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Playing Against a Maniac

How to minimize losses

by Marc Karam |  Published: May 21, 2008


In small- or mid-stakes cash games, it's not uncommon to run into a genuine maniac -- someone who raises with any two cards, makes wild bluffs, and appears to have almost no regard for money. When you move into higher-stakes games, this type of opponent becomes increasingly rare. So, I was very surprised to find myself playing heads up against a genuine maniac online at a $100-$200 no-limit hold'em table recently. It was a crazy session with huge swings, but I think I managed to minimize my losses and maximize my profits. In this column, I want to look at a difficult hand I played during that session, and take you through my thought process and how my opponent's playing style influenced my decisions.

Here's the situation/hand:

I am on the button with $20,000 and my opponent is in the big blind with just over $60,000. We are heads up and I am dealt the J 10. I act first and raise $600 to a total of $800. My opponent calls, and we see a flop of Q 9 6. My opponent checks, and I bet $1,200. He calls. The turn is the 8 and my opponent leads for $3,200, and I flat-call. The river brings the K and my opponent leads into me again, this time for $7,200, and again I just call. He shows the 5 2 for a flush and wins the pot.

I believe that given my opponent's playing style, I lost the minimum on the hand. Here's my thinking on every street:

Preflop: I am in position, heads up, with high connected cards. I make a standard raise here against most opponents most of the time. His flat-call tells me that he probably does not have a monster hand, or even a pair, for that matter. Given his image, I put him on two random cards. In fact, since he has shown a propensity for reraising me with any kind of semiconnected cards, or facecards, or any pair, I conclude that he may very well have two rags.

His check on the flop indicates that he probably missed. The thing about genuine maniacs is that they bet all the time. They rarely ever slow-play, so it's unlikely to me that he is looking to trap me by check-raising. I flopped a reasonable draw, but given the two clubs on board, I don't want my opponent to see a free card. Usually, betting a draw can give you two ways to win the hand; either your opponent folds or you hit and show down the best hand. In this case, I don't anticipate that betting will cause my opponent to fold. He is crazy enough to call with just about anything, and look to take it away on the turn. So, I am actually betting for value. If and when I hit, my hand will be well-disguised, and I can probably induce a bluff or two from this guy on later streets.

Turn: The turn is a dangerous card because it gives me the nut straight and also puts a flush out there. I expected my opponent to lead into me here no matter what card came. So, his bet doesn't surprise me, but it also doesn't give me much information, either. Basically, he either has the flush or is bluffing. A lot of players would raise in this spot to get some information. The trouble with raising a maniac is that it rarely gives you much information, since he is libel to call or even reraise with very marginal hands. The last thing I want in this spot is to get reraised. It's important to force maniacs to show you their hand. Also, if my opponent is bluffing here, I want to give him a chance to fire another bullet on the river. Finally, given my assessment that he probably has two rags, I figure that if he did make a flush, it's probably pretty small and my J flush draw is live against him, so I opt to call.

River: The river here is tough. My call on the turn should have scared him a little. It certainly would raise a flag or two with a more straightforward opponent. But to a maniac, the call probably looks like weakness, and that I did it to try to induce another bluff, if he was bluffing. So, now it becomes a pseudo-mathematical dilemma. Including his bet, the pot is $17,600, and it costs me $7,200 to call. I'm getting almost 2.5-1 on my money. The question becomes, "What are the odds that he is bluffing?" In my mind, for every one time that he has me beat in this situation, there are at least three times that my hand is good. I've determined this based purely upon the way I have observed my opponent play. He is definitely crazy enough to pull a move here at least 75 percent of the time. I call, and lose. But, I believe it was the correct decision, in that over time, that same play should result in a positive expectation.

The trouble with maniacs is that they bluff so much that you often have to call them down in tricky spots. You must force them to show you a better hand; otherwise, you will be costing yourself money by letting them run over you. The key is to put yourself in a position to call them down by trying to keep the pots small when you have a vulnerable hand. If you manage to control the pot size, you can get away with calling them down more often and you will induce more bluffs from them over time. In this particular hand, flat-calling the turn enabled me to show down my straight as cheaply as possible. A raise on the turn would have been catastrophic. So, even though I lost more to this opponent than I might have to a more straightforward player, I definitely believe that I lost the minimum, considering the circumstances.

Marc "Myst" Karam is a Canadian poker pro who has won millions of dollars competing in major poker tournaments all around the world. Despite his tournament success, he makes his living primarily by playing online cash games on Eurolinx Poker at some of the highest stakes available.