Photo by Brian Bentley @ 2009 WSOP Main Event

Friday, April 22, 2011

Vol 1: Reads and Concentration at the Table

One of the most challenging components of live tournament poker is harnessing the ability to focus one’s concentration for long periods of time amid a myriad of distractions. No Limit Hold Em is particularly brutal since it punishes players so severely for mistakes. The bigger your stack, the more you can get away with a bad decision from time to time. But, if you are a tight player who is perpetually short stacked, once those blinds go up, even one big mistake is usually fatal to your tournament life. Always be clear in your head what the potential consequences are of each choice in front of you.

Mediocre players have a tendency to call down in critical situations with less than stellar hands. But what do you do if you’re a decent player who finds his ability to read other players evaporate after three or four hours of live play? It’s not about knowledge. You know what you are supposed to do; you just sort of zone at the wrong moment and completely misread the situation.

Here’s an example. You’re at a home game and into hour 3 and the blinds are at $400 and $800. The bubble to make the final table is approaching and you’re one of the shorter stacks at the table. You have been waiting and waiting for the right spot. You’ve shoved a couple of times into limped pots and stolen a few blinds, but you need a big payoff on a hand to survive.

Sitting across the table from you is a semi-talented card rack, a deep-stacked calling station who cannot be moved off a hand by seemingly any bet you make, and you’re not getting particularly great cards. Despite the fact that this player has not shown a bluff, somehow at the wrong moment, you become convinced they are bluffing. Tired of being bet off hands and generally annoyed, you lose patience and call down with something like top pair/kicker and discover they have slowplayed aces. See ya.

In last night's home game, I had been forever hovering around $10k in chips, while the average stack was close to $20k. My patience was waning with my lousy holdings. (Ever reach that place where you’re Peter Finch in Network? “I’m mad as hell and not taking it anymore..”) With the blinds at $400 and $800 and about to go up, I look down at A-9 suited, my best hand in the last twenty minutes. It’s folded to me in middle position. I could just shove here and try to grab a quick $2k, but if I hit my nut flush and can get some followers, I’m golden. I do believe the safest play here is to shove. But instead, I raise to $1600 and tonight’s designated card rack calls from the BB in a heartbeat.

The flop comes down A-K-X with three clubs and two players in the pot. The card rack in the BB checks to me. I’ve got top pair and no reason to believe she has a hand. I have about $10k behind. But this is the kind of scary flop that should cause any player to take a deep breath and think for at least 30 seconds before acting. What is your stack size? Where are you going with your actions after she checks the flop? What hand are you representing and what hand are you putting her on?

With me at only $10k behind and her stack at $30k, can I really bet her off a flush draw, especially considering her inclination to call anything? I believe the safest play is to check back, for no other reason than this is the exact kind of hand that the card rack lives for, and the kind of flop that kills my aces (and my tourney) if she has flopped a flush, or has a nut flush draw that she’s not going to abandon – and she will hit it. A weird set, two pair, or A-K through A-10 also has me reeling.

Instead, I become convinced that she is only on a flush draw, and so I toss out roughly a pot size bet of $3k to see where I’m at and discourage her chasing, not realizing that I’m at the final table bubble, and now I’ve put 40% of my stack in play against someone who doesn’t seem to ever fold a hand. She promptly shoves all-in. This is where the part comes in about losing the ability to focus and the mind just shorts out. Convinced I'm pot committed (a more irritating concept for calling with a weak hand has never existed) and that she has some kind of ace-rag, or maybe second pair or a flush draw, I steam call and make the worst play possible, and the card rack has indeed flopped her flush.

Every player who battles hard and blows a play like that has this moment of denial at busting out. “Can I please just take that hand over? Can we please just run it twice?” The whole night comes down to a bubble bust after some earlier bad beats and fairly spectacular play to get back to square one.

So how do you prevent horrible misreads like that and avoid calling down light as your patience wears thin after a night of too much folding? I think it comes down to basic tournament survival and staying awake. Keep a can of Monster drink by the table and refer to it. Unless you have a lock read that it’s a bluff, calling an all-in with just a pair is a play that cannot come close to a 50% positive expectation. Even against a bad player.

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