By Tony Guerrera
It’s happened to all of us. We get a big hand, and our hearts race. We can’t stop thinking about the mounds of chips about to come our way. Poker is supposed to be fun, and the adrenaline rush that comes when we hit a big hand is certainly fun. However, save the adrenaline for the ESPN X-Games. If you succumb to it, you won’t make nearly as much money as you could.
Think of the short-term versus the long-term. Living in the moment at the poker tables may result in flashes of poker-playing ecstasy; however, buckling down and playing perfect poker will result in you being able to reflect forever on your brilliant play. And the increased profits you’ll enjoy from such play will just add to your happiness!
Having the Nuts Doesn’t Automatically Entitle You to Your Opponents’ Stacks
Perhaps the biggest problem arising from becoming excited about a big hand is that we stop reading our opponents. We go into autopilot, and unfortunately, that autopilot can sometimes steer us away from the monster pot that we got excited about in the first place. Instead of playing our monster hands just perfectly, we end up playing our monsters in the way that gets us the least value. The net result: monster hand; huge expectations, miniscule pot.
We all focus on reading our opponents when we have vulnerable hands. To play poker above the rim, we need to apply this same focus when we have the absolute nuts. Of course, playing above-the-rim poker doesn’t guarantee that we’ll stack our opponents every time we get the nuts. Sometimes, our opponents simply have cards that prevent them from giving us action no matter how we play the hand. Therefore, we need to shift our thinking a tad. Instead of thinking about how to win a huge pot, we should think about deducing the line of play that will extract the most value in the long run (most value could be stacking our opponents for 200 big blinds, but depending on the circumstances, it also could be inducing a 4 big blind bluff on the river).
Finding the optimal line of play takes two steps:
- Putting your opponents on hand distributions
- Putting your opponents on action distributions
For straightforward opponents, the relationship between hand distributions and action distributions is strong. For tricky opponents, you need to factor bluffing lines of play into the action distributions; in other words, the relationship between hands and actions exists, but it’s weakened because of the possibility of creative play.
Suppose you’re playing in a fullhanded no-limit hold’em game with $1-$2 blinds. Preflop, action folds to you, and you raise to $8 from middle position with A♦K♣. The button calls, and the two blinds fold. You’re heads-up going into the flop, and the pot contains $19. The flop is A♦A♥K♠. Both you and your opponent have $150 remaining. What do you do?
If you said, “I’m so excited, I’m just going to push all-in and hope my opponent calls with AQ,” then you’re wrong and should reread everything written so far in this article. If you said, “I have the deck crippled, so I’m going to check,” you’re also wrong. The only correct response is, “we need to know more about the button before deciding the best line of play.”
If your opponent is hyper-aggressive and is apt to raise suspected continuation bets, then perhaps your best line of play is to bet into him on the flop, call his raise, and then attempt a check-raise on the turn. If your opponent is the type who most likely has AQ but will shut down in the face of aggression because he’s scared of AA, KK, or AK, then your most profitable line of play will either be to lead out on all three postflop betting rounds with bets that are small with respect to the pot, or to check/call your opponent all the way down to the river.
Let’s take another situation now. Suppose you have 8♠7♠, and the board is 4♠5♠6♠T♠2♦. The way you play this hand will be largely dependent on what cards you think your opponent has. If you think your opponent has the A♠ and will raise if you bet, it doesn’t really matter how you play the hand; you’ll usually always get all the money in on the river. However, suppose your opponent doesn’t see value in raising with his A♠, figuring you’ll only call with a straight flush. If that’s the case, you need to find the largest bet your opponent is willing to call with his A♠. Sometimes, this bet will be an all-in, even if the all-in is a substantial overbet. Other times, it won’t be. The thinking required in this situation is similar to the type of thinking required when the board is double paired, and you have a full house better than the one made by simply holding a card of the same rank as the highest board pair (example: you hold KT, and the board is KTT55).
As long as you remember to take the time to think about your opponents’ hand and action distributions when you have the absolute nuts, you’ll be in the proper mindset to make the most money as possible. Let’s now assume that you have a huge hand, but it’s not the absolute nuts. In that case…
Getting Excited With Big Hands Is a Quick Way to the Rail
Getting excited about a big but vulnerable hand is a great way to allow your opponents to extract money from you. First, if your opponents pick up on your excitement, then they will be keen to become involved in a pot where they are getting huge implied odds to catch up to your hand. Consider the following situation:
Preflop, you have AA in a $1-$2 no-limit hold’em game where everyone, including yourself, has something on the order of $600 in front of them. Seven players have called before it’s your turn to act. Your neck vein is pounding and your hands are trembling as you put in your chips and declare “raise” and put in $25.
The excitement you are showing tells your opponents that you have AA or KK, and because your opponents know that you’re emotionally attached to your huge pocket pair, they can enter the pot with all sorts of hands, knowing that they will take your entire stack if they hit two pair or better. Playing profitable no-limit hold’em is, in part, about maximizing your implied odds and minimizing your opponents’ implied odds. Letting your opponents know that you’re excited minimizes your implied odds and maximizes your opponents’ implied odds.
The other problem with becoming excited with vulnerable hands is that you can fail to notice the warning signs regarding your big hand being beaten by an even bigger hand. A classic example of this phenomenon is when you have AK and the board is AAQ. Many players holding AK in this scenario go broke after action is raised, reraised, and reraised on the flop, and they discover that their tight, normally passive opponent holds AQ. Two other classic examples of this are situations from the previous section.
If you hold the A♠ on a board of 4♠5♠6♠T♠2♦, betting or raising for value is a tricky prospect if you’re facing someone who might not even call your raise with the K♠. Certainly, if you do bet or raise for value, and your opponent goes back over the top, you need to reconstruct the hand and your opponent’s tendencies to debate whether he has a straight flush. You can’t automatically be willing to get all your chips in with the A♠ here.
If you hold AT, the board is KTT55, and your opponent makes a huge overbet into you; or if you raise your opponent who then goes back over the top of you, then you have to seriously consider the possibility of being against KK, 55, or KT. Most opponents online won’t make huge bets if they are expecting you to call for a chop; they don’t want to pay the extra rake, and they don’t see any upside to the bet. Against heavy action or reraises on these types of boards, you need to pause and think before simply throwing your chips in.
Zen and Poker
Being excited when you have unbeatable hands prevents you from taking as much money from your opponents as you should. Being excited when you have beatable hands costs you money because your opponents become aware of their increase implied odds, and you become dissociated from clues that tell you that your big hand is beaten.
Excitement is fun, but you need to be disciplined to have long-term success at poker. If you stay emotionally disciplined while playing, you’ll find that your results will improve.
Let poker evolve from being an emotional roller coaster to being a prolonged zen-like experience. The more zen-like your poker mentality is, the more profitable your game will be. And in the end, you’ll find that regularly cashing out of games with several racks of chips feels far better than the feeling you get when you look down to see AA.
Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker By The Numbers and co-author of Killer Poker Shorthanded (with John Vorhaus)
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