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Shifts In Poker Strategy With Bernard Lee

Longtime Pro Breaks Down A Hand To Illustrate How The Game Has Changed

by Steve Schult |  Published: Jul 14, 2021


Bernard LeeIn the nearly two decades since poker experienced a boom thanks to Chris Moneymaker’s historic World Series of Poker main event victory in 2003, the strategy surrounding the game has evolved at a pace never seen before. With online poker jumping into the mainstream, the game’s best players were able to see more hands and develop more complex strategies to win. Bet sizing, aggression levels, and even something as basic as preflop hand selection have changed drastically since poker’s popularity exploded.

Only a handful of players have survived long enough in the game to witness these changes first-hand. One such player is long-time poker pro and media personality, Bernard Lee. Lee became a household name in the industry thanks to his deep run in the 2005 WSOP main event, finishing 13th for $400,000. After that score, he decided to leave his marketing career to take up poker on a full-time basis, and has continued to put up results over the last 16 years.

Jumpstarted by his deep run in 2005, the Wayland, Massachusetts native has racked up nearly $2.4 million in career tournament earnings, including three wins at the World Poker Finals at Foxwoods, as well as two WSOP Circuit rings, a victory in the inaugural RunGood Poker Series main event, and a runner-up finish in the $1,500 no-limit 2-7 single draw event at the 2017 WSOP.

Aside from his accomplishments on the felt, the 51-year-old has grinded just as hard in the media side of poker. He has been a columnist for Card Player and had his bylines in the Boston Herald, Metrowest Daily News, and on ESPN. He also hosts The Bernard Lee Poker Show, which recently celebrated its 14th anniversary.

D&B Publishing recently released Lee’s newest book, which is titled Poker Satellite Success! Turn Affordable Buy-Ins Into Shots At Winning Millions. The book outlines the strategies needed to win seats into larger tournaments through smaller buy-in qualifier events. The foreword was written by Chris Moneymaker himself, who famously turned his $86 satellite win into a $2.5 million score, and ultimately, a boom of the entire poker market.

To help illustrate the changes poker strategy has seen over the years, Lee sat down with Card Player, recalling a hand he played during a $600 no-limit hold’em preliminary event at Foxwoods back in 2010.

The Hand

In the first level of the tournament, a player in middle position limped in for 50 and Lee limped behind from the hijack. The player on the button then raised to 300 and was called by the small blind, big blind, the first limper, and Lee.

On the flop, action checked to the player on the button, who made a continuation bet of 850. Both blinds and the first limper folded, and Lee called. On the turn, Lee checked again. The button bet 1,200, and Lee check-raised to 2,625. The button moved all in for an additional 14,600, and Lee called. The river was a brick and Lee scored the knockout with his set of sixes.

Steve Schult: Let’s start with the preflop limping. There is a player who open limps, and you overlimp behind. Limping was very prevalent during this era of poker. Would you still limp behind if you could play this hand today? 

Bernard Lee: It was quite common back then to do that. Would I raise with sixes in today’s world? Depending on the table, I think there is a good chance. It would help eliminate some of the players and not allow the blinds to just come in. 

In that spot, with pocket sixes and five or six people in the pot, you have to hit a set or it’s worthless. At that time, six or seven people limping into the pot wasn’t that crazy. It really wasn’t. 

SS: What made people stop limping? 

BL: People got very fond of playing any two cards because they loved that bad beat story kind of thing. And I think people are slowly starting to play from more of a game theory optimal strategy. You’re not going to play 9-4 offsuit anymore. And you used to see that get flipped over in early levels all the time. 

I’m sure I fell victim to some of those things as well. Any two suited cards, even if they weren’t even close to being connected, stuff like that. You just don’t see that as much anymore, and you see more raising. 

I will say that when you have that large of a stack, like a 20,000-chip starting stack, and in some tournaments even more, your raises aren’t going to be big enough to get someone off of a hand if they are determined to play that hand. If someone is determined to play 7-6 suited, it doesn’t really matter how much you are going to bet, they are going to shrug and call. But it does stop people from playing 9-4 offsuit. 

SS: The button raises to six times the big blind. What do you make of this sizing? 

BL: I don’t think the sizing is that bad, to be honest. You have a middle position player that limps and then I limp. A normal raise here, especially back then, would have been about 3x, and that is 150. And typically what I do is add in the players that limped, and then maybe a little extra. I actually may have raised even a little more.

In this case, three times the blind is 150 and then the two limpers makes it 250, and then you add in a little bit extra. So, 300 is not crazy, but you don’t want to make a bet that gets easily called by the first player. Because if one player calls, then everyone calls. And that is what happened in this hand.

Credit: World Poker TourSS: You end up going five ways to a flop, and you flop a set. Action checks to the button, who bets 850, and you’re the only caller. Do you have any thoughts on the flop action? 

BL: This is relatively standard and very close to what would’ve potentially happened even today. I don’t think 850 is an unusual bet. Maybe it would’ve been a little bit less, but it’s not like he made it pot-sized. Back then, a pot-sized, post-flop bet was common and would begin increasing the pot size quickly.

It’s also a function of what hand he had, too. I feel he believed he was value betting and thought, “I don’t want everyone to fold by making it a pot-sized bet.” That was the rationale going on here. Everyone folded to me, and I called. It seemed straightforward and not outrageous. 

SS: Would you ever check-raise here? 

BL: I guess some people would do this with K-Q or Q-J and maybe that is okay. So, would I ever check-raise? Yeah, I guess I could. But in this spot, I often do not.

SS: You end up going for the check-call, check-raise line on the flop and turn. I always thought that was a line that was value heavy. Is that a true statement? 

BL: Possibly, but there’s a possibility when that second diamond hits on the turn now you could have picked up a flush draw. So a hand like QDiamond Suit JDiamond Suit or KDiamond Suit QDiamond Suit could put in the check-raise. 

SS: Would a hand like those be check-raising as a bluff trying to force the button off better hands? 

BL: I wouldn’t say that the button would be folding better hands. But I would potentially be saying, “I have a really good hand, but I also have this added equity with a flush redraw.” 

Whether or not I would do it is another story, but it’s certainly something that happens. ADiamond Suit 6Diamond Suit would be a similar hand that you could do this with. He’s got the flush draw and bottom pair, that’s a lot of outs. 

SS: You decide to check-raise his 1,200 to 2,625. How does that sizing compare with today’s standards? 

BL: I make it about 2.5x, which is actually pretty normal today. I think back then maybe it wasn’t as normal. Many players would make a 3-4x raise.

Then, he just rips it in for 14,600. He had just lost a hand, so that’s why he didn’t have the full 20,000 starting stack. 

And I will tell you, it made me go “What?” Since the turn was a three, 5-4 made the nuts. But I didn’t put him on 5-4 since he raised preflop. The other possibilities were pocket queens or sevens, but back then you usually saw people slow down at some point with top set. Whether it be a flop check or a turn check, you just didn’t see people take that line with such a strong hand. Back in those days, leading with a set was so rare, forget top set.

I took a second. I didn’t just snap-call, but I wasn’t going to fold.

SS: Do you think that there are many players in today’s game that would go all in over your turn check-raise with pocket kings? 

BL: For him to rip it there is a little crazy. I don’t think many players rip it there today. Mind you, I don’t think they would fold, either. I think they would just call the 2,625 and then see what happens on the river. 

I would probably bet between 6,500 and 7,000 on the river, which isn’t a full pot-sized bet, but it’s fairly big, and I could see him making the call. He would still have 6,000-7,000 left as opposed to being knocked out. 

SS: Would you still have bet the river even though the river brought a one-liner and any four made a straight? 

BL: Yes. Because that would’ve meant that he would’ve had to have something like pocket fours, which is extremely unlikely given the way he played his hand. 

He would’ve had to bet the flop and bet the turn unimproved. He’s betting the turn with a gutshot, and if he did that, then congrats to him. If he ripped it after I bet 6,500, I wouldn’t have folded. If he has a set of queens or sevens, then I’m just walking out the door.

I guess he could’ve had ADiamond Suit 4Diamond Suit in that hypothetical where he jams over a river bet. That would make sense, but that’s only one hand. I’m still calling.

I find it very interesting that when people analyze hands, even the best players in the world will say, “There is no way that he could’ve had this.” You can’t say there is no way. It could just be a 2% chance, but it’s there.

SS: Do you think people should be more precise in their language to improve their game and their thought process behind it?

BL: For the players that I do coaching with, I definitely make sure that they are very precise with their language for two reasons. One, I want to make sure that they give me an accurate and clear depiction of the hand so that I can give a good assessment of their actions. If they don’t give me a good description of the hand, then I can’t really tell them what I think they should’ve done.

And two, if they can’t describe the hand properly, then they can’t give a good assessment. And they won’t understand how to proceed.

A lot of times when I’m coaching with my private students, I will make sure that they go through very specific details about the hand and their opponent. What was their stack size, where were they sitting, how they view their opponent, what actions did their opponent take prior to the hand in question.

This one that we’re talking about happened very early in the tournament, so it could be harder to assess, but the guy with K-K didn’t have the full 20,000-chip starting stack because he overvalued top pair in a previous hand. All of those things are pretty important when analyzing a hand. ♠