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Do Ya Feel Lucky, Punk?

Part II: Will your opponent fire one, two, or all three bullets?

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Jun 11, 2008


I hope you read Part I of this column. If not, let me review the origin of the title and some key questions. In the aftermath of a shootout in one of the Dirty Harry films, Clint Eastwood has his gun pointed at a robber who is reaching for his gun. Eastwood says, "I know what you're thinking. 'Did he fire six shots or only five?' Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself a question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"

What does Dirty Harry have to do with no-limit hold'em? Not much, but counting bullets does. A player has to be aware of how many bullets are likely to be fired. Consider a bet on the flop as the first bullet. A bet on the turn is the second. The third bullet is the river bet. Question No. 1: Against a particular opponent, would you be willing to fire one, two, or all three bullets at a pot? Question No. 2: How many bullets does a particular opponent think you are willing to fire? Question No. 3: Will your opponent fire one, two, or all three bullets at a pot?

In this column, I want to look at Question No. 3. Your opponent bets the flop, the turn, and the river. Is there any chance that he is on a complete bluff or is continuing a semibluff that has missed twice? If there is a chance, you may have to call him with some pretty marginal hands. If his third bullet is fired only when he's holding "The Guns of Navarone," then you should be prepared to fold some strong hands.

Those of you who are used to playing tournaments will not appreciate the importance of making correct decisions on the river. After the first level or two, tournament players usually find themselves all in or at least pot-committed by the turn. In the later stages of most tournaments, players are frequently all in before the flop. Thus, you often don't have to worry about the first bullet. Most of the other hands consist of only one bullet being fired, usually on the flop, but occasionally on the turn or river. Many tournament players become really good at making these decisions. They are experts at knowing when to fold and when to shove (go all in) preflop. Some of these same players find themselves steady losers in cash games, and can't figure out why. The reason is that they make some major errors in dealing with the second and third bullets.

If you think these decisions aren't that important because they arise much less often than do preflop decisions, you are missing the point.These decisions are the key to deep-stack poker, because they involve a large percentage of your stack. Assume that you are in the big blind in a deep-stack cash game. The button makes a normal raise to three-and-a-half big blinds, and you call. The pot now has seven-and-a-half big blinds. On the flop, you check, and he bets the pot. You call, and the pot is now 21.5 big blinds. On the turn, you check again, and he bets 20 big blinds. You call, and the pot now is around 60 big blinds. On the river, you check, and he bets the pot again. You are now facing the third bullet -- a bet of 60 big blinds. Remember, this bet of 60 big blinds arose in a pot with only two players and no raises after the flop. It is very common for the pot-size bet on the river to be 100 big blinds or more. The reason that some cash-game experts seem to have atrocious starting-hand requirements and still win is that they make the right
decisions at the end very consistently.

There is an old chestnut of no-limit poker wisdom that states, "Don't play a big pot without a big hand." Unfortunately, it doesn't tell us what constitutes a big hand. Dan Harrington states in his excellent new book Harrington on Cash Games that big hands are sets and very strong draws. Note that top pair is not a big hand. Even overpairs are not big hands. They are hands that rate to be the best most of the time. Unfortunately, it frequently becomes clear that one player, usually the preflop raiser, has either the top pair or an overpair. This enables his opponent to get away from lesser hands and win big pots with better hands.

Conclusion and Recommendations: Question No. 3: Will your opponent fire one, two, or all three bullets at a pot? If he is the preflop raiser and fires the third bullet, you must have a big hand to call unless you have a strong reason to suspect a bluff. If your opponent will fire the third bullet only with a big hand, you can fold one pair with impunity. In today's world of high-action poker, especially in the small- and medium-stakes games, some players play one pair much too strongly. Against these players, you may be forced into playing some big pots with mediocre to good hands, like top pair with top kicker. Even if you take slightly the worst of it in making these marginal calls, you will be rewarded for your bravery in other ways: Your opponent will overplay his mediocre hands when you have a truly big hand. Thus, you may win only 30 percent-40 percent of your calls with top pair and a good kicker, but you will win 80 percent-90 percent of your calls with sets. The other reward for bravery is that your opponents will be afraid to bluff you. Once you remove bluffs from their repertoires, they will have no chance against you. You will know that if they fire the third bullet, they have a real hand. You will usually be a favorite when you call on the river. You'll no longer have to feel lucky, will ya, punk?

Steve "Zee" Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful games player. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at many major tournaments and playing on Full Tilt, as one of its pros. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A -- Nice Guy Eddie's on Houston and Doc Holliday's on 9th Street in New York City.