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Target Practice

Awareness, planning, and execution

by John Vorhaus |  Published: May 06, 2011


John VorhausIn today’s capped buy-in no-limit hold’em games, the name of the game is taking your opponent’s whole stack. Tiny pots come and go … they don’t matter so much. But get yourself consistently on the right side of big confrontations, and you can rack up some serious coin. Fortunately, in the capped buy-in games we’re talking about, there’s no shortage of tasty targets to shoot at. The practice of picking off these targets — knowing that they’re there, and knowing how to set them up and take them down — is what separates the wheat from the chaff (and the chaff from their coin) in no-limit hold’em.

Target practice, as we’re speaking of it here, requires three things: awareness, planning, and execution. Let’s look at each in turn.

Awareness: By now, it should be second nature to watch what’s going on around you at the poker table, and to be highly sensitive to such fundamental matters as which players are strong and which are weak, who bets without the best hand, who gives off reliable tells, and so on. If you find that you lack a riveted understanding of who’s doing what at the table, the problem lies within … within your own awareness.

Heightening awareness is not really a matter of concentrating harder, although concentration doesn’t hurt. Rather, it’s a matter of being open and receptive to what’s happening at the poker table. In the best of circumstances, you’re acquiring meaningful information without conscious thought. There just comes a time when you know (because you have acquired understanding through awareness) that a certain player will make early-postion raises with bad aces, for example, and will then get hooked on the hand.

Planning: Once you’ve acquired key information, like the fact that a certain player bets bad aces, you enter the planning phase of your target practice. You ask yourself, what conditions am I looking for? What specific circumstances will enable me to take this guy’s whole stack? You already know what he needs: a bad ace in early position. What, then, do you need? Yep — a good ace in a better position. You also need to know what you intend to do with that good ace when you get it.

Most of the time, of course, you’d be in there raising, but in this situation, you’re hoping not to have to. You’re looking for the specific harmonic convergence of a targetable foe with a weak ace, you with a strong ace, and no one else in the pot. This last part is hard to contrive, especially without raising, but the circumstances will arise from time to time, and you want to be ready when they do.

Why not, you may wonder, go ahead and raise with your good ace here? Is it not the best hand, and won’t it serve to shut out the rest of the field? Yes, and yes, but it also may scare off your prey, before he’s had a chance to trap himself fully with his bad ace. Stick to the path of your planning, even at the risk of having the plan go awry through the unwanted involvement of others. (You’re still in there with an undisclosed good ace, so you’re not in terrible shape.) You flat-call his raise with your good ace, and hope that you get him heads up. If everything breaks your way, you’re ready to take a flop against a single foe with all of this going for you: cards, position, awareness, and planning.

Execution: Here comes the flop. Ideally, it’s something like A-4-4, the sort of flop that will embolden your foe’s bad ace while also reducing the risk that he hit his kicker. If you have your foe measured correctly, it won’t surprise you when he bets out. You also know such crucial things as how deep his money is, how deep yours is, how willing he is to cling to a bad ace, how wary he is of you, and other factors that, taken together, will tell you how to execute your plan. Will you flat-call now and raise on the turn? Should you make a modest raise here and hope that he reraises? Go all in and tempt him to commit his stack? Your specific actions will depend on the specific circumstances. Just make sure that they don’t depend on fear.

Fear, you see, will cause a lot of players who feel they have the best hand to raise all in, hoping to drive their foe off his hand and take what the pot has to offer. I am not of that mind. I’m out to win his whole stack, and I’m willing to accept a little risk (that he’ll hit his kicker on the turn) in the name of grabbing that stack.

Of course, if your foe is truly glued to his bad ace, you can go ahead and put his feet to the fire right now. Part of your awareness and planning, after all, was to contrive a confrontation against just such a foe who will make just such a mistake. So, you may be able to make a huge raise here and be confident of getting the call that you want. Contrarily, if the flop offers some sort of secondary threat, like suited or straight cards, you might want to protect your investment with a big bet here.

In all events, the key to execution is, well, executing. There’s no point in planning for a situation like this if you fail to follow through. In other words, why pick a target if you can’t pull the trigger? There will be times when you’ll back off because some sixth sense (actually, your simple awareness) alerts you that your foe is stronger than he seems. That’s OK — as long as your decision is informed by a clear perception of the situation and not colored by fear of negative outcomes.

There’s a secondary benefit to this triptych of awareness, planning, and execution: It puts your poker game into a global frame of mind. Instead of just lurching from hand to hand, betting your big hands and hoping they hold up, you find yourself strategically engaged in the game from the moment you sit down until the moment you cash out. Instead of reacting to situations, you’re creating them. Since these situations are creatures of your own creation, you’ll be much better equipped to handle them — and profit from them — than anybody else.

Feel like some homework? Try this: Go into your next no-limit hold’em situation with a little target practice in mind. Look for the union of awareness, planning, and execution, and see if you can use this union to steal a blind, induce a bluff, run a bluff, or create and then exploit other opportunities. When you start thinking about your poker in this way, you’ll take your game to a higher level, and a more profitable one, as well. ♠

John Vorhaus is the author of the Killer Poker book series and the poker novel Under the Gun. He resides in cyberspace at Photo: Gerard Brewer.