Friday, March 21, 2008

The Right Way to Play Pocket Jacks

Ask the average No Limit Hold 'em poker player what they consider their most problematic starting hand, and chances are good that they'll tell you it's pocket Jacks. Middle pairs, like 7s, 8s, and 9s are difficult to play, but they're much easier to get away from when a flop comes with over cards (as it's wont to do). Aces and Kings are so pretty, and they often reign over the flop, causing less concern about getting out-flopped (and maybe giving us false security and costing us more poker dollars in the long run, but that's a topic for another time).

Hands like pocket 10s, Jacks, and Queens can be difficult to play, particularly out of position, because they are strong starting hands that usually face identity crises when the board comes down. So what's the solution? Make a big raise in early position, and just take down the blinds? Make a standard raise, and pray for a small flop? Just limp, and hope someone re-raises? "No set, no bet" the flop?

First you must consider 'What is your approach to the game, and what type of strategy do you employ?'

My feelings are thus:

  1. The first objective of no limit hold 'em is to trap your opponents for a big hand. Unlike limit hold 'em where you're looking to earn one more bet or save one last bet, no limit creates the opportunity for a big score on a single hand. I'm looking to get my opponent to put in a lot of chips with the second best hand.
  2. Next, look for opportunities and weakness at the table, and take advantage. If you're facing a player capable of folding a moderate hand, you don't always need the best hand. If you can take down big pots without always having to make a hand, you've got the opportunity for a winning session, even if the cards don't cooperate. This approach is far more effective when in position.
  3. Finally, look for value from made hands. Over the course of a session, I should be looking for opportunities to extract bets and take down medium-sized pots with made hands. This is obvious, but note that I put it third on the list. This will lower your variance, but if you want to be a big winner over time, tenets 1 and 2 are often over-looked and under-appreciated.
With that in mind, if you find yourself with Jacks, or one of his cousins, in early position, you are hoping to employ approaches 1 or 3. You may end up in position against only one or both of the blinds, but I believe 1 and 3 are more typical, particularly if you embrace my approach. For the purposes of this discussion, we are talking about a full (9 or 10 handed) ring game.

You're going to be playing the entire hand out of position (in most cases) and so building a pot, while gathering only limited information, is dangerous. Putting in a standard raise will often result in one, two, or even three callers (depending on the game) and merely has the effect of building a big pot (10-15 big blinds?). Now you're out of position, with very limited information, and here comes the flop.

Obviously a Jack-high, unconnected, rainbow board is ideal - I'll let you decide how to play that one. 2/3 of the time, there's going to be at least one Ace, King, or Queen on the flop. With players to act behind you, how confident are you in your Jacks? If the board cards are all lower than the Jack, chances are good that the board is connected - could anyone behind you have flopped two pair or a big draw? How will you protect your Jacks in this situation? If there are 15 big blinds in the pot, how many big blinds will you need to bet to eliminate draws? If you get called or raised, what do you know about your relative position in the hand? You've created a pot that represents a real percentage of your stack, and you're lost. This approach generates more difficult questions than comforting answers.

I've often seen players compensate by making a very large pre-flop raise. You're under the gun and you raised to 8x the Big Blind. What does that accomplish? First, you've given information about the relative strength of your hand. Against some players, I know with 90% accuracy that they have JJ or TT when the make this bet. You certainly don't want to play with your cards face up!? Second, you've invest 10x to only win 1.5x big blinds. Not a sound investment. Finally, winning the 1.5x big blinds is best case, but if you do get called or raised, it's typically going to only be by a bigger hand. If it's a call, you're seeing a flop out of position, with 21.5 BB already in the pot, and you have no idea where you stand. If you get raised, you're almost assuredly behind, and you've risked 10 Big Blinds for virtually nothing, and you don't even get to see the flop. Lose - lose - lose.

Should you just fold re-flop? Depending on the table, you could make an argument for that move, but I don't advocate open-folding medium-large pocket pairs pre-flop in the vast majority of cases.

Just call. Just... call. Just call?

If you just call the big blind, several things can happen. First, the table could limp around. Let's say that five people see the flop. Now there are only five big blinds in the pot, and you've only invested one. If the flop comes with an over card (and it probably will), just check-fold, you've lost one big blind and faced no difficult decisions. If the board is all lower than Jacks, you still need to proceed cautiously. In particular, because this is an un-raised pot, the range of hands behind you is incredibly broad. What's more, the small and big blinds saw a discounted and free flop, respectively. They could literally have any two cards. Flop is 2-2-7? You could be drawing extremely thin - or you might be way ahead. You just don't know.

So we do what we're supposed to do, we bet for information. You can bet 80% of the pot with only a 4 big blind bet - see how much better this is than the 15 BB pot we had previously? If everyone folds, you've taken down a small pot with Jacks. Congratulations - that's objective 3 above. If you get called or raised, you need to evaluate your opponent and their situation. If they raise, could they just have top pair and top kicker? Remember, you didn't raise, so they don't assume you have an over-pair, and your decision is a little more difficult. Are they the type of player to raise behind with a semi-bluff? If you call and they miss, will they check behind on the turn? If you decide to fold to a raise here, and you're wrong, you've only made a small mistake, and you've only spent 5 big blinds, that's much cheaper than your pre-flop raise and lead out scenario above.

So what happens if you limp into the pot pre-flop, and it gets raised behind you? You need to consider your opponent. If they are super tight, perhaps you just fold. If they are tight-ish, they still have AK, AQ, and maybe even a lesser Ace or suited KQ in their range if they're the first into an un-opened pot in late position. Might they have 99 and TT in their range too? You're actually a slight favorite against this range. You could call the raise and see how daunting the flop looks. If there's no A, K, or Q, maybe you lead out, or maybe you check-call a flop bet if they'll slow down with 99 or TT on the turn. What if the board brings a Jack (on the flop, or on a cheap turn)? Once in eight tries it will. If your opponent has pocket Kings or Aces will they give you their whole stack when you make trips (Sorry, Wil, I mean "set")? ;) Congratulations, this is your primary objective (number one above).

If you limp pre-flop and a loose player raises in late position, you can put them on a huge range of hands. Let's say you limp, two people limp behind you, and then the table aggressor makes a 5x raise on the button. The blinds fold. Now there are 8.5 big blinds in the pot and you have JJ with only one aggressor in the hand (and two apparently weak limpers). Here you need to make a good-sized raise.

Take into consideration the amount of money already in the pot, the odds you will be giving your opponent to call, and the fact that you will be out of position for the rest of the hand. You probably are well served by taking down the pot here, but you don't want to over-commit your stack, in case your opponent actually has a monster. You need to bet at least 3 1/2 times your opponents raise, and probably 4x, to get the information you need. So, there are 3.5 big blinds in the pot and your opponent makes it 5x. You make it 3.5 times that, or about 18x BB to go. Your bet reflects a call of the 5x raise, making the pot (8.5 + 5) 13.5 big blinds, and putting him to the test for another 13x - giving him a little better than 2-to-1 on his money. With any king-high or worse, AQ or worse, or pair under Queens (including the other Jacks), he needs to fear domination, making a 2-to-1 call difficult, even with position. Most of the time he'll have to fold, and you've taken down 13.5 big blinds without seeing a flop. You've taken down a respectable pot with pocket Jacks under the gun. That's a victory.

If your opponent re-raises all in, you're probably beat. Unless he's a real maniac, he'll have AK, AA, KK, QQ, and maybe the other JJ. You're a 2-to-1 underdog against that range, even though you'll sometimes fold to AK where you're a slight favorite. You found out you were beat, and it cost you 18 big blinds, but you didn't risk your whole stack.

If your opponent smooth calls, you are in a tough spot. He might be likely to do that with AK or AQ, or even a really strong drawing hand like T9 suited, if he thinks you'll pay him off when he flops good. The good news on the speculative hands is that he's less likely to have TJ or QJ since you have two Jacks in your hand. Could your opponent play QQ, KK, or AA this way? Many players can, and so even an all low board isn't safe for you.

Post-flop play here is entirely dependent upon your read of your opponent, the history of this particular session, and your perception of your opponent's read on you (if you are inclined to think this deeply, and I recommend starting to do so.)

If the flop comes with a Jack, with the exception of the rare case of your opponent flopping an over-set or Broadway on a Q,J,T flop, you are probably going to take down a huge pot - Objective number 1 again. If the flop comes with overs, you've still just invested 18 big blinds (not your stack), and you can get away fairly easily (please do). If the flop comes all unders, you need to quickly determine if your opponent has AK or a bigger pocket pair. How you do that depends on your style and your opponent, that's hard for me to prescribe. Often a bet of 2/3 to 3/4 of the pot will be a good way to find out (and much cheaper than check-raising, though more expensive than hoping for check-check).

Admittedly, the deeper we go into the hand, the broader the decision tree, and the more difficult it is to try to suggest a formulaic approach. More importantly, following the same formula each time is not recommended either - you certainly don't want to telegraph your passes. However, this approach, I believe, is greatly under-considered and under-implemented.

This approach to playing pocket Jacks in early position is the superior approach at a typical medium-stakes No Limit Hold 'em table. If you implement this strategy most times you're in this situation, you will reduce your variability, increase your opportunity to extract value, and overall increase your expected value over time.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Running Hot, Running Cold, Monster Draws

What a difference a week makes.

Running Hot

I just returned from a long and lucrative weekend in Las Vegas. I ran well the entire trip, have positive sessions in 6 of 6 tries, and just about every time I decided to draw, I hit.

Here’s an example of a monster.

I’m several hours into a good session in the Venetian Poker Room. I find myself under the gun plus one, with the K 5.

This was a $1/2 NLHE table, and it played fairly weak-passive in general. It was substantially different from the $2/5 game I'd play in later. I had identified a couple seats where players had a good sense of the game, but by-and-large, these were recreational players, tourists, and aspiring online players. This is the type of game I'd expect on the weekend at a Vegas Strip Casino, and this table didn't disappoint.

The under the gun player (UTG), for whom I did have respect, limped into the hand. This could mean virtually anything for him, any pocket pair from 2s up, and any suited connector. He could also play a monster this way, hoping to limp-raise. I had been playing fairly responsibly, as I like to say, but I decided to step out a little and play this hand. I was reading the table very well, I felt, and hoped I'd see a cheap flop. I called the $2 big blind.

There were a couple additional limpers to the big blind (BB), who appeared to have woken up with a big hand. He was an inexperienced player who often disclosed the strength of his hand based on the size of his pre-flop bet. He did not typically consider position or number of opponents in bet-sizing. He raised to $10 total, and there was already $8-10 in the pot. He would be out of position the rest of the hand, but I didn't get the impression that he considered such things. To me, a $10 bet from him either meant a big hand (AA, KK, AK AQs - in his mind), and he didn't want to lose anybody, or a middling hand (77-99, AJ - A9), and he didn't want to invest too much. This is my perception of how beginning players consider their bet sizing, and I've found it to be useful in many cases. With a big, but vulnerable hand (TT, JJ, maybe QQ) I would expect a huge raise. Players with Jacks are always afraid of the flop.

The under the gun player called, and there was (we'll call it) $30 in the pot and it was $8 more to me. I called and the rest of the players (one or two limpers) folded. Isn't that funny? In my regular game, two smooth calls on a small raise, and everyone would have gladly called. I now had position!

The flop was a great one. Q T 5 I had bottom pair and the second nut flush draw. If all my outs were "live", I had 14 of them - twice. I would be a mathematical favorite.

The big blind and original raiser bet out $20, which seemed like a fine continuation bet, not scared... Perhaps he has AQ? Maybe. Perhaps AA? Yes, there's a good possibility. KK and QQ work too. For an inexperienced player like this one, I wouldn't rule out AK either.

The under the gun player raised. Yep, raised, to $50 total, only $30 more. Now there's $100 in the pot, and I'm getting 2-to-1 on my money. The big blind started the hand with about $350 in front of him, and the under the gun player has about $550 to start the hand. I have both players covered.

Now I'm in an awkward spot. What if the original bettor has a set of Queens and the under the gun has the only bigger flush draw? That's worst case scenario. If I just call I can get whip-sawed by a reraise from the BB. Of course, if I raise, I could be risking a big stack of chips and facing a massive re-raise without even seeing a turn.

So should I fold? Maybe. I considered it. I decided that I couldn't assume I was in such bad shape and maybe I'd call and see how the big blind reacted.

I called the $50. The big blind now raises... but only $40 more. Forty dollars?! That's odd from many players, but I think it's just inexperience acting here. Now I'm pretty sure he has AQ, KK or AA. With QQ I think he'd make a big reraise in fear of the flush draw and two players behind him. He had a big starting hand, but was not overly confident in his holding - at least that was my perception of the moment.

Now, the under the gun just calls. Just calls?! What the heck is going on here?

Okay, so there's $260 in the pot and it's $40 to me. I decide that it's time to make something happen. If I make a big enough raise, I should be able to either scare both opponents out of the hand (if the BB has 1 pair and is willing to fold) and the under the gun has a bigger flush draw. I'm looking for fold equity here to make sure at least one of my draws (to trips or two pair, or the flush) is good. If the BB calls with just a pair, and the UTG doesn't have the nut flush draw, he should fold. If the BB calls, and the UTG does have the Ace-high flush draw, he may be priced in and decide to call, at least I've got 5 outs twice, and a bunch of money in the pot. This is not a good situation, but the way the hand has played out, I cannot think either player quite so strong.

I decide to raise $200 on top of the $40 call I must make - this is intended to basically put the BB all-in if he calls, and take away odds from the UTG if the BB folds. I'd like to trap his dead money in the pot. I stack 8 red chips on top of two towers of red chips and slide the bet into the pot. Now the BB thinks for just a minute and says, "okay, I guess I'm all in", which is about $245 total. The UTG thinks for a little longer, but all things considered, not so long. He says, "I think I have to put all my chips in too", which is a raise of about $200 additional on top of the BB. Now there's $1150 in the pot and it's $245 back to me. I sheepishly call the bet, waiting to see what bad shape I've gotten myself into.

The BB turns over KK, which is about as bad as a set of Queens in this spot. My 5s are still good, but my King is not. Then, the UTG turns over.... wait for it.... T5 for a flopped two pair.

How the hell does he have that? How did he limp UTG AND smooth call the raise immediately to his right with T5 off? I haven't seen him step out of line like this in two hours. Of course, it was better than the 55 he was supposed to have there, but still, very bad for me. Now, I need one of the two case Kings for the side-pot of $500, and my 5 is completely useless in that there is only 1 left, and it gives my opponent a full house.

The good news is that my flush draw is completely clean. I have 9 outs twice, assuming one of the two remain tens or case 5 doesn't come first. That's about 36% equity, and I've got about 38% of the money in the pot. What's more, when I put my money in, the was substantial money in the pot to make my odds correct. Now I can only cross my fingers.

The turn was a blank for all of us, but the river was that sweet, sweet 7 to give me the flush and about $1450 in red chips. I was stacking them for the next five hands.

Running Cold

This week, I’m back in the Windy City. Aside from being cold and icy, with occasional moments of no snow, I am running pretty poorly. I’m also playing with less focus, so I can blame myself more than the cards. And I haven’t hit a draw in 14 hours of poker.

Here’s an example.

We're $1/2 NLHE playing at a full table in my local game, and I find KJ in early position. I limp in, as do two or three players behind me. The button, who is very loose aggressive pre-flop, and fairly loose-weak post-flop raises to $16. It folds to me in early position, and there's $25 in the pot and it's $14 more to me. Getting close to 2-to-1 on my money, I decide to call. I could be up against any pair 88 or better, AT suited or better, or AQ or better. I could also be against KQ suited. This is my range for this particular player in this position. I'm a little better off than a 2-to-1 underdog against this range. I also know that if my opponent makes top pair top kicker, or top two pair, and I make a better hand, I will likely double up. This has been a rough session, and I have only about $82 left in front of me to start the hand.

We see the flop head's up, and it comes T98. That's a pretty darn good flop for me. I'm open-ended, I'm four to the second nut flush, and I have one out to the straight-flush.

I decide to check because my opponent always make a continuation bet. Betting into him would be odd, regardless of what I held. I don't care if I get priced in, because I'm getting all my chips in. Also, given my mindset, and my opponents very loose tendencies, I'd rather see all five cards than try to get him to fold. Even with a shove, my fold equity is slim, and he is NOT a mathematical player.

There's $39 in the pot, and my opponent bets $30. I have only $66 left, and I check-raise all in. If my opponent has a pair or a flush draw, he is pretty well priced in. Against the range of hands I put him on, I am a 55-45 favorite. Against AT, I am a better than 2-1 favorite. In fact, I'm a favorite against all hands (including two pair), save for two types - I am a 2-1 dog against any set, and I am almost a 3-1 dog against exactly one hand - AQ.

My opponent insta-calls and turns over... exactly... AQ. The turn and river brick out, and he unceremoniously scoops up the remainder of my chips with Ace high.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Set of NBC Head's Up Poker Championship

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