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Showing Strength

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: Mar 05, 2014

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Andrew Brokos
“I know you have it, but I can’t fold this.” How many times have you heard your opponents say something like that? Probably you’ve even said it yourself a few times, in your head if not out loud.

The truth is that most people have trouble folding strong hands. No matter how clearly the writing is on the wall, people just can’t believe they’ve been coolered, and they insist on seeing it for themselves. My theory is that when they see strong hands, poker players get emotionally and psychologically invested in them. Instead of thinking about what their opponents might have and what the best play would be, they start fantasizing how much they are going to win. By the time they see the signs that they are beat, it’s too late to change their mental course.

Regardless of the reasons for it, this tendency has some important implications for how you play. The first is that you shouldn’t try to make people fold really strong hands like trips, straights, or flushes except under extraordinary circumstances, such as when there are trips or a four-card flush on the board. You probably knew that already.

The second is that when you can beat a lot of very strong hands, you shouldn’t worry too much about how obvious it is that you have a monster. Instead, focus on shoveling money into the pot, and let your opponent worry about coming up with justifications for a call. More often than not, he’ll find some.

My friend Carlos missed out on a good opportunity to take advantage of this recently. He was playing in a very loose $1-$2 no-limit hold ‘em game. Most of the players in the game are lawyers and other professionals for whom the money at stake is practically trivial. They are there to gamble and have fun.

Carlos, however, is a small-stakes grinder on an extremely limited bankroll. Consequently, his play is squeaky tight, and everyone in this game knows it. Even so, they have trouble acting on that knowledge.

The hand in question began with Carlos opening from two off the button for a $15 raise holding A-K offsuit with about $400 behind.

The small blind (SB), one of the tighter players in the game who had shown some propensity to adapt to Carlos’ nittiness, called. The big blind (BB), whom Carlos describes as loose, aggressive, and somewhat drunk, called as well. My friend indicated that both players have wide calling ranges preflop, and that the BB in particular would call with any ace.

With $45 in the pot, they saw an A-J-5 rainbow flop. The blinds checked, and Carlos checked behind. His reasoning for the check? “I hadn’t been continuation betting on a lot of bad boards that night, and whenever I checked, the player in the SB would lead the turn, realizing I had given up. Also because I am so tight, a flop bet would look exactly like what it was to these guys.”

Already, our hero is falling into the trap of giving his opponents too much credit, but I’m not going to dwell on this too much because there’s a real doozy coming later. Let’s just acknowledge that even if these players recognize that Carlos has a good hand, they probably aren’t going to just check and fold top pair. Besides, calling a turn bet will announce more or less the same thing: that Carlos got a piece of the flop.

The turn was another ace and did not create any flush draws. The SB led out as predicted, betting $35 into the $45 pot, the BB called, and Carlos called as well. A raise might well be preferable, but calling now and betting or raising the river is viable as well.

The river was a trey, and here’s where our hero really dropped the ball. The SB checked, the big blind bet $50 into the $150 pot, and Carlos just called.

Not raising here is simply criminal. My friend’s concern was that, because he is known as an extremely tight player, especially when a lot of money is involved, it would be obvious that he had a huge hand.

That much is true. In all likelihood, everyone at the table would say, or at least think, “Wow, he must have a huge hand.”

The question is what are they going to do about it? Is the loose, tipsy player in the SB really going to fold trip aces?

Granted there’s a chance he might, but there’s very little downside to a raise since Carlos almost certainly has the best hand. The remote chance of someone laying down an ace has to be weighed against the — in my opinion, even more remote — chance of the SB checking a full house on the river, or the BB betting just one third of the pot with one.

Carlos also tells me that the only options he considered were calling or shoving, which is another mistake. Even if you believe that a shove won’t be called by many worse hands, raise something. There’s no way the BB would fold an ace to a minimum raise getting 6-to-1. In fact, he could easily call with a jack.

Most people play their own cards most of the time. Few players have the presence of mind to read their opponents’ hands rigorously and even fewer have the discipline to act on those reads, especially when they call for a big laydown.

Taking full advantage of this mistake means staying one step ahead of them. When your opponents can’t see past their own cards, you need to look past yourself and think about their cards as well. Bluff when you think they have weak cards but yours are weaker. Value bet big when you think they have strong cards but yours are stronger. In these extreme cases, don’t worry so much about what you’re representing, because most of your opponents aren’t thinking about that anyway. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He blogs about poker strategy on ThinkingPoker.net and is co-host of the Thinking Poker Podcast. Andrew is also interested in education reform and founded an after-school debate program for urban youth.