Friday, May 18, 2007

Poor Play In NLHE

Having not posted here since February... a minor poker update might be called for before I get to the actual subject, a companion post to Smart Play In NLHE.

I'm still playing quarter/half short-handed NLHE online working on that $2k bankroll I'm forcing myself to have before moving up to .5/1. I'm showing an earn rate of ~$3.50/hour, and although I still think this can (and should) be more, hey, it's positive. (Quitting sessions when things sour would probably boost my earn by a dollar or more.) Live results in tournaments have been mediocre, as those things tend to be, with typically strong positive showings in cash games.

Once you've been thinking about poker and seriously playing poker for a few years, there usually isn't a whole lot that can happen in a given session, or month, or maybe even year that seems all that exceptional (hence the relative lack of post around here... I assure you I've been playing). In the beginning, you're learning new concepts with every session... later those concepts become solidified and redefined and there's still a new thing here or there to pick up. At some level of poker maturity and development, new ideas plateau out and are few and far between. This is the "learning curve" poker players talk about.

With that said, most of my own gains (in both experience and profit) in the last few months are due less to technical progress, and more to personal progress like improved concentration, discipline, etc. I've talked many times about the players who you will see playing smart, tight, solid poker for 2 hours, and who blow their whole stack on one poorly timed and poorly played bluff or similar play. They have the technical skills to win, just not the self-control. Playing optimally, means playing optimally on every hand.

So, that brings me to the hand I'd like to examine in depth... balancing recent posts out by showing a hand that I lost money on and that I misplayed, that really touches on some key aspects of playing optimal NLHE, and some common leaks and traps.


I'm sitting on ~$150 after a set of fours held up against a nut flush draw. (Beware good results in a session like this... it can seem consciously or subconsciously like "hey I'm going to book a positive session here, I can gamble some". This can be a serious leak.)

I'm under the gun with JJ, and make a 4xBB raise to $2. The player behind, who I've seen long enough to know plays tight and very solid values (and almost never raises or re-raises preflop, re-raises to $6.75 of his ~$50. Everyone else folds. This is the critical point in this hand for me: I can be at least 80% certain that I'm against AA, KK, QQ, or a mild possibility of AK.

Checking the odds will reveal that it would cost me $4.75 to call, into the $9.50 pot, or 2:1 pot odds. Now here's the problem, and this did cross my mind at the time: There's really only one flop that I can feel good about, and that's one that contains a Jack. If I would hit it, my opponent has ~$44 left that I may well get. For $4.75 more, I have a 7.5:1 chance of getting $44, or just over 9:1 implied. Calling is viable here but... The real problem (if you're still following me), is the danger of the flop containing cards all Ten or lower. I'd have flopped an overpair (hard to let go, even for experienced players), and would likely still be very far behind in the hand, to my opponents presumably bigger pair. On the whole, taking the flop here isn't bad, so long as you are completely committed to laying the hand down unless a Jack flops.

In reality, I called, saw a Seven-high flop, and checked my overpair. My opponent bet $11.50. In some breakdown of discipline, fueled partly by the well-ingrained pattern of picking off continuation bets (even out of position), I called. Of course at this point going to the turn, I know I can't bet out (as I might normally here to complete the pick off), because habit has thankfully been replaced by conscious thought, and that thought is still saying I'm way behind to a bigger pair.

He moves in on the turn (a Ten), and I quickly and wisely fold. This wasn't a huge mistake from a financial standpoint (I lost $11.50 more than I should have), but:

1. Losing $11.50 seems insignificant, but when your earn rate is $3.50/hour, it represents 3+ hours of play.

2. It was a blatantly stupid error. I knew what I was against. I knew what I had to do. I didn't do it. At few points in NLHE are you this certain of your opponents hand, so by all means, listen to the certainty, and make your errors on the tough decisions, not the easy ones.

This hand is also particularly interesting, because it's precisely the type of hand that many players will lose large on, and will take comfort and consolation in saying "What could I do? I had an overpair. It was just bad luck/timing to run into a bigger pair." ---when you can see from the analysis above that the player not only had every opportunity to back away from the hand, but had nearly every reason to as well.

Hopefully the analysis above drives home three old poker adages:

1. "Bad players pick their hands, good players pick their spots". This was a bad spot, even if an overpair is usually a profitable hand.

2. "Don't throw in good money after bad". I realized instantly that I had made an error, and corrected it by folding as soon as possible. Being stubborn is a good way to be broke.

3. "Stop small errors while they're still small". In poker, one seemingly-insignificant or loose call early in a hand can lead down a path to disaster. Many times once you're in a hand, it basically plays itself (i.e. a hand you're not going to get away from), but there are subtleties in knowing what hands and what spots may lead to possible trouble. You can't fear demons at every turn in a poker game and expect to do well, but with the relatively small implied-odds equity in the hand above, not to mention the possibility of set-over-set (or my opponent getting away from his hand at some point, drying up my implied odds), perhaps the best play was a pre-flop fold.