The Table Mindset:
Let’s discuss nine poker hands I experienced at Talking Stick Casino last month, as well as the thoughts that went along with my decision making process. But first, you must understand the approach by which I take when seated at a poker table. I am not a GTO player; as an old school guy, I lean heavily on exploitative poker, even in tournaments. I’m looking for weak players at the table who make mistakes that I can easily exploit. Here is a short list of some of the things I am watching for: “Which players are limp-folding to raises? Which players are overvaluing top pair. Which players are raising with marginal hands then folding to a 3-bet? Which players are married to their poker hands, unable to fold even when it’s obvious that they are beat? Which players are calling stations, in every hand, hoping to hit flops. Which players are opening a lot, out of position, with weak hands? How are players responding to raises, how many players tend to call raises with marginal holdings, and what is the table’s pain threshold for preflop raises to narrow the field.”
The list goes on and on, but it rarely takes more than a few orbits before I have a basic profile of each player at the table, with an idea of which players are playing standard poker and which are playing non standard poker. By the time we reach first break, I’m usually confident of the hand ranges I can generally assign to each player, and I relentlessly accumulate more information and data on players as the game progresses, even when I’m not in a hand. Example: If I see a player call and lose a big bet on the river with top pair on a straight or flush board against another player, I’m recording that information to use at a later time to increase my value bets on the river. My goal at the table is to identify which players I should be isolating to extract chips from and which players at the table I should be trapping or outright avoiding.
These are the situations I am focused on in a cash game and a tournament, not the actual hands I’m being dealt. Often, I will identify players who habitually raise preflop, then shut down when they miss the flop, folding to any sizable bet. At other times, I catch players being too aggressive, continuation betting too much, essentially paying players off who call their Ace-high c-bets. A common mistake we often make in poker is to only concern ourselves with our own hand value, ignoring all the other information at the table, which makes it very easy for an attentive player to narrow our hand strength to a polarized range, and exploit that range on extremely wet boards.
Hand 1: Pocket Deuces
Early in the tournament, I pick up pocket deuces in mid position. It’s the second blind level, a natural point in the tournament when I don’t mind set-mining with small pocket pairs. This was an especially good table where lots of players loved to limp into the pot to see flops. I was fairly confident that I could see a relatively cheap flop. I miscalculated a bit on this hand, as a player to my left raised 3xbb to 300 on 50/100 blinds. It folds around to the big blind, who calls. I’d seen the player to the left of me in lots of pots on the first blind level, and I knew he had a tendency to over-bet the pot on the flop. I didn’t have too much of a read on him or the true strength of his hand, so I knew I’d be calling blind, which is never a good idea. Still, I was certain that his tendency to grossly over-bet the pot could be exploited if I caught a set. Conversely, I would lose my stack also if I ran into set over set, which happens enough in spots like this that I had to at least be cognizant of the possibility. The big blind was a player who felt obligated to defend his blind no matter his holding, as I’d seen him win an earlier pot with 94 off-suit from a raised pot on his big blind. His range could be anything.
The flop comes J27 rainbow. Big Blind checks. I check. Original raiser bets 2100 for a big over the pot bet. I consider the best course of action to get stacks in. I was certain I would put in a raise, just wasn’t altogether certain how much at first, as I didn’t want to scare away pocket 10s or 9s, which could fit into a broad range of hands. Nothing about him or his play from previous hands gave me the impression of the guy being a truly savvy poker player, so I opted to do a classic minimum raise. Too often, players feel committed to calling a minimum raise, no matter the holding. Also, at least against amateur players, it allows me to extract both information and value from my great hands without forcing weaker hands out the pot. Nothing about the board scared me, as I didn’t imagine 10/9 or some random straight draw to bet so big. Top set would rarely bet so huge, even though huge flop bets was his forte.
He re-raised my raise, going all in with confidence. He was confident in his hand, polarizing his hand to an over-pair, or AJ at the least. I snap call and he turns over aces. When he doesn’t improve, I take down the pot.
Hand 2: King Queen Suited
I’m in the low jack with King Queen suited, facing a 3x raise from a player that I had a very good read on. He was a loose player, limping into virtually all the pots preflop. I had seen him raise twice before, once with Ak and once with pocket Jacks. He was very passive on the flop both times, allowing his competitors to realize full equity by tossing out incredibly small continuation bets on the flop. With the Ace King hand, he had minimum bet the flop into four players with top pair, top kicker.
Problem is, this time, he looked directly at the dealer when he announced his raise, making certain that she understood his intentions. This is a common thing I see amateurs do when they have monster hands. They are so filled with adrenaline, so afraid of any mistakes being made in their bet sizing, they will look and talk directly to the dealer to make certain that the anounced raise is both heard and acted upon. It was obviously Aces in my opinion. He bet 1,200 on 200/400 blinds. I could have easily laid King Queen suited down, but I loved knowing what he had, loved having position over him, and really loved that he had a tendency to make small continuation bets, meaning I could possibly see the turn very cheaply. I decided to go to war against a hand that was obviously pocket aces. I never imagined him capable of folding the hand, so my plan at the start was to see the flop and re-evaluate based on the size his continuation bet and the amount of equity the community board offered me.
I call the bet. The player on the button called as well. As I mentioned earlier, the table was calling raises light–just as I had–so I had no idea what the button cold called with. I told myself to be hyper aware of running into small sets on the flop. With me believing that the original raiser has aces, and me having KQ, it doesn’t leave too many Broadway cards for the button to be calling with. Therefore, I was worried about pocket tens, jacks or small pairs. AK and AQ and AJ seemed a bit unlikely with me assuming aces to my right.
The flop comes KQT. Just as I’d hoped, the original raiser bet out 700. I’m so confident that he has aces that I want to isolate him with my two pair. My goal was to bet enough to get the button out the hand, but not so much that the original raiser would go all in. Aces had several outs on me, so I wanted to keep the pot regulated until the river, making sure I avoided any Jack, Ten, Ace, or paired board on turn or river that gives him a higher two pair. The board was very wet, and my hand was weak to a lot of turns and rivers. He’d never fold aces based on my reads, so I had zero fold equity. My only goal was to isolate him without overly inflating the pot. I raised to 1,600, slightly above a min raise. I didn’t want the button in this party.
Problem is, the button had his own ideas. He goes over the top for an all in raise to 6,400. The original raiser mulls over his decision, and then goes all in for 8,200. I am now left holding a worthless two pair and a well conceived plan that completely failed. Before I fold, I take a moment to consider if I’d make enough money with the side pot to recoup my losses from the button. I also take a second to imagine what the button has. He could easily have pocket jacks, pocket tens. I had the blockers to Kings and Queens: as both those hands seemed unlikely because of pre-flop action. I end up putting the button on pocket 10s and fold.
Turns out the button had flopped the straight with AJ. The original raiser indeed had pocket aces. I was happy that the button didn’t slow play his straight, costing me more money on the turn or river before alarm bells sounded in my head. The button snatched the pot, and I made myself pay more attention to the people to act behind me. I focused on every single move they made from that point on, determined not to get robbed in the dark alleyways of poker again.
Hand 3: 8-3 Offsuit
I’m in the big blind at 300/600. I’m second in chips at the table. After the King Queen loss, I stepped back and waited for better spots, determined not to get greedy again. Two calling stations limp into the pot, and the small blind completes. I’d seen these players limp and then fold to preflop raises all night. I hadn’t checked my hole cards before I decided it was a perfect spot to snatch the dead money in the pot. (A lot of times I will not look at my cards in the big blind when I’m sure it’s a great time to steal. I don’t want to stare down at 7/2 offsuit and then chicken out. Instead, I steal without knowing what my cards are, simply playing it as though I had Aces, without actually knowing what I have.) I re-raised to 2,700 and everyone instantly folded. I checked my hole cards before mucking to find 8-3 offsuit. I had seen these two players limp and then fold almost half a dozen times, so I wasn’t particularly worried about their holdings. These type players become predictable over times. They always raise their strong hands, and limp with speculative hands. If they aren’t raising, they don’t have a good hand, so you can almost always snatch their chips if you bet the right amount.
Hand 4: Ace Queen
As a rule, I rarely worry about stealing blinds in the early parts of a tournament, as it’s not enough money in the pot to warrant the risk. I usually wait until the antes, or until the blinds are big enough. I’m not sending my chips to battle over 25/50 blinds with marginal holdings and no information on their fold to a raise tendencies. Sorry.
At this point, I’d been playing at the table long enough to have a solid profile of the players. Mondo was at my table so I stayed clear of him and another solid player to his left. Both were playing solid poker, so I left them both alone. Instead, I singled out the easy targets. One player in particular, he’d been complaining all day about being card dead. He joked to other players about hoping he got a hand soon. He was a limp/fold type player who only raised premium hands. Poker is filled with players who think the game is only about the two cards in front of them, disregarding all the other information at the table and the different skill sets needed to be profitable over the long term. I singled him out once the blinds got bigger. I started stealing his blinds, religiously. Every orbit, his big blind was raised by me. He didn’t notice it at first. He would just look at his cards as they were dealt to him, and by the gestures and expressions on his face, I could deduce that he had a weak holding, so I’d raise his blind.
At one point he began to notice that it was me raising his blind, that I’d singled him out. I catch Ace Queen on his big blind this time and promptly raise again. I knew he was weak because of the expression on his face when he peeked at his cards. But he was feed up with me by now, so he almost angrily called. Just us in the pot. The flop comes 762, rainbow. I saw him almost consider checking, then thought about it and made a massive all in shove, Kamikaze style. He had only 5,400 behind, less than a fourth of my stack. I was certain he had something weird like Queen Ten or King Nine. I was so confident in my read that I almost called. I knew ace high was good at the moment, as this smelled like a frustration shove.
I ended up folding.
But I regret folding.
It’s the one move I made during the entire tournament that I regret the most. So much of my game is based off my reads from the table and the information I collect. I’m not an expert GTO poker player like many of the younger guys. I’m not a wiz kid with the numbers the way many online players are. My background is from old school, brick and mortar games where all you have is your past experience and wits. You have hundreds of thousands of life situations that you draw upon to make assumptions about the relative strength of an opponents’ holdings. If I’m not trusting my reads, I shouldn’t be playing. The question I ask myself now is this: “would I have called if he turned over King Ten face up?” The answer is yes. My read told me that he had something akin to that. He only went all in from frustration, from tilt at being card dead and me seemingly picking on his blinds. He was taking a stand against a perceived poker bully.
I hate I didn’t call. I’m the guy who has called down players on the river with ace high often when I’m certain they have missed flush or straight draws. I chickened out this time. I won’t next time. My entire poker game is reading people and human nature under pressurized situation. I apply pressure then read the results. This time I failed by not trusting my read. My justification was that it was way too easy to for him to have something sick like A2 or A6 or K6. Problem is, I knew–just KNEW–he didn’t. My profile of him was that he would have checked any pair on that board, THEN re-raised my c-bet if he had anything at all. The air shove was just so suspect.
He won the pot and I will never know what he actually had, even though I’m fairly certain of his range.
Hand 5: Ace Jack Offsuit.
I’m in the big blind. Mondo raises. He gets two cold calls before it reaches me. I fold instantly. I hate AJ as it plays poorly in raised pots. Too often I’m dominated to AQ or AK. I was out of position. I let the hand go and didn’t think about it again. Mondo’s AK won when an Ace flopped and none of the other players improved. Money saved.
Hand 6: Ace King Suited:
I’d been folding several hands when I look down at AK suited on the button. It was folded to me. I’d normally raise this hand, especially on the button. But before I could act, I had noticed the small blind preparing for a raise. He’d raised only a few times during the tournament, and always with pocket pairs that were always Tens or higher. I’d seen him re-raise preflop with pocket Queens also, always with the same gestures of cutting out raising chips before his turn to act, never paying attention to the rest of the table. I didn’t want a big pot without more information on his hand range, so I surrendered the betting lead to him by limping on the button. He raises 4x, the big blind folds, and I cold call. I didn’t want a big pot. I knew he had a strong holding, didn’t see any situation where he’d fold preflop, so I figured I’d make more money disguising the strength of my hand, and just trusting my instincts post-flop in position. Flop comes J42, with two clubs. He bets out the pot and I fold. I’m certain he would’ve 3-bet preflop had I open-raised, creating a pot bigger than I wanted, knowing the strength of his range.
Hand 7: Pocket Nines
In the big blind facing a raise and an all in re-raise for half my chip stack. I instantly folded. Players ended up having AK vs JJ. My nine would have found a set on the flop on a 9A7 board, but would have lost to a runner runner river flush to AK. I lucked out that JJ went all in preflop, as I certainly would have called the initial raise by AK. Money saved, as the competition would have never let go of top pair, top kicker on that flop, and the turn would have given him a nut flush draw along with his hand. I was supposed to have busted that hand, but JJ going all in over the top pre-flop saved me, by convincing me to fold. I got lucky that I didn’t see that flop.
Hand 8: AK Offsuit.
There’s a player at the table that I’ve been eager to get in a hand with. She’s over-valuing marginal hands and c-betting with air on wet flops. Her chips are dwindling. I want to isolate her when I get a chance. Problem is, Mondo and the other dangerous guy at the table has singled her out. They are snatching chips from her before I can get in the right situation to get in on the action. In one significant hand early in tournament, she raises big with A9 from under the gun, and then c-bets pot on flop and turn on a 7824 board, eventually sucking out on pocket jacks when an ace hits the river. The jacks allowed her to initiate and maintain betting all the way through.
I finally get my chance to dance with her when I find Ace King, facing a 5x raise from her. I can safely attack her chips now, without having to worry too much about the other sharks at the table taking a bite out of me. I consider a re-raise, but she has raised so much initially from under the gun that it would be over half my stack to do a 3x raise. I’m certain she has AJ or small pocket pair. The players behind me didn’t seem strong, (they would check their cards before their turn to act, so I always had an idea of who was strong or weak behind me), so I was confident that I could get a big raise through.
I decide to go all in. It folds to her, and she takes over two minutes it seems to finally act. The longer it takes, the more I want a call from her. Eventually, she starts staring at me and I avert my eyes as though intimidated by the stare, thinking she has Ace Queen or worse. I want a call from her based on the range I had her on.
She calls. She turns over pocket Tens. The absolute top of her range. Oooopps.
Ace comes on the flop. I feel relieved. I must avoid two outs.
I don’t. Ten comes on the river. I lose.
My mistake, however slight, is the fact I initially thought she was weaker than pocket 10s. I had assumed I was against AQ or AJ, based on past hands from her. My reading ability misfired there, as 10/10 was the strongest part of where I put her hand strength.
Hand 9: AA
I get moved to another table with two poker players from Tucson. I have no reads on the table so I’m cautious entering pots initially. I play one hand, pocket queens, win the pot, and go back to placing a profile on the players at the table and assigning hand ranges to their actions. Not long after reaching the new able, I’m dealt pocket aces under the gun. Before I’ve even looked at my cards though, I notice a gentleman directly across from me cutting out a raise. I peek at my cards, see two black aces, and decide to limp. I’m confident he’s going to raise. He’s only paying attention to his two cards and the chips in front of him.
After I limp, it folds over to him, and he raises. He raises really big, 6x the big blind. It folds back to me.
I begin trying to decide how to get stacks in. I’m not worried about anything but stacks. If I lose I lose.
I evaluate his demeanor and he seems committed to his hand. I begin selling doubt, taking a moment to double check my hand. I ask the dealer for a moment to think. My goal is to get him to call off his entire stack. I count up his raise; I look at the rest of my stack, as though I’m contemplating how much I’ll have left to play with. After a minute of “Hollywooding,” when I was convinced that he’d bought by act and that he would call an all in over-bet from me, I go all in.
He snap calls.
I immediately turn over my aces (to slow roll anyone is a cardinal sin in my book) and watch him embarrassingly reveal pocket Tens.
Everything in the universe was perfect. Until it wasn’t. He rivers one of his two outs, catching a Ten, sending me to the rail.
It’s a brutal game we play.
I’m only upset I didn’t call with Ace High in that petty hand from before.