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Poker Strategy With David Sklansky: Amateur Bad Plays Plus Expert Bad Advice

Theory Of Poker Author Continues His GT-NO Series On Exploitative Play


David SklanskyThe overarching theme of our new book, Small Stakes Hold’em: Help Them Give You Their Money, is that it is not rare to find small games with two, three, or even more players who play quite badly, especially on the last two rounds of betting.

And if you are in such a game, you should not throw away opportunities to be in pots they are in. Here are three examples of horrible plays I have seen recently in low-stakes games that you should be able to take advantage of.

1. A woman had been playing quite snugly before the flop in a $1-$3 game. My initial thought was that I wish she would quit. I changed my mind after I saw how she played pocket kings.

She raised a few limpers preflop in late position. She made it $12 and got a few callers. The flop came J-6-3 rainbow. When she was checked to, she bet $25 and was called in two places.

Nothing was yet worth major criticism at this point. But then the board paired jacks and when they both checked she made a debatable bet of about $40. The first guy called, and the second guy check-raised to about $120. (The players all had less than $350 in front of them to start.)

She unhesitatingly called $80 more! Most competent poker players would clearly recognize by now that she had maybe a one percent chance of having the best hand against these types of opponents and a 5% chance of drawing out, while getting implied odds of perhaps 7:1 at the most.

Players who make these types of judgement/math errors are not that unusual, and worth nice money to you even if they are tight before the flop. Especially if you loosen up with certain types of hands when they enter the pot.

2. Or take a recent $150 buy in tournament at the South Point in Las Vegas, nowhere near the “bubble.” The blinds were 500-1,000 plus a 1,000 big blind ante. Five limpers and the flop was 8-8-5 rainbow. Everyone checked.

The turn was a jack. A man who had been playing tight bet 4,000. A middle-aged player who recently moved to the table called.

The river was another jack, making a final board of 8-8-5-J-J. The tight player bet 13,000, and after a moment’s thought, the middle-aged man moved in for 38,000. The player instantly called, holding just an eight.

What? The river bet was terrible, and the instant call was insane. Yet until then, there was nothing to indicate that this player would be this clueless in certain final-round scenarios. (For those who are wondering, I don’t like the middle-aged guy’s big raise much either, but he was lucky enough to have it work out for him.)

3. A bad play that I see both in tournaments and cash games, is the unjustified all-in raise by a short stack after a few players have limped or called a small raise. Many players, including some good ones, will make this play with at least a third of their hands, just to either quadruple up or put themselves out of their short-stacked misery.

If one or, better yet, two, players with this proclivity are behind you, you should strongly consider not three-betting the players who already came in the pot with your usual raising range. Instead go for a call/reraise (because the desperate short stacks will wait for a better spot if there is a decent-sized raise in front of them.)

I have used this play many times and am quite sure that it is often better than shutting out the short stacks behind you.

The bad advice from experts, especially one particular pro who is rarely wrong, is that if you are in a heads-up pot on the river, and are contemplating a bet, make sure that the bet has the possibility of either being called by a worse hand or getting a better hand to fold.

In other words, don’t bet if he will always call when his hand beats yours and will never call when it doesn’t.

Can that advice be wrong? Yep. It’s sometimes wrong if you are first to act and you are facing an opponent who will approximate GTO strategy if you check, but not if you bet. (Remember that even though it is ridiculous to employ GTO against most of the players in your small games, GTO is a good strategy to employ against YOU.)

To illustrate what I am saying, let’s say that if you check, you think that he will bet the pot when he has you beaten and also bluff with a frequency that is a smidgeon below half of the frequency of his value bets.

Say you think he has a 30% chance of having the value bet hand that you have no chance of beating and a 14% chance of having a bluff that you always beat. You also beat him the 56% of the time he checks behind you. If the pot is $100 your EV is $56 since you will fold if he bets another $100 (getting 2:1 odds on a 30-14 shot).

But what if, by betting, you make him give up on bluffing altogether? Or close to it? Many players who bluff at approximately the optimum frequency very rarely raise bluff, so this scenario is not just theoretical.

In this case, a small, but not tiny bet does better even if that bet always loses when you are beaten. A $35 bet loses 30% of the time subtracting $10.50 from your EV. But the 70% of the time the time the bet isn’t called adds 70 bucks of EV for a net EV of $56.50.

The general advice from those experts is usually right, but they should know to never say never. ♠

David Sklansky is the author of The Theory of Poker, as well as nearly two dozen other guides on gambling, poker, and other games. The three-time WSOP bracelet winner’s latest book, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em: Help Them Give You Their Money, is now available on Amazon. You can contact Sklansky at