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How to Begin a Session — Part I

Don’t play right away, and look for negative inferences

by Barry Tanenbaum |  Published: Oct 15, 2010

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Barry TanenbaumRecently, I was honored to be chosen to deliver the banquet speech for the BARGE convention in Las Vegas. BARGE is a gathering of knowledgeable and friendly gamblers who come together each August to play some tournaments and have general gaming (and other) fun. The ham in me loves doing speeches, seminars, and presentations. My topic was, “Some Poker Things You Should Always Do.” Since poker is almost entirely situational, I thought it would be interesting to find some “alwayses” to discuss.

The first topic discussed was how to start a session. I advocate caution in all things at the beginning of each new session, regardless of how often you play with the same gang. For this series of columns, I will elaborate on my points about this topic.

Here are the things that you should do when you sit down to a new session or table:

1. Don’t play right away.
2. Look for negative inferences.
3. Assess each player’s current state of mind.
4. Determine your table position.
5. Take fewer chances.
6. At no-limit, buy in for the minimum.
7. If possible, establish a positive image.
8. Decide which players to exploit and which to avoid.

Don’t play right away: If you get a chance to observe the table before you sit down, do so. If you play online, you often know at which of two or three tables you will be seated, and you can watch them all. Sometimes you can look at a live table or two, but that is often more difficult to do.

If your game requires a post, don’t make it; wait a few hands. You don’t even need to make up an excuse, although it can be fun to do so. Just say, “I’ll wait,” when the dealer asks if you’re ready.

You certainly can’t wait forever, but even a few hands can give you some general impressions of the game. Poker is a game of decisions, and the more accurate your decisions are, the better your results will be. Decisions are based on information, and the more information you can gather before you have to take any action, the better off you are.

Let’s say that you sit down in the cutoff and immediately decide to post. You get dealt K-10 suited. Everyone folds to you, and you (correctly) raise. The button three-bets. The blinds fold. Now, is the button the type of player who three-bets with only aces or kings, does he three-bet with any pair, or does he three-bet liberally with any remotely playable hand? You just sat down, and have no idea. As a result, you are flying blind. If the flop is 10-6-3, should you bet, check-call, check-raise, or check-fold? If you bet and get raised, do you have any idea what that means? How can you do anything except guess?

I generally hear two objections to this approach. The first is, “I play online and already have stats on all of these players.” That idea assumes that players play according to their stats, on average, which I do not believe. If you know that someone plays 14 percent of the hands when under the gun, it does not mean that is how he is playing right now. Maybe he plays 7 percent when he is winning and 21 percent when he is stuck.

In addition, you probably know accounts that on occasion two or more players use. A father lets his 14-year-old son play sometimes. A husband has to run an errand and his wife plays for a couple of hours. The stats that you see may be a composite of two or more totally different people. Is this fair? I doubt it, but it certainly happens.

The second objection is, “I play with the same people every week. I already know how they play.” Yes, you know in general, but people are not machines. They get angry, happy, hungry, anxious, or whatever, and sometimes go on tilt. They decide to extract revenge against another player for whatever reason. Watching the game and listening to the discussion for five or 10 minutes can give you insights that will help you decide what the current state of the game really is.

Look for negative inferences: What should you look for while you wait and watch? Most players look at the action, but you can create reasonable hypotheses about your opponents from what they fail to do, as well. In my next column, we will look at this topic in depth, but let’s take a quick look so that you can practice until then.

Look for things that provide an indication of a player’s tendencies. Let’s say that a new player takes the big blind in a $10-$20 limit hold’em game. A middle-position player raises, and two late-position players and the small blind call. Now, the big blind folds. He could be making the right play, but many loose players would call no matter what they held. So, you can figure that this new guy is not a very loose player. It is just an early guess, and could turn out to be wrong, but it’s a good start.

A new player sits down in a $2-$5 no-limit hold’em game and folds the first two hands. On the third, he open-raises to $17 and only the big blind calls. On the flop of A-8-2, the big blind checks and so does the new guy. The turn is a 9, and the big blind bets $15 and the new guy folds. You should notice that he did not make a continuation-bet heads up on an ace-high board. Maybe he continuation-bets only when he has something, and gives up the rest of the time. If he makes a continuation-bet next time, you probably should believe it until you see more evidence.

Do not get married to your first impressions, but they are a lot
better than nothing when you are looking for clues to help you make decisions. Of course, this requires that you pay close attention to the action, and even the inaction, when you are out of a hand. But what better things could you have to do than learn how your opponents play?

In my next column, we will continue to look at how to start a session, and will delve deeper into finding negative inferences. ♠

Barry Tanenbaum is the author of Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy, and collaborator on Limit Hold’em: Winning Short-Handed Strategies. Barry offers private lessons tailored to the individual student. Please see his website, www.barrytanenbaum.com, or write to him at pokerbear@cox.net.