Sports Juice Poker Tips #5 and #6: Do not play so many hands!

I have been receiving a lot of good feedback on my first couple of posts.   The pot odds tip in particular was appreciated, but ripe for confusion in terms of how to do the math and what to do with the math once it was done.   My best advice if you are looking for more details on particular odds for particular hands is to do a bit of searching on the internet.  There are all kinds of tables out there that will make your eyes roll back in your head.

From my perspective, I have tried to get the casual player to move from a ‘what the heck’ or ‘I might catch a card’ mentality to one of understanding whether or not it mathematically makes sense to call a bet given the size of the pot and their cards.  If a player is really out of their element at the table, following the math is going to get a better outcome than following their judgment. 

Judgment of course is a huge, huge part of poker, but judgment comes only with experience.  What I am trying to do with these tips is to convince the casual player to rely less on their judgment until they gain more experience.  The casual player is going to have a lot more success if they only play quality hands and avoid paying too much to try to make hands that are unlikely to hit.     That leads us to today’s tip.

Tip #5: Do not play so many hands

Here is a question for you: what percentage of flops should a player try to see?  75%, 50%, 30%, 10%?

It is of course a bit of a trick question as the correct answer is, “It depends”.  It depends on the types of cards you are being dealt, it depends on how many players are left at the table and it depends on the playing style of those at your game.

With that said, I suspect the casual player might have answered somewhere around 50%.  While that might be true in some set of circumstances, it is generally way too high a percentage when starting a nine person no limit hold-em game.  If you think about the number of hands you need to win to cover the cost of all the bets before and after the flop, hopefully the picture you paint is that you need to win a fair bit.   If you start the tournament with $1,500 and blinds of $15/30, you are betting at least $150 just to see the flops every time around the table.  If you get involved with a couple of marginal hands you will see your stack reduced in a hurry.

Some players might have also answered 10%.  I would attribute this to an attitude of waiting for great cards to ensure the best chance at winning the hand.  Odds are that this player will stick around the table longer than the 50% floppers, but it would be unlikely that the 10% floppers would win in the long run.  The reason is that the other players at the table will correctly sniff out the strategy and fold unless they have a monster hand.

Alright, I am quickly losing you with all of the above vagaries.  There is no correct answer, but the answer for me generally is that I like to play 15%-30% of my hands over the course of the sit-n-go tournament.  I typically am closer to the 15% early in the game, then up around 30% when there are 5-6 guys left before playing probably close to 50% of the hands come the final three. 

Focusing my point of view a bit more, I would say that I almost never play a hand when I am on or near the blinds (early position) and I play a fairly high percentage of hands when I am on or near the button (late position).  This goes back to tip #2 on position.  When I have to act before a large group of other players, I typically want to have a really good starting hand.  When I am last to act, I am actively trying to steal pots and am playing the opponents more than I am playing my cards.  Early in a game I will almost always have some sort of hand to be raising from around the button, but late in the game any two cards will do just fine.

My tip for the casual player is to increase the minimum quality of hand they have to see before they get involved in a pot and to have set criteria from early position, middle position and late position.  Let’s quickly go through each of these three positional plays. 

Early position:

With early position, I will include the blinds and seat 1 and 2 after the big blind.  My view is that a premium hand is required to play from early position. 

 I would consider the following to be premium hands:  AA, KK, QQ, AKs, AKo (s= suited, o=  offsuit).  For a more experienced player, I might also include AQs, AJs, JJ and 10-10 (near premium hands).  For the casual player these hands can be dangerous as they are tempting to hang on to and potentially damaging if not bet correctly.

You will notice that I have not included AX or KX (X= any other card).  While it is tempting to conclude that any hand with an ace or king is a good hand, this simply is not true in early position.  With eight other players, there is a reasonable chance someone else has an ace or king with a better kicker than you.  A great way to lose money is to play A-7 with a flop of A-Q-4 and lose to AQ or three of a kind. 

I have also excluded QJ, J-10, 10-9 and other connected cards, suited or otherwise.  In later position these hands have some merit, but they are hands that you want to get to the flop cheaply.  A simple call in early position followed by a raise by another player has you paying too much to make these hands.

Getting back to the blinds, the mindset of calling additional bets to see the flop is certainly at play.  Money has already been committed, so why not top up the bet to at least see the flop?  Wrong!  I have lost more money playing hands I had no business being in due to that logic than I care to remember.   I might be quick to call or check in the big blind with connecting cards, but that is because I am last to act.  In these situations I will almost never try to steal pots after the flop.  If the hand misses me, I am out of there as quick as I can.

I will get into how much to bet at a later date, but generally if my cards are good enough to play, they are good enough to raise.  From early position I am looking to knock out as many players as I can to make future betting rounds less stressful.  If I have a premium hand and only one or two opponents on the flop, I have a much better chance of being able to maintain control over the hand.  A flop with four or five opponents puts a lot of pressure on me to be able to correctly determine whether or not my hand is best.  A flop with four or five opponents greatly reduces any opportunity for a semi-bluff later in the hand which means I can only win the hand if I have the goods. 

 Middle position:

In middle position, I am going to play the premium hands, as well as the near premium hands if there hasn’t already been a raise in front of me.  My mindset again is that if the hand is good enough to play, it is good enough to raise with.  It is very difficult to play post-flop with players in front of me and behind me as there are simply too many ways to lose the pot.  A raise will thin the field and make things much more manageable.

For early and middle position, I am actively looking for an excuse to not play the hand which I think is the correct mindset.  Careless calls in an effort to see flops in these positions are dangerous as it is nearly impossible to win hands from these positions unless you have the best hand.  Therefore I wait for the cards to hit me over the head and force me into action.

At this point, I should again note that I am talking about a 9 player table fairly early on in a poker game.  As fewer and fewer players remain, the requisite quality of cards reduces.  Logically, this makes sense as the odds of another player having a great hand goes down with every player that leaves the table.

 Late position:

Ahh, late position.  What a great place to site at the poker table!  Information is plentiful as are the opportunities to steal those blinds.  Of course, the blinds know that we are trying to steal their money and they may be ready for us with a raise if we aren’t careful.  So we’ll be careful, but perhaps not too careful.  Might as well have some fun putting the pressure on our buddies, eh?

We again will play the hands mentioned previously assuming no huge raises in front of us and we will consider a wide spectrum of other hands as well.  In terms of stealing the pot; if there have been calls or raises in front of you, you need to have at least a near premium hand to get involved.  If the action hasn’t started yet, it might just be time to make a raise and see if that pot will come home to you.

One word of advice on bluffing for the casual player is that you should always be making what is called a semi-bluff.  A semi-bluff is a bluff that is backed by some cards that have a chance to win the pot with a bit of luck on the flop.  Raising with 10-2 is a full on bluff and is not advisable, while a 6-7s would be considered a semi-bluff given the chance at a straight or flush.  To get involved in a hand with garbage for cards is simply not a profitable way to play poker.

You may have noticed that I have you raising pre-flop on pretty much every hand you play.  While checking is a viable strategy, my advice to the casual player is to play aggressively and make those raises.  You will find post-flop play much easier if you are only playing against one or two opponents.  The chances of you getting trapped by two random cards goes way down and you stand a better chance of winning the pot after the flop by continuing your aggressiveness with another bet.  While you will never will a monster pot with four people all-in, the reality is that this almost never happens.  If you can consistently win the small pots with good cards, you will be ready to double up your chips when your opponent pushes back at you at the wrong time.

Wrapping up this tip, you may correctly point out that if you follow my strategy to the letter, you are going to be a pretty easy player to read.  I did indicate early in this tip that other players will quickly figure out that you only play premium hands.

The solution to this is an entire other tip for next time which involves adding a bit of randomness to your game without the need for judgment.  It is called game theory and will be my next topic. 

 Tip#5 Summary

  • Greatly increase the minimum standard of hand you need to see before you get involved with a hand.
  • Seeing 15-30% of the flops is reasonable.  Do not try to see more than 30% of flops early in a tournament.
  • The goal in early and middle position to avoid playing the hand unless your cards are so good they force you into action.
  • The goal in late position is to steal the blinds and generally play a higher percentage of hands.
  • If your hand is good enough to call with, it is good enough to raise with!

 Tip #6: Winning by having other players lose

I am jumping off of my script to quickly through in another tip to hopefully correct an error I see many players make, including players with a lot of experience.

In a typical nine player sit-n-go tournament and in many home games, players will get knocked out of the game with the top three players making a bit of money.  This makes the objective of the game to get into the final three and make some money.

With that in mind, the best thing that can happen in the game of poker is to have a player with very few chips go all-in and be called by multiple players.  The odds become very high that the short stack will lose the hand and be out of the game.

Why is it then that players cannot resist the temptation to make bets after the flop in an effort to knock out other players?  The all-in bet loves this move as it reduces the number of players left that can beat their hand and end their night.

All players need to understand in this situation is that ‘we are all in this hand together’.  The value gained by having one less player in the tournament is almost always more than the value of stealing a few extra chips on the hand. 

Two exceptions to this rule: 

1)      A significant pot has been created by the all-in call.  It is one thing if the short stack bets $200 (pot of around $600), but it is another if there is $2,700 in the pot amongst three players.   In a huge pot, the value of winning the pot is greater than the value in knocking out the player.

2)      You have the nuts.  By this, I mean you have a hand that is 100% guaranteed to beat the short stacked all-in.  The absolute worst thing you can do is bluff a player out of the pot and then lose the pot to the short stack.

Hopefully that is clear.  Do not push other players out of the pot when you have a chance to knock out another player.  You win by ensuring that player loses.

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