I like putting people to the test. In tournament poker, I do this by betting and raising frequently. What I don’t like is when I’m flummoxed by my own hand. Many decisions in poker are straightforward. Wake up with a big hand in position — raise. Look down at deuce-seven offsuit with a four-bet in front of you — fold. Look down at the in the big blind after four players limped — well, this is when things get a little more complex.
That was the exact situation I faced in a recent $60 buy-in Thursday night tournament at my local casino. We started with 12,000 in chips, and it was near the end of Level 1 with the blinds at 25/50. After playing the hand the way I did, I couldn’t help but think things could have played out differently. It stuck with me long after the tournament, so I’ve decided to examine the hand in more detail.
It’s important to remember the level of competition in this particular tournament. It was a cheap nightly, meaning it was chock full of amateurs and first-timers. Sure, there were some decent locals, but overall the quality of play was poor. Players wanted to have fun, see flops, and gamble it up.
With that in mind, I wasn’t surprised to see four players limp. In fact, oftentimes limping is the order of the day in these sort of tournaments. Like I said, amateurs want to see flops. Given its potential, I like hands such as -suited. I raise with them often, but in this hand I felt my best option was to check and see a free flop.
I could have raised to something like 250, but with such deep stacks, I’m sure at least three of the four limpers would come along. Like I said, these players like to see flops. I didn’t see the point of building a pot out of position with a speculative hand. Besides, if I flopped big, I wanted as many players in the hand as possible.
I’m content with checking my option to see the flop.
The flop was halfway decent. I picked up a flush draw to go with my two overs, but more importantly I was in the big blind, meaning low cards were well within my range. Still, I checked as did the next two players. The player in the cutoff then bet 300, the button called, and action was back on me.
My first impression was to put in a raise. I was in a great position to represent a made hand, and if I received a call I had a strong draw to fall back on. If I was three-bet, well it’d be easy enough to get away.
I really like a raise to 1,100 or so in this spot, but for whatever reason I played it passively and just called. I’m not really sure what I was thinking, but in hindsight I suppose it was something like, “I’m out of position and it’s cheap to see if I make my flush.” Understandable, but by taking that line I tossed out any fold equity I may have had and allowed my opponents an opportunity to realize their own equity.
Definitely not happy with my play here.
The turn was great for my hand. I now held top pair with a flush redraw, and it was well disguised. I checked figuring one of my two opponents would bet, and sure enough the cutoff continued for 700. The button called once again, and it was time to take control of the hand.
I settled on making it 2,000 more to go, which was about two-thirds of the 3,250 pot. If I were playing in either a World Series of Poker or World Poker Tour event against more experienced players, I’d have been a little concerned about the button’s flat-calls, but in a nightly I figured it was more likely he held either a weak, one-pair hand or a mediocre draw. Whatever the case, I knew my raise would sift through the riffraff.
The cutoff called, which led me to believe he held a big pocket pair. Aside from the preflop limp, he had represented strength on both postflop streets, so jacks through aces made sense. Plus, a call in this spot was consistent with such a hand. He’d be hard-pressed to reraise for fear of a set or flopped straight. If I were in his shoes with a big pocket pair, I’d be looking to get to showdown as cheaply as possible.
The button then tossed his hand, and that made it heads-up action to the river.
The third heart gave me a flush, and I knew a bet was in order. I should have been confident with my flush — there were only two higher flushes that beat me — but loss aversion struck me. Is it possible he has a better flush than me? Did he just call hoping to fill a king-high flush draw?
These questions paralyzed me, but still I knew I had to bet something. Thinking about the hand now, I wish I’d have bet somewhere near the size of the pot (7,250). By doing so I would have put my opponent to a polarized decision — does he have the flush or not? If he had a bigger flush, then I was probably going to lose a big pot anyway. If he had a big pocket pair, he’d have a difficult decision to make, though the ace on the river could very well scare off jacks, queens, and kings.
I guess that’s what I was thinking as I eventually bet a modest 2,500, just over a third of the pot. I’d like to say I was betting for value, but in reality it’s just what I tossed out because I knew I had to bet something. I immediately knew it was a mistake as I gave him a golden opportunity to put me to the test. If he moved all in, I’d have been in a tight spot. With the ace on the river, I’d have assumed that he wouldn’t raise with a big pocket pair, meaning he could very well have a flush. The question then would be whether or not it was bigger than mine.
It’s best to avoid such difficult decisions, but here I gave him the opportunity to turn it back on me. If I was playing against a higher level of competition, I could very well have been blown off this hand. Fortunately, my opponent just called after a brief spell in the tank, which signaled my flush was best.
I tabled the and my opponent shook his head in disgust. He then showed for a rivered set. I was happy to win the hand, but I wasn’t entirely content with how I’d played it. I’m fine with my preflop and turn choices, but not so much with my flop and river play. There’s no doubt I should have been more aggressive on the former street, and there seemed to be better options on the latter. Had I followed through with a big bet on the river, I probably would have won more chips (my opponent didn’t strike me as the type to lay down trip aces), but then again would he pay me off with anything else?
In the grand scheme of the tournament, this particular hand amounted to little (I failed to cash). But it shows that while some hands play out on autopilot, others are filled with multiple decision points. The best players in the world know how to navigate these junctures with little thought, but for the rest of us it’s important to think through all possible options. Which route, be it easy or rocky, will lead to you winning the hand for as most value as possible?
Have criticisms of how I played the hand? How would you have played it? Let me know on Twitter @ChadAHolloway and we can talk about it.