Monday, March 23, 2009

Critical thinking in poker

The trouble with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than their minds - William Durant

Damn if this post hasn't taken far longer than I wanted! Sorry for being so slow with this, but I wanted to have several good examples and tried to make a post that will genuinely help players improve their game. I fear there will be no groundbreaking concepts in this strategy post, but hopefully it will be helpful to someone aside from myself, and with the luck the examples included will nicely illustrate what remains an important lesson: the necessity of critical thinking in big bet poker.

Critical thinking for me is about observing a certain situation or behaviour, and then deducing the cause or reasoning behind it. Sometimes this thinking can even allow you to predict with some degree of confidence what will happen in the future. Obviously in poker this ability is very useful in hand reading, but it is also highly applicable to the psychological aspect. Critical thinking can be used to help understand what your opponent is thinking... and if you can accurately do that, the battle is basically over.

Lets go with the first example and look at critical thinking for hand reading:

$2/$4 NLHE - 6 players
Seat 1: CrazyIvan24 ($400)
Seat 2: tRybek ($758.60)
Seat 3: Villain ($538.10)
at 24/8
Seat 4: Hero ($421)
Seat 5: ChildBride ($400)
Seat 6: tonybas ($638.30)
tRybek posts the small blind of $2
Villain posts the big blind of $4
The button is in seat #1
*** HOLE CARDS ***
Dealt to Hero [Kd Ah]
Hero raises to $14
ChildBride folds
tonybas folds
CrazyIvan24 has 15 seconds left to act
CrazyIvan24 calls $14
tRybek calls $12
Villain calls $10

Ok, standard open UTG with AKo. I get two folds, and then a call from the button who has been trying to outplay me in position several times. Both the blinds also call. So I can assume the following here: no one is likely to have a hand like JJ+ or another AK, as the button would re-raise with this to force out the blinds, and the blinds would normally squeeze given this is a 2/4 table. I won't rule them out, but my opponents ranges (remember 2 are in the blinds) are more likely to be high cards, low pairs, connectors, and suited garbage. The button's range is more likely to also include a suited connector given the likelihood of a multiway pot.

*** FLOP *** [Kc 9c 4c]
tRybek checks
Villain checks
Hero has 15 seconds left to act
Hero bets $48
CrazyIvan24 folds
tRybek folds
Villain raises to $122
Hero has 15 seconds left to act
Hero calls $74

I hit top pair, but obviously I'm not thrilled at the monotone flop. There is almost $60 in the pot, and after two checks from the blinds, I fire with my TPTK. The button folds as he must with anything than a set or a flush, and the SB follows suit (no pun intended). Then the BB comes out with an 1.5x checkraise. Now normally I'd give this a lot of respect, but lets consider the factors.

The BB called just $10 pf with 3 players already in the pot and was closing the action, so his range is pretty darn wide. The flop is very scary, and my bet into 3 players looks like I want to take down the pot while it is small. The flop couldn't be more spread in terms of rank, so 2 pair is very unlikely. The pot is now heads up, which is always the best time to check-raise bluff. The size of the raise is interesting also: it is not very big and would not put off a flush draw or a set. It is possible he's raising with a baby flush, but the nut flush (aside from being unlikely for the BB to have) is more likely to call than raise against a single opponent. Lastly, and most importantly, I'm in position so I can safely call and re-evaluate after seeing my opponents turn action. It is mainly this final factor that convinces me to call.

*** TURN *** [Kc 9c 4c] [6h]
Villain checks

The villain checks - so much information here. I can now rule out a baby flush - my call indicates either the nuts, a draw to the nuts or a strong made hand (set, TPTK, overpair) and out of position he would bet again to protect his flush on this safe turn card. A set, already unlikely is now ruled out as he would again try to protect this oop. Two pair is still just as unlikely. My best guess at this point is that he was trying a pure bluff with air, has a badly played QQ-TT, possibly with a Club, or something like Ks Qc. So, since I am miles ahead of his most likely range, I happily shove my TPTK on this seemingly dangerous board and get the result I expect.

Hero bets $285, and is all in
Villain folds
Uncalled bet of $285 returned to Hero
Hero wins the pot ($297)

This second example gets a bit more into the psychological aspect along with hand reading...

$1/$2 NLHE - 4 players
Seat 2: IDent ($103)
Seat 4: Hero ($200)
Seat 5: royamsterdam ($200)
Seat 6: Villain ($416.15)
at 17/13
royamsterdam posts the small blind of $1
Villain posts the big blind of $2
The button is in seat #4
*** HOLE CARDS ***
Dealt to Hero [Jh Kc]
IDent raises to $9
Hero calls $9
royamsterdam adds $1
royamsterdam folds
Villain raises to $32
IDent folds
Hero calls $23

I call here because I have position on the fish IDent who has been opening nearly every hand, and also I have the button so will have position on every other player. KJo is easily ahead of the fishes range, and I am happy to play it in this situation. Now, the Villain re-raises from the BB. He is a tight, thinking player and he knows as well as I that the fish is often opening light. After the fish folds, I have my first real decision. I am most likely facing a premium PP, or maybe a squeeze from AJs+, both of which obviously crush me. Given how tight he is though I realise that I can more easily push him off lots of non-nut hands, and with the right boards I can represent plenty of hands and do exactly that, so I decide to call with my probably dominated hand.

*** FLOP *** [3c 5h 9d]
Villain has 15 seconds left to act
Villain bets $31
Hero calls $31

What a perfect flop for me. My range definitely includes all PPs which just made a set here, and in addition the rainbow board means that if I smooth call here a set looks even more likely. This is a perfect board for representing against a tight player. Also, the lack of a broadway card means that any big A (suited or not) is feeling pretty awful now that it remains completely unimproved. He bets, as he would with his entire range, and after a brief pause I smooth call.

*** TURN *** [3c 5h 9d] [4s]
Villain has 15 seconds left to act
Villain checks

With the pot at nearly $135, out of position against a fairly solid opponent who smooth called a c-bet on a very ragged flop, my tight opponent is in a fix. There is no way the 4s helped him. With any unimproved Ax, he can't call any but the smallest bet. Even with a big PP, he can only hope to check call with what will more often than not turn out to be the worst hand. And so he thinks for a while before having to check.

Hero bets $72

Since I have played this hand like a set, I follow that line and decide to bet half the pot. This is a good amount for 2 reasons: 1) it looks like I want a call, and 2) it leaves me with roughly the same amount behind, so it looks like I am pot committed and hence less likely to be bluffing. Once again, my thinking has been good and I am fortunate enough to get a deserving result.

Villain has 15 seconds left to act
Villain folds
Uncalled bet of $72 returned to Hero
Hero mucks
Hero wins the pot ($134)

The next example shows an acute lack of critical thinking on my part, and my opponent reaps the rewards from my gross mistakes....

$3/$6 Deep NLHE - 5 players
Seat #1 is the dealer
Seat 1 - TRADEBYDAY ($591 in chips)
Seat 2 - Hero ($1420.50 in chips)
Seat 4 - Villain ($794.40 in chips)
at 27/24
Seat 5 - ROCKCHALK73 ($485.70 in chips)
Seat 6 - SPOOOOOKY ($1763 in chips)
Hero - Posts small blind $3
Villain - Posts big blind $6
Dealt to Hero [As 10s]
Hero - Raises $15 to $18
Villain - Calls $12

At $3/$6, ATs is a very good hand for a blind vs blind confrontation. My raise and his call in position is nothing out of the ordinary and not too much information is available from it.

*** FLOP *** [Kc Ks 7s]
Hero - Bets $18
Villain - Raises $62 to $62
Hero - Raises $136 to $154
Villain - Calls $92

With two spades on the flop I decide I very much like this flop, and make my first mistake. Since my opponent having flopped trips is so unlikely(not to mention a fullhouse), I decide that I like my hand so much I will be going to the river with it. A word to the wise: never decide such a thing. Especially don't decide it on such a dangerous board. A poker hand is dynamic, and hand decisions must be equally so.

I decide to bet small to try and elicit a bluff raise on this scary board, and my 27/24 opponent happily obliges while in position. Now I re-raise nearly $100 on top - representing a strong King - expecting all flush draws, 2 pairs and bluffs to fold pretty fast. However, I get called but instead of hearing warning bells I put my opponent on either a flush draw or 2 pair on a paired board and simply assume he's being stubborn. The pot is now around $340 and I have a nothing but a flush draw and an overcard.

*** TURN *** [Kc Ks 7s ] [Ah]
Hero - Checks
Villain - Bets $130
Hero - Calls $130

I just made top pair Ten kicker, so now I'm beating his flush draw and his 2 pairs. So I check and let him decide to bluff both of these hands. He does bet, but it is only about 1/3 of the pot. Calling here is my second mistake of the hand.

Why would he bluff such a small amount on such a scary card? There's no way he could have called the flop action with something like AQ, and I also know he doesn't have the nut flush draw, so the A does not help him. But he's still betting it, and curiously he's betting small. I should see that I'm facing at least trip Kings at this point, because he's not afraid of the Ace and he called my big re-raise on the flop after I showed huge strength. I can now see that his turn bet isn't aimed at scaring off a draw, it's aimed at getting a call from any hand or any draw. At the time though I decided however that I was 'priced in' and call with my top pair and nut flush draw.

*** RIVER *** [Kc Ks 7s Ah] [9h]
Hero - Checks
Villain - All-In $492.40
Hero - Calls $492.40

Here is my biggest monetary mistake. I check, knowing he will check behind with any Ace or hand with decent showdown value, and bluff his missed draws. There is only one real draw though - the flush - and I have the nut draw for that, taking away 2 of his outs and thus dramatically lowering the likelihood he has the same draw. He bets allin, and I ignore the fact that not only is him having a flush draw unlikely, I also discount his call on the flop where I showed such strength. I make the rookie mistake of putting him on the one possible hand I beat. So I call, and so I lose 200BB.

*** SHOW DOWN ***
Villain - Shows [7c 7d] (Full house, sevens full of kings)
Hero - Mucks
Villain Collects $1585.30 from main pot

I was surprised he raised the flop with the nuts, but this was deep $3/$6, and he saw an easy way to try and get the money in early, and then I went and finished the job for him by re-raising on the flop and then calling his allin on the river. An expensive lesson for me, but a valuable one. You must re-evaluate after every new piece of information, and more importantly you always have to look at the whole picture.

This final hand is very interesting, and again shows the use of critical thinking for gaining psychological insight and improved hand reading.

$3/$6 Deep NLHE - 5 players
Seat #6 is the dealer
Seat 6 - STATIC_NINE ($681 in chips)
Seat 1 - NEO094 ($794 in chips)
Seat 2 - ADAMDALE77 ($1131.45 in chips)
Seat 3 - Hero ($1209 in chips)
Seat 4 - Villain ($1502.30 in chips) at 25.5/20.5
NEO094 - Posts small blind $3
ADAMDALE77 - Posts big blind $6
Dealt to Hero [10h 10d]
Hero - Raises $21 to $21
Villain - Calls $21
NEO094 - Folds
ADAMDALE77 - Calls $15

With 5 players at the table I get a flat call from the villain (UTG+1) and a call from the BB in response to my UTG raise. My range for opening UTG is usually most PPs and ATs+, and my opponents are mostly fairly decent thinking players, typical of the $3/$6 level.

*** FLOP *** [5c Qh Jh]
ADAMDALE77 - Checks
Hero - Bets $48
Villain - Calls $48
ADAMDALE77 - Folds

This is a nice flop for me, as it hits half of my Ax range, and also my 3 of the PPs I would raise with UTG. I decide to put pressure on the villain by betting into him here and sandwiching him between me as the preflop raiser and an opponent who could have anything. I do this as it often lends a greater degree of 'purity' to his actions, and subsequently makes my future decisions easier. Also, it gives me the best chance of getting position for the rest of the hand if he folds. From the flop onwards I'm not really playing my hand but my opponents.

I decide to bet 3/4 pot, which I would do with a number of hands on this drawy flop including 2PTK, TPTK, a set, and occasionally an OESD. The villain flat calls, which makes me think he caught a small piece of the flop, or has a strong draw (nut flush or maybe an OESD). Since he doesn't raise, I guess that he does not yet want to commit to the pot, and likely does not have a monster as he is happy to let the BB also call. If he gets checkraised by the BB he can re-evaluate in position. The BB chooses to fold however, and we see the turn HU.

*** TURN *** [5c Qh Jh] [Ad]

The Ace is a great card for me here. Sure it gives the nuts to my opponent if they were calling with KT, but this hand is unlikely since I hold 2 Tens . It doesn't help hands like TP or 2P unless they also have top kicker, or the unlikely OESDs, and only really aids the nut flush draw. If they were in fact calling with AhXh then they just improved dramatically, but will still be wary of 2 pair or a set. As I recognise that the nuts is unlikely here, I decide to try and check-raise and put pressure on my opponent who could easily be floating with a weak hand or draw.

A slow-played monster will likely push here when check-raised, as will the (unlikely) nuts, along with AhKh. I expect that a check-raise will be called with hands like AK, QJ orAhXh and will cause all weaker hands to fold. Also, since I will essentially be bluff check-raising here I make sure I have at least some outs to make the nuts on the river.

Hero - Checks
Villain - Bets $120
Hero - Raises $282 to $282

So I check, and my opponent bets nearly 3/4 pot. He knows the Ace is a scare card, and my check after having a c-bet smooth called will often mean I am giving up on the pot. However, I check raise 1.5x and now he must consider my range. He can probably discount KTs from my range as it is a little weak for me to open UTG. A set of Qs, Js and 5s are all possible, and would all be feasibly played this way. Just as likely is AQ for top 2 pair, which would neatly fit with the action so far.

Villain - Calls $162

My opponent thinks and calls, so I can now narrow his range to AK, QJ and AhXh with a fair degree of confidence, and rule out all sets, the nuts, and AhKh. Since I have already thought about what a call will indicate, I am much more confident about the hand going to the river.

*** RIVER *** [5c Qh Jh Ad] [Qd]

Well, the river doesn't give me the nuts, and I'm completely crushed by practically all of my opponents range. Luckily, I don't look like I'm on a gutshot, and my opponent has no idea I was betting and raising with an underpair. The Q pairing the board not only lessens the chance of my opponent having a Q, but (since I was representing either a set or top 2 pair) turns what my opponent thinks is my most likely range into a full house. Knowing this and also that anyone with a full house would normally bet for value on the river, I do exactly that - being careful of course not to bet too much and risk appearing like a bully. A 2/3 pot bet seems appropriate, and also if I have completely messed up my read I'm not throwing away too much money. The result is most satisfying:

Hero - Bets $480
Villain - Folds
Hero - returned ($480) : not called

Of course, I could have gotten very lucky to win the 3 hands that I did by catching my opponents on pure bluffs. I like to think however that it was more due to focussing on the action and logically reasoning about my opponents hand and also about what they thought my hand was. Either way, if you concentrate hard during a hand, try to put your opponent on a hand and also consider what they think you may have, you cannot help but become a better player.

All the best at the tables, apologies again for going dark for so long. The next post is coming soon....


The Poker Meister said...

First hand, shoving with AKo: what is the motivation behind shoving instead of checking / betting 1/4 pot, etc.? I submit that you were not critically thinking here:

A. Going with checking it down: if you bet here, you are only getting called with better hands and have misread your opponent. You even say in your post that you expect him to fold. Why risk a bet here when there is true doubt of a call?

B. Betting 1/4 pot or something less than your all-in: you got no value for the bet. Perhaps a little final bet would lead your opponent to sense weakness and shove himself as a bluff? You've already established he has complete air; if he over-shoves, you've now got his last bit of money, and since you accepted that an all-in bet is fine, then calling his all-in is equally fine.

I'll admit that I have a lot of trouble doubling through someone; the hardest thing for me is gauging how much someone will pay to call with the lesser hand. However, betting too little, although not extracting max value, is getting some value - whereas you have extracted no value on your river.

Fuel55 said...

Good stuff - the $480 bet in the last hand is a little suspect - sure would like to know what he folded here but called the turn with?

SubZero said...

Hey Pokermeister, thanks very much for reading and leaving a comment.

In the hand you mention, I'm betting the turn to protect my hand, hoping he'll fold all his draws or call with a weaker TP hand.

I have invested about $150 in the pot and I don't want to give a free card to an inferior hand - any club landing could beat me, as may a Q, J, T etc. Since there is about 290 in the pot, it makes no sense to me to bet less than full pot because I'll effectively be committing myself to call any non-club river my opponent shoves.

Say I bet 100 (1/3 pot) to 'get some value' and get called. If the river comes a non-club Q J or T and my opp shoves, it's now 185 to call in a 490 pot. Maybe I'm still ahead, but more probably not. If the river comes a club, and my opponent shoves, I can't call with TPTK and have cost myself an extra $100 by letting my opponent draw profitably. Even if he doesn't shove, with 4 clubs on the board I'd have to check it down and expect to lose to a weak flush or 2pair+ about 1/2 the time.

In this spot, I have to put my money in while I know I'm ahead, and if my opponent wants to draw with a weaker hand I'll charge him the maximum.

The Poker Meister said...

You know what - I didn't read it fully; I thought you were all in on the river. I'm sorry; I misread the hand history.

SubZero said...

No sweat, made me double check my thinking. Glad it makes sense...