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Changing Gears When Playing Poker

The Wisdom of Adaptation and Flexibility

by David Huber
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Poker Changing GearsIn a recent post on an online forum, I had the opportunity to lock horns with a poker player who just KNEW he had the answer to No Limit Texas Holdem. According to this player, who supposedly had been killing the online No Limit Holdem games since their induction, Tight-Aggressive play was the key to winning; and winning big. Now, since poker players have never been known to exaggerate results or their own ability, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt while I watched his online Cash Game play at the $2/4 levels ($400 maximum buy-in), and I thought to myself “…could knowing how this person feels about his play and poker in general provide an opponent with a Counter-Strategy?”

Well, the first thing that became apparent to the casual observer (while viewing his table) was that he wasn’t playing many hands, and that he was raising with the majority of hands he played. “So far, so good”, I thought to myself as he raised 3xBB pre-flop from the Button with “Ah-Kh” and got called down by “Js-8s” in the Big Blind. So the flop comes out Th-3s-3d and our hero promptly bets out $15 (pot is around $25) after his opponent checks. His opponent Check-Raises him and makes it $45 to boot, and God’s Gift to Poker thinks a few moments before calling.

There are more than a few possibilities that come to mind in this situation, but I have a profound confidence that his opponent sensed weakness and decided to test the waters with a raise. The “Tight-Aggressive” guy still had about $300 in front of him, but his opponent had the dominant stack on the table with close to $950. The turn comes Th-3s-3d-[3c] and his opponent checks immediately. Our hero goes into the tank for a while and checks behind him; and thus, seals his fate. The river is Th-3s-3d-3c-[Jc] and his opponent hesitates just enough and bets $85 (pot was somewhere around $115) and gets called down by our Hero’s Ah-Kh. His opponent flips over Js-8s at showdown and rakes in close to $300.

But the fun has just begun... Mr. Know-it-all promptly re-buys up to the maximum amount of $400 while he berates his opponent for being such a fish. Virtual cards and chips fly to and fro while he floods the chat box with all sorts of bile and foolishness, and I once again ask myself “…could knowing how this person feels provide an opponent with an opportunity to take even more money from him?”

It doesn’t take long for me to find out, as we are now 7-handed and it gets folded around to our player in the Small Blind. He quickly raises 3xBB to $12 from the Small Blind. His opponent (the same player, who’s now on his immediate left since the player in-between is sitting out) does not hesitate at all, and very promptly re-raises the minimum amount, most likely faking an ego-based attitude. Our player goes into the tank for a few seconds, then re-raises All-In for about $400, and his opponent calls with Pocket Aces. Our guy’s Pocket Tens are no match, and he’s now faced with a dilemma of whether to re-buy.

At first, he sits out, but just as I’m about to close the table, I notice that he’s re-bought for exactly $168, at which I visibly flinch and prepare for the inevitable. “But, cards can be cards, so he might still get lucky”, I think to myself. Alas, his final hand involved him calling off all his chips with 7s-6s on a board of As-Ts-Kh. His opponent flipped over Ks-Qs after all the money got in of the flop (ironically, our hero called a pre-flop raise before making this last desperation call on the flop), and the Jack of Spades on the river put a fitting end to our hero’s session. Before he leaves the table, he spits out “Of course, [enter Poker site’s name here] always rewards the idiots”.

Whatever was going on in our player’s mind when he dropped his entire bankroll is irrelevant. The wheels fell off after he atrociously misplayed his hand and he paid for it. Though most of us run out of fingers and toes to count our mistakes on daily, this player’s mistake led to his rapid downfall in this session. Accusing an online site of a “set-up” for the hands that followed is ridiculous... if anything, he “set himself up” at the precise moment he checked the turn with his Ah-Kh.

The point of this article isn’t about a series of hands (though you’ll be hard-pressed to find a clearer example of Weak-Tight play than the flop/turn of the first example). Changing gears or adapting to the situation staring you straight in the eyes is much more important than relying on a generic formula that’s most likely borrowed. Many players who are likely intelligent enough to eventually find their own solutions to difficult situations through experience or trial and error, constantly find themselves on the business end of a cattle prod due to their own rigid mindset and dependence on egotistical playing styles.

With so many learning resources available to a poker player nowadays, it’s not surprising that many beginners are able to grasp the basic concepts of how to implement any particular strategy when they sit down to play. We can pretty much assume that most of our opponents have read at least some tidbits about the magical properties of whatever style is the flavor of the day. But beware! Standing on the shoulders on another’s knowledge (or folly) is a far cry from actual self-discovery.

For better or for worse, poker is hard work. It’s frustrating, it’s nerve-racking, it’s time-consuming, and it’s a game too complex to summarize in a lifetime. Just when you think you’ve found the answer to a specific situation, the game evolves and kicks you in the rear just for humor’s sake. And no game fits that description more appropriately than Texas Hold'em. If you really want to go above and beyond mediocrity, you’ll eventually have to discard props like Starting Hand Charts and generic pre-flop advice and push yourself to make a genuine effort.

Of course, we all enjoy taking advantage of relevant content gained from websites, poker books, forums, and other players. This is all fine and dandy, not to mention an inexpensive means of looking at the game through the vision and perspective of other players who are often more knowledgeable and talented than we are. But if you take only one thing from this article, let it be this: NEVER forget that the most important aspect that dictates how you do at the poker tables is YOU. The factor that separates your skill from that of other’s is YOUR skill (whether it is abundant or lacking).

Case in point: if you raised 3.5x Big Blind pre-flop from late position with 8c-8s because Fast Eddie’s Starting Hand Chart told you to do so; and you get a caller behind you to see a flop of Ah-7h-3d, and your opponent bets into you, then just throw the hand chart out the window… because it’s useless. You’re just going to have to make a decision to the best of your ability and trust yourself to come out of it satisfactorily, or at least learn from a mistake. There are bits and pieces of information that can lead you to the correct conclusions if you search them out, but very few are contained in Expected Value charts or over-simplified playing styles.

If you sit down at a table with your “Hyper-Aggressive” style, and it just so happens that most of your opponents are climbing on top of each other to jam the pot on most hands, then perhaps you might want to adjust your play accordingly. If you enter a single-table Sit & Go tournament with your “Play The Cards” attitude, and find yourself 8-handed with ridiculously high blinds after 90 minutes, then maybe you missed a couple of opportunities to open up your game earlier on. But it all depends on YOU, your ability, your comfort-zone, your ideas, and your definition of prudence.

The next time you start a session at the poker tables, do yourself a favor and consider the effectiveness of whatever style you’re implementing. Take a moment to contemplate other options. Surely there are a few adjustments you can make to increase expectation. The sooner you let go of effortless mimicking and embrace inspired problem solving, the better. You’ll find yourself living and breathing poker through your own set of values, and will place your game on the fast-track to improvement and superiority.

Diamond

Other strategy articles by David Huber:
Online Poker Tells
Poker Expectation
Playing Pocket Pairs
Basic Loose Aggressive LAG Poker Strategy
Basic Tight Aggressive TAG Poker Strategy
Sit N Go Strategy - Part 1: Early Stages
Sit and Go Tournaments - Part 2: Middle Stages
Single Table Tournament Strategy - Part 3 End Game

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