Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Fishy call - or was it ?

Excerpt from a comment below by The Camel : "I just do not understand how anyone (and you're far from alone, believe me) can put someone on a hand from a single raise." . Careful there - now you're actually encouraging me to coach :-). The fact of the matter is, unless your opponent is doing stupid things like looking at one card at a time, you can't. And nor can anyone else. Instead of trying to "put your opponent on a hand", or in non-pokerspeak guess what he has, you need to figure his range of hands and where you stand against that range. As follows (which I was going to post anyway).

As I mentioned below, a hand arose on Friday just after I had been moved to a new table. If I remember correctly, the blinds were 200-400. With my stack around 7K, I made it 1100 to go with 22 in middle position. The button reraised the pot which must have been a raise of let's see 6+11+11 = 2800, leaving him 500 in hand. 22 against a reraise - a reasonably tight, aware player like myself must have passed, right ? Wrong. I put the rest in. He turned over AK. The dealer turned over 6543T and I took it down with a straight. Am I a fish ?

No, I'm not. So why did I make that call ? Did I make a read on my opponent ? Nope. Unfortunately I can't tell the difference between an opponent holding AK and another hand of similar strength like JJ. More to the point, if you think you can, then I'll lay 20-1 you actually can't, that you're fooling yourself by selectively remembering the times you "put him on AK" and he happened to have it. It is the most common reraising hand after all.

So why did I make it ? I had pot odds. How can I have pot odds when I don't know what he's holding ? That's the easy bit. I knew what range of hands he might be holding. An averagely loose all-in reraiser in Luton would have AQ/99 or better. A tight all-in reraiser would have AK/QQ or better. I have done my homework off-line so that I know the approximate odds for various hands against these ranges. Fortunately with a small pair, the odds are almost the same against each range (for obvious reasons if you think about it). And those odds are sufficient to make that call (small reraise in this case, same thing in practice).

Many players are, or seem to be, of the opinion that pot odds don't count in tournaments because "if you lose you're out". Well yes. If you lose, your equity is zero. That's included in the calculation. It's true that in some situations, doubling your chips does not quite double your equity. But these are situations where you have lots of chips (lots and lots) and/or you're close to the money. Neither applied in this case. It's also true that the better player might prefer to save his chips for a better spot. Again though, most players put too much stock in this. The clock is ticking, the blinds are going up, and you can't pass up many +EV situations and hope to win tournaments.

On top of all that though, I had another reason to make the call. If you can make a play that looks strange, the fishier the better, for valid, specific reasons which are not known to [most of] your opponents, it can throw them right off. Fox discusses this (of course - is there anything to do with poker that's not in that wonderful book !). I guarantee you that after I won that hand, half the table thought I was a big juicy fish. Calling a reraise with 22 ! Now how many of them are going to reraise me with moderate hands in situations which are different - situations in which I'm never going to call them with 22. In the event it's a shame he didn't have a big pair because I'd still have won with that flop and then the play would have looked really fishy - even though it's the same play. Both AK and say KK are in the range of hands he can have.

And that's why I made this fishy-looking but actually break-even call. It may have played a big part in the player on my left murdering his chips to me with A6 almost immediately afterwards. And it may be a reason why some of these aggressive non-believers as DY calls them win their share of tournaments. The calls they make after they have raised aren't nearly as bad as you might think when they're being laid 2-1 by the pot. Whether they realise it or not !

From Peter B

You know, about 22 years ago I was writing about poker, although I knew far less then than I know now. I guess that I was your archetypal "wait for the nuts" kind of player who probably cleans up these days in the No Limit cash game fishtanks in LV.

Anyway, one thing that I did write about that I hadn't read about elsewhere (mainly because, in 1982, the Poker canon consisted of very few books) was the concept of "elimination odds".

It's still a concept that doesn't seem to be discussed that widely, but your call with 22 is one of the finest examples I have seen.

Actually, I played a similar one in a tournament myself, but even stranger. A player put in a pot raise over a limper and I was sitting on 33 in the BB. I reraised all-in (about doubling the amount I had to put into the pot) because I wanted to get heads up. I got some very odd looks when I flipped over 33 and my opponent showed AK, especially when the limper sid that he had dumped his pair of fives.

Needless to say, my threes didn't hold up. Tournaments are like that for me...

Anyway, on "elimination odds" and that halcyon time a couple of decades ago. My point was that, when you were considering a call at the end, the way to figure out whether you were getting the requisite odds was not to calculate what chance there was that he had, say, the required QJ to beat you, but what cards he could have _given the way that he had played the hand_.

My other bit of advice (and one that I tend to stick to even today) is that, if you respect the player, and the way that he has played the hand seems to leave him with nothing that makes sense, then you should fold. If you did not respect the player, then you should call.

Of course, these were in the days of pot limit. In limit, you have to call far more often on the river. However, I suspect that this line of thought is a good guide on the turn.

Sklansky makes vague references to this occasionally, when he points out, for example, that there are 12 ways that you can have AK off and only six ways that you can have AA. But he doesn't really codify it.

One final thing I am unhappy with Sklansky about is that I think he encourages too many calls at the end. His point seems attractive, that your pot odds are immense. Ed Miller supports this line. But, having now watched tens of thousands of limit hands at 2-4 and 3-6, it seems to me that on most of the "rock" tables that you get during the week, a call with top pair good kicker at the end tends to be a big bet thrown away 29 times out of 30. No matter how attractive the odds, the "you only have to be right one time in 10" line fails to spot the fact that you are usually only right one time in 30.

Of course, when you are talking about loose games at the weekend, the call becomes correct.

Playing live it is even easier. At the lower level limit games in Vegas these guys might as well hold up a sign about what they have. I called one guy down with an AK high because I absolutely knew that he had been on a draw and missed. Why therefore should I throw away a big bet, even into a big pot, when I know that the guy has hit? Because I might be wrong in my interpretation? Christ, if I don't have faith in my ability to read bad players, I might as well not play at all.

End of rant.

Excellent post.

I remember one the first times I ever played at Luton we were two tables out, blinds 800-1600. Virtually the whole table limped (as was the fashion about 10 years ago) and I moved in on the BB with 24o. They all gave it the theatrical dwell up and passed. I showed my hand and said "I think you might have had overcards!"

The very next hand the same limpathon occured to me in the sb and luckily enough I found KK. I moved in again and Connie couldn't call quick enough with KQ!

Ah, salad days.

It's fine to put someone at Luton on a "range of hands" preflop. But try doing it when Lucy Rokach, Devilfish or John Shipley raises. You'll soon go broke!
From Peter B

I was mainly referring to low-limit online internet cash games. The "range of hand" concept in high level tournaments (and higher-level limit cash games) requires a slightly different approach. Basically this follows the line of:

"I know that he or she has made one deceptive bet somewhere down the line. Now, where is it likely to be?"

Actions in poker are a "non-syntactical" language. "Tells" are an addition to that language. But, since this is poker, your opponent is often trying to get you to misinterpret what his limited vocabulary (call, raise) means. The only part of the language not open to misinterpretation is "fold".

So, taking Hold 'em, you have your range of 169 starting hands, and two/three/four actions open to the player (fold, bet,raise, reraise). As the hand progresses, these actions combine (say, call pre-flop, raise flop, check and call turn, and so on). Up to the river you may make six or more actions. Every action should theoretically eliminate a few more hands. But with the good players you have to "discard" one of those actions.

With the "quality" players, you will often get one of these being a deception, but I don't seem to see them doing it more than once per hand (maybe they do, and I just miss it).

I think I part-covered this point when I said that "if it doesn't make sense and I respect the player, then I fold".

The dynamics of NL tournaments add to the vocabulary. It's a bit like being in a roaring storm where to be heard you need to shout. If all of a sudden someone says something quietly (via body language, or a quiet limp) then you can be fairly sure that they are "saying" something that they don't want you to hear.

This linguistic approach to betting in poker is also somewhat ignored, I think. Usually people look at the maths side of it. But poker, like bridge, consists of a vocabulary in a limited language, which players have to interpret.

Thanks Keith,

Can I just check what you mean by that last point ? Is it that players at this level will be "one step ahead" and counteract what you're doing, or is it just that you'll go broke through folding because they raise so often ?

FWIW I interpreted that as putting those players on a hand is like playing pin the tail on the donkey. If you go with your read, you are apt to go skint because it is heavily odds-on to be wrong.

How you counter playing against someone who is "un-readable" would be a good topic for another post...
Now I have woken up, a third interpretation occurs to me - because they'll reraise you with 23 if they think the situation is right ?

In which case you can still do the same thing - you assign them a range of "real" hands and a separate probability that they are bluffing.

Simon's interpretation was closest to what I was getting at, although your two takes certainly have merit.

When faced by a raise from a particularly tricky opponent the most important factor in deciding your best course of action is, IMO, what you consider their image of you as a player (tight/ loose/ aggressive whatever). Then it is purely about the value you put on the hand in accordance with your image.

For example, if you think Lucy considers you are a total rock and she raises your BB you should consider reraising with a very large range of hands. Yet, if she thinks you're a loosey goosey then most hands would be a clear fold as you certainly don't want to play a pot with her out of position.
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