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A Hard Day at the Office

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In the first column I ever wrote in a poker magazine (“About Pot-Limit Play and Table Image”), I provided a short game plan, some sort of optimum strategy with which to approach most pot-limit Omaha games. I recommended playing tight, but also very aggressive, and explained the importance of making people fear you and of having more chips on the table than anybody else. The result would be that you’d win lots of pots uncontested, I argued. To be more specific, I gave the following seven guidelines for most PLO cash games:

1. Play aggressively. You must show your opponents you’re willing to put your entire stack in whenever you’re involved in a hand. Lots of times, your aggression will make others give up (unless they flop a great hand like top set or a wraparound-straight and flush draw), and you will win the pot uncontested. However, make sure you have more money than any other player at the table (that is, any player you figure to make money from in the long run). If you buy in for the minimum, people will fear you less and you will have to show the winning hand every time.

2. Call only when you’re setting someone up. Sometimes in pot-limit, you’re last to act on the flop, there has been a small bet, and, let’s say, two callers. You have a good draw, so you call because you have the proper odds, just like in limit poker. Sometimes this call is logical; sometimes it is right. Always consider your alternatives, though; always consider whom and what you’re up against. If you think there are no great hands out against you, this might be the time to make a big raise and blast your opponents off their hands. If you have a big stack and show the other players that you’re willing to put all of your money in the middle, the pot might end right there. In pot-limit, you have to bet or raise at some point in the hand, unless you’re setting someone up to bluff off all of his money. However, when making a call, always consider implied odds (How much extra money will you probably make if you hit your hand?) and bluffing rights (Can you bluff your opponent out of the pot if a scare card comes up?).

3. Play very tight before the flop. A great starting hand can, with a favorable flop, become a huge moneymaker. With an average hand and the same great flop, the pot won’t be nearly as big most of the time. Quality starting hands might also give you some escape hatches, some additional backdoor outs to get lucky and win.

4. Play your position. Position in pot-limit is much more important than it is in limit. In pot-limit, you will win lots of pots just because of your position and/or the weakness that is shown by players who’ve acted before you. If you have a good hand in position, you’ll make a lot more money than when out of position.

5. Always aim at the opposition’s entire stack. Don’t worry too much about trying to win small (unraised) pots. Instead, do everything you can to build a big pot when you have a hand that has the potential to flop something good, so that when this happens, you might break your opponent(s).

6. Put your chips in before your opponent puts his in. In Omaha, you often flop hands like the bare nut-flush draw or a small wraparound-straight draw, hands with which you may not be willing to pay off a pot-sized bet. Note the intimidation factor here. When you bet $200 into a $200 pot, and both you and your opponent have a $2,600 stack, you’re basically betting your entire stack. When he calls your bet on the flop, you might very well bet the turn ($600) and the river ($1,800). He may re-evaluate his hand, thinking, “Is this hand worth my entire stack?” and then decide to pass. Unless someone has the temporary nuts or a monster draw, you might win the pot uncontested. But when you check, someone else will certainly bet, and you may have to pass. Nevertheless, don’t be aggressive every time you flop some kind of draw, but when you do get involved, play aggressively, and most of all, make people fear you. Intimidating your opponents, coupled with utilizing the hand-reading and psychology skills I hope you’ve developed when moving up the ranks, will pave the way for you to become a successful pot-limit poker player.

7. Play the people and the cards. A favorite quote by action players in limit poker, whenever they win a pot uncontested, is: “Rocks play their cards. I play the players.” In pot-limit, you’ve got to play the cards and the players. Can your opponents stand the heat? Can they fold a good draw? Do they call with two pair? When you check, will they bluff? It may be correct to play exactly the same hand in a totally different way depending on whom you are up against.

The Strategy in Practice

It was not long after my column had been published that I was shown the downside of this strategy: When you lose, you might lose big. However, this was mostly because I was unable to apply these strategies in a correct manner. Here’s what happened:

The game: Pot-limit Omaha high/Texas hold’em (the button chooses), $500 buy-in, $5-$5-$10 blinds, ninehanded

The players: Five Dutch players without much pot-limit experience, two Danish players I hadn’t played with before, a tight Dutch player, and me

I bought in for $1,000, as did the tight Dutch player; all the others bought in for $500. During the first hour of play nothing much happened. I used this time to watch how my Danish poker online opponents played. There was one I had seen in Vienna a couple of times who didn’t play many hands and seemed comfortable with the pot-limit structure. His friend, who was sitting on my right, seemed a better hold’em than Omaha player (he lost a pot against a Dutch player who had been betting the pot all the way after the flop came K-K-J and who, sure enough, showed K-J and won). In my opinion, he didn’t have much pot-limit experience, but he played pretty tight and seemed like a serious player to me. I used this first hour to establish my image as a superrock and folded every hand. I didn’t make a single call during this time, nor did I complete any (small) blind.

Then I picked up A-Q-J-4 (Jhearts 4hearts) and completed the first small blind. Seven players took the flop, which came Ahearts Khearts 4. Even though this was a pretty fair flop for my hand, I decided to check rather than bet into the field. Everybody checked to the button (the young Dane), who bet the pot, $70. I figured I had a fair chance of having the best hand, and if not, I would have quite a few straight or flush outs. I figured the button was unlikely to hold aces or kings (considering the way he played, he probably would have raised preflop), so I decided to try to win the pot right there and raised to $250. A Dutch player in middle position called my check-raise (he now had about $150 left), as did, after some hesitation, the Dane. I didn’t like this. My hand was in danger of being second best in two ways. I figured the Dane for 4-4, A-4 with something extra (like my hand), but most likely A-K with nothing else (by the way he called, it seemed to me that he had some kind of made hand and wasn’t drawing). Now there was suddenly a big pot, with most likely the nut-flush draw out there (What else could the Dutch guy have?), and I was out of position with a hand I don’t like playing against two opponents.

The turn was an offsuit 6. I decided to try to use my tight image to blast the Dane out of the pot (Surely, he couldn’t call all of his money on a small set or two pair, could he?), and to play the probable drawing hand heads up: I figured he would have only seven flush outs — I also had two hearts — and maybe two or three outs for a gutshot straight. This decision turned out to be a huge mistake. I bet $700, the Dutch guy (with, indeed, the nut-flush draw) called all in for $150, but the Danish guy also called for his last $650, showing A-K-4-X, which made me almost drawing dead except for an offsuit 10 or a split-pot 4 (I also had a few flush outs for the side pot). The river was a blank and I lost a lot of money, having only myself to blame. I cursed at myself for playing my hand this badly. I thought the guy on my right would have been able to lay down his hand. I thought he was more observant about whom he was up against than he really was, so my bet on the turn was a huge mistake. But hey, I figured, my chance will come, so I bought in for $1,750 more, enough to cover everybody at the table.

Some more mistakes: Then, I got involved with Smile, the Dutch player who won that pot against the Dane with K-J, and whom I have a pretty good read on. This time I was in the big blind with A-J-6-5. We took the flop sevenhanded, 6diamonds 6spades 4spades. Because the players on my left would sometimes draw for flushes even with a pair on the board, and also to make possible overpairs pay to draw out on me, I decided to bet out $70. Everybody folded except for the button (Smile), who called. For sure he had a 6, possibly 4-4 or 6-4 (however, he probably would have raised with them, but maybe he wanted to wait until the turn). The turn was a 4, making two pair on the board. I bet the pot (figuring my ace kicker might be good if he had a 6), trying to make him pay as much as possible for his (maximum) nine kicker outs. He raised me $400 more, however, acting very strong. Most of the time when he acts like this, he has a good but vulnerable hand. I thought for a long time what course of action I should take. I chose to reraise him all in ($250 more), because if I called now, I would almost be forced to call on the river as well, even if I didn’t improve. So, if he had me beat, I would lose the same either way, but I would win more in case he could not beat my ace kicker. Now he had to think for a long time (it turned out he feared I might have quad fours), but he finally called, showing A-6, also. A 3 came on the river, which gave him a full house, so he won the pot. Although I was unlucky in this hand, I also played badly. Knowing my opponent, he would have bet the pot on the turn even with hands like 6-7-8-9 or 6-8-10-J. I should have check-raised him then, putting him under as much pressure as possible. The end result might have been the same, but by betting the pot on the turn myself (considering the money was pretty deep), I made it easy for him to call me if he didn’t have me beat, yet have some betting leverage left in case he improved on the river — and if he had me beat already, I would lose exactly the same in both cases. Bad play, Rolf!

No milk today: The following three hours, nothing much happened. I played four small pots and won three, and was feeling pleased with my game again. The Danish guys who had been pretty lucky during the first couple of hours had lost back most of the money they had won, and I was still down but playing well and feeling confident my chance would come. Then, the following hand came up. I was in the big blind with Aclubs 8clubs Jhearts 4hearts. There had been a small raise by the (other) tight Dutch player, who made it $20 from the button, and I called, as did five others. The flop came Jdiamonds 5hearts 2hearts. I had a pair, and a gutshot-straight and (bad) flush draw. I thought, however, that I might be able to pick up the pot, so I bet the pot, $140. The three guys in the middle folded, the button raised to $450, and the small blinds folded. What did the button have? Was he making a play at me? He might have three jacks (if he has three jacks, my flush draw will most likely be good since both of his jacks have to be non-hearts), but I also have a jack. A smaller set is very unlikely; he wouldn’t raise preflop with fives or deuces, and even if he has them, he probably won’t raise with them now, fearing top set and being almost drawing dead. (Remember, I bet into four players and into his raise, so he must give me credit for something good.) He may well have a suited (hearts) ace or king, and be trying to win the pot right away. So, I decided to call, and when the turn was an offsuit 8, I bet the pot, $1,040. I now had top two pair, a flush draw, and a gutshot-straight draw. I figured he would have to pass a suited ace or king now (calling would leave him a big dog), and could call only with top set (which was not too likely, since I also had a jack). He raised me all in $1,150, which, of course, I called. He showed J-J-10-10, the hand I feared (top set). Since he held no hearts, I still had 10 cards that would give me a winner (seven hearts and three threes), but unfortunately, I received no help.

Some Final Words

Pot-limit poker can be like this. Most of the time you get to play only two or three big pots a night, and if you get outdrawn, don’t get lucky, or simply play badly, the money will be gone. The main thing when moving up the ranks (like I’ve done) is to stay focused on some very important things: Always try to play your “A” game; don’t fall victim to the fancy play syndrome that afflicts lots of otherwise good players; focus on good and solid poker without getting too predictable; play only when the conditions are right; and, most importantly, don’t ever think you can stop learning. On that particular day (which ended up being the biggest loss I had ever experienced), I was unlucky, for sure, but I also made a few mistakes I shouldn’t have. I have tried to learn from them, and can honestly say that since that day, I have not been guilty of making those types of mistakes as often.