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Be Aware of Changing Conditions

Watch players’ behavior in specific circumstances

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: May 06, 2011


Steve ZolotowIt is very easy to become locked into a way of thinking about a game or a player. In Las Vegas, the high-limit mixed games have moved from Bellagio to the Aria, but I am still used to going to Bellagio when I am in the mood for live poker. Recently, I found myself at Bellagio playing $10-$20-$40 no-limit hold’em. Yes, there are three blinds. (I remember some games with three blinds years ago, but in those days, the smallest blind was on the button, while in this game, all three blinds are after the button.) The only player I knew well was Sorel Mizzi, and he left shortly after I arrived. There were also two stacks on the table without players. I think they had wandered into the sportsbook to watch the end of a basketball game. A well-dressed foreign gentleman, I’ll call him FG, took Mizzi’s place. FG, the new player, didn’t seem to have mastered either English or no-limit hold’em. In one of the first hands he played, he won a large pot after limping in with 8-5 offsuit from middle position, calling a large raise by a tight-aggressive player who had kings, and then flopping a straight.

Now, FG is in the big blind on his second orbit. The TAG [tight-aggressive player], who had just lost with kings, limps in, and I raise to 150 from the button. They both call. The pot is now 480.

On the flop, FG leads out for 300. TAG folds. I raise to 800. Now, a strange situation develops. FG asks how much I have left. I count out 1,200. It costs 500 to call, but since he already has 300 in the pot, the most he can lose is 1,700 more. He awkwardly counts out 1,700, and simultaneously pushes the 1,700 into the pot while saying, “I call.” The other players and the dealer burst into a lively discussion of which he did first. The floorman is called, and everyone starts explaining what happened, but some feel he said call before he shoved, while others feel the shove came before the statement. We have wasted nearly 10 minutes on this hand, and the floorman is starting to look confused. Assuming that the two events were simultaneous, how would you rule? I don’t know what the ruling should have been, but I finally suggested that he do whatever he meant to do — call or raise. Everyone accepted that this was fair. He elected to call. The rest of the money went in on fourth street, and I won the pot, but the game had now changed radically. TAG was on tilt. Everyone wanted to get into a pot with FG.

In the early days of psychology, there was a great deal of personality testing and analysis. People were often diagnosed as having a specific personality type or specific personality attributes. Now, psychologists tend to look at personality traits that manifest themselves in specific situations. A psychologist named Walter Mischel calls this “interactionism.” He treats a subject like a mechanic would treat a car. If there’s a strange squeaking noise, the mechanic tries to find out the specific circumstances under which it makes the noise. Does it occur when braking, when turning, only when going over 50 miles per hour, and so on. Likewise, we have to look at people’s responses under specific circumstances. What exactly has to happen to make someone extroverted or depressed? This type of research carries over to analyzing poker players. How do they behave in specific circumstances?

In the game I have been discussing, one tough beat converted the tight-aggressive player into a loose player. He was still selectively aggressive, but was limping in a lot more. A loss or series of losses often makes a player play worse, usually looser.

Players in cash games are often reluctant to break a big chip. For example, someone may have 12 $100 chips (black in Vegas) and a few $5,000 chips (red, white, and blue “flags” at Bellagio). He might call a $1,100 raise but fold to a $1,300 raise, because he doesn’t want to break one of his big chips with a marginal hand.

The important point to understand from all of this is that it is necessary to break down your opponent’s behavior into very small, very specific situations. There are players who are extremely tight when under the gun (playing the top 5 percent of their hands) and relatively loose as the first aggressor with the button (the top 30 percent). For most players, the difference won’t be this great (probably 12 percent to 24 percent). Yet, all of these players will play about 18 percent of their hands.

In smaller games, you will frequently encounter players whose first raise is a little bigger with a real hand. For example, in a $2-$5 blinds game, they will open for $15 with A-6, and $25 with A-K. Others try to be tricky and open for $15 with A-A, but $25 with 3-3.

I could continue to list patterns forever, but it’s necessary for you to watch the players in your regular game and learn as much about their behavior as you can. Just remember to be aware of how and when their normal patterns change. ♠

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 at Houston and Doc Holliday’s at 9th Street — in New York City.