn when a deuce came, putting four cards to a straight on the board. I now raised him $23 more; he showed me pocket kings and folded. Please comment on my plays, as it looks like I could have done better by not slow-playing.

I answered him as follows: "It is OK to slow-play aces preflop if the situation is right, but this was not the right situation to do it. Your chips are too deep for this play. If he out-flops two aces, you will normally lose all of your money. If he does not hit, you trap him for $4 or $6 if he bets, and nothing if he check-folds. Note that you can reraise preflop in this spot (with just the blinds playing) without giving your hand away. He might take a hand like J-J and go for all of his money."

This is the other side of the coin of not betting your good hands properly. You increase your chance of making a little something, because most of the time the opponent does not have much. However, sometimes he has a hand almost as good as yours, as was the case here, and the best way to get his money is to bet strongly. Let me emphasize that your goal is to win money, not pots. This hand was a catastrophe of another sort. The player had a perfect situation for making a bundle, pocket aces against pocket kings, and blew it. By not pulling the trigger when the opponent had a good hand, he let a card fall off and lost his market. (We also see that there were some hands the opponent could have held in this spot, such as 5-5 or A-5 suited, that would have beat the player with aces and cost him a lot more than just his market!)

Note that most of these players who do not bet enough on their good hands tend to bet more on their bad hands or bluffs. If you are at a table for any length of time, your opponents will pick up on the weakness in your strategy and punish you for it.

Betting your good hands strongly enough to protect them will give you better results in no-limit hold’em. Keep in mind that the way you should keep score in no-limit poker is by how much money you win, not by how many pots you squeeze out an extra small dab with underweight bet sizes. When your position is bad but your hand is very good, you must make the opposition pay heavily for their shot at all of your chips. You will also find that using larger wagers makes the game easier to play well, because it narrows down the type of hands an opponent is likely to hold.

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