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Poker Strategy With Gavin Griffin: Embracing Variance

When You Are At A Skill Disadvantage, You Should Look To Increase Variance

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Gavin GriffinLast month I played in what is probably the toughest $5,000 buy-in no-limit tournament of the year during the Los Angeles Poker Classic at the Commerce Casino. There were 86 runners and a very good structure. My starting table was tough, with only one real soft spot who busted very early in the tournament. There were some other soft spots at other tables, but, in general, it was a tournament made up mostly of regs, mediocre to very good, and many of the best in the world were on hand for this tournament. I ran deep for the second year in a row to just barely miss out on the final table and the money, but I employed a change in style from my normal tournaments.

Usually, I’m pretty patient, pick my spots, look for good situations for three-bets, not get too out of line with my four- and five-bets, and generally keep the pot small except for when it’s warranted to make it big. The softer the field, the more inclined I am to keep the pots small and play accordingly. I thought that I was definitely positive expected value (+EV) in the tournament when it started, however, as we got down to the last three tables, I looked around and realized that almost everyone left was extremely good and it was going to take some good cards, good situations, and very good play to win this tournament. By the time we were down to 20 people and done for the night, I thought there was a very good chance that I was in the middle of the pack EV-wise in the tournament. When faced with this situation, most people would think that it’s a good situation to tighten up and play more conservatively when, in truth, the opposite is called for. When you’re at a skill disadvantage, you should do everything you can to increase the variance because that is your new best friend. I have two specific examples, one from slightly before the end of day 1 and one from when there were about 15 people left.

On the first example, I was in the big blind at the 800-1,600 level with about 70,000 in chips. The Villain in this hand had been at the table for a while and seemed like a very good tournament player, and we had battled a few times already with me coming out on top in the bigger pots we’ve played. His stack was about 50,000. I defended against a raise to 3,500 with 10Spade Suit 9Club Suit. The flop was 10-5-3 rainbow. I checked, and he bet 3,800. I called to see a 3 on the turn, which we both checked. The river was the JSpade Suit and I thought I could get him to call a bet with hands such as 8-8, 9-9, 7-7, 6-6, and very good Ace high hands, so I bet 5,100. He raised to 13,800. I took some time to think about what he’d be raising here and came to a pretty strong conclusion that it was either a very good jack or a bluff. I didn’t think full houses were very likely because if I call on a 10-5-3 flop, I’m unlikely to fold turn so I think he would bet his very strongest hands, including over-pairs. I think he’d check lots of Ace high and over-card hands on the turn with likely six clean outs. To me, it seemed like he liked his hand and he was going for a value raise with a Jack on the river. Usually, after making this conclusion in a softer tournament, I would opt to fold. But since I thought he was capable of folding a Jack and I’m more likely to have a trey, 10-10, 5-5, or J-10 in my range, I shoved. He tanked for a while and eventually folded, though he didn’t say what he folded.

The second example started against the same villain. I had 110,000 chips at 1,500-3,000 with a 500 ante. He raised from early position to 6,500 with a stack of about 75,000. I called with KHeart Suit QClub Suit on the button. The small blind raised to 18,500 with 70,000 behind. He hadn’t shown anything down that was out of line, but he had been three-betting a fair amount over the course of the seven hours or so that we had been playing together. The player in early position folded, and I thought for a while before jamming, expecting to have about 30-35 percent equity against his calling range, but tons of fold equity. He hasn’t seen me do it because I haven’t had many premium hands over the course of the time we’ve been playing together, but this is definitely a line I would take against an early position raiser with my very strongest hands. He ended up calling with A-K and I didn’t get there.

It takes a pretty large amount of self-awareness to realize when you’re in the middle of the pack relative to the field (or worse) and adjust accordingly, but in tournaments when you can’t just pick up and leave, it’s a very important skill to have. Being able to embrace variance when it’s your friend and eschew it when it’s not is a key element to very good tournament players’ games. ♠

Gavin Griffin was the first poker player to capture a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour title and has amassed nearly $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. Griffin is sponsored by HeroPoker.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG