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Tough Decisions Are Part of the Game

The right play is not always apparent

by Roy Cooke |  Published: May 21, 2008


Sometimes this poker stuff just ain't easy. Decisions aren't always clear. The right thing is not apparent. All you can do is make your best play at the point of decision, based on the information you have available, and let the results be what they will. And when you turn out to be wrong, just suck it up and play the next hand.

Correctly adjusting one's play to one's opponents is often what separates great players from mediocre ones. That said, it's not always easy to do! The range of variables is often so wide that it takes deep on-the-spot analysis to arrive at the best play. Sometimes, even for experienced, knowledgeable players, the play choice is just a best guess!

The $30-$60 limit hold'em game was on. A drunk maniac was firing the game up, creating massive action and winning more than his fair share of pots. A weak-playing tourist was seated to my left, stuck to the gills and definitely emotionally affected by his losses. He had just lost the last two pots to Mr. Maniac, who made his hand on the river both times, and Mr. Stuck Tourist was infuriated as hell!

A weak-tight player limped in and, predictably, Mr. Maniac raised! He loved to raise and loved to play his "Doyle" (the hand after you win one). His range of hands was somewhere between 3-2 offsuit and A-A.

I looked down to see the K Q in the small blind. Often, I will three-bet this holding to a light raiser from the rear, but in this case, I had little value in being aggressive, as I would probably need to make a hand to win and I had no read on what Mr. Maniac held, I had other opponents to contend with, and I lacked position. I called. Mr. Stuck Tourist, who, while he played almost every hand, seldom preflop raised, three-bet out of the big blind. I thought it likely that he held a strong hand, but I also entertained the possibility that he was raising out of "tilt" toward Mr. Maniac. We all called!

The flop came down 8 5 3. Mr. Stuck Tourist led and was called by both of the other players; it was to me, getting 15-1 and closing out the action with two overcards and a backdoor-flush draw. That said, while the pot was an easy overlay, assuming any improvement was good, because Mr. Stuck Tourist had three-bet preflop, the likelihood of my improving and making the second-best hand was high. If he held A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K, or A-Q (or, if another opponent had me drawing thin), I might just improve my hand, only to lose more chips. That said, 15-1 is long odds, so I tossed in $30, unsure of how I would play if I improved my hand.

Bang! The Q hit, putting two diamonds on the board and giving me top pair, king kicker. I checked, looking to get a read on Mr. Stuck Tourist, who, predictably, bet. I could now read the actions of my other opponents before making a decision. The weak-tight player folded and Mr. Maniac raised!

Now I had a dilemma. Mr. Maniac's range of hands was all over the place, such as a set, two pair, a flush draw, a better or worse queen, or even a naked bluff. It was a tough spot. I might have Mr. Maniac beat or I might not, and I didn't necessarily have Mr. Stuck Tourist beat, either, although there were many hands he would bet that I could beat in this spot. The pot was big, $660, and was laying me a big price; making an incorrect laydown and folding a winner would be a large error. I was lost in my read and guessing about my correct play. I called, fearing the error of folding would be worse than any lost bets.
Mr. Stuck Tourist reraised. Now, I thought I was in trouble. Mr. Maniac instantly folded. He had been bluffing. Now there was $840 in the pot, laying me 14-1. Even if I had only three wins, the call was close and I might have five. Then again, I might have zero. I thought that with the emotional demeanor of Mr. Stuck Tourist -- total tilt -- there was some chance that I held the best hand. Blending everything together, I thought it was close. I called, blanked the river, and paid Mr. Stuck Tourist off, who held A-Q.

This hand speaks to playing in very fast and loose games, which tend to be very hard to read and put lots of chips at risk in every decision. I took off a turn card when getting a huge price and just found myself getting into more trouble after making a hand. The combination of the unpredictability of my opponents and the size of the pot caused me to get pot-stuck, and to make decisions that trapped me into more bad situations. At the end of the hand, I wondered how I had gotten myself into that situation. On reflection, I still do! That said, the scenario that presented itself didn't have to be the scenario that played out, as the range of hands out against me could have been very different.

I question my decisions on every street, but believe they weren't nearly as bad as they looked in hindsight. Should I have three-bet preflop and maybe picked up a better read? Should I have taken one off on the flop when getting a good price yet knowing it might be trouble? Should I have folded on the turn when it was raised, knowing that I must beat two hands, yet also knowing that my opponents' holdings might be very weak? Should I have folded when three-bet on the turn? Should I have mucked on the river with the pot so huge and an emotionally upset and unpredictable opponent? These are all tough questions in a big pot in which pricing versus mistake costs are sizeable.

You should always analyze your plays after the fact, right or wrong. Never let the results be the determining factor in your analysis. And always have the confidence that you're playing the best that you can.

Roy Cooke has played more than 60,000 hours of pro poker since 1972, and is also a licensed real estate broker/salesperson. His longtime collaborator, John Bond, is a freelance writer in South Florida. Their latest book is How to Think Like a Poker Pro. Please see Roy's real estate ad on this page.