The concept of leveling, and how it applies to hand reading
[Note: this is an excerpt from my upcoming book on poker hand reading.]
“When the opponent expands, I contract; and when he contracts, I expand.” —Bruce Lee
Most good poker players understand the adage that to win at poker you have to “play the player” and not just your own cards. They also understand that you can’t bluff a bad player.
To make another player fold a better hand than yours, the villain first has to be aware that they might be beaten. This means that they actually have to be putting you on a hand range themselves, or they will be oblivious to your bluff and can/will blithely call you down with weak made hands. This is why value betting is so important at the low-stakes games; the opponents at these stakes are typically playing only the absolute strength of their own cards, and are unaware of what cards their opponents are holding. Trying to convince them that they’re beaten with a bluff bet is usually fruitless—and costly.
The same type of logic applies to hand reading.
There is no need for you to worry about what hand range a villain is putting us on, or how that might affect his or her play (and therefore their range) if that villain is not actually hand reading themselves. In fact, it’s counterproductive to do so. Let’s see why this is so…
The staffer handed me a laminated card with 238 on it. Minutes later I was in action for the first time in months, and I wasn’t even excited about it. I didn’t have time for that. I had a movie to catch up on. That’s what it feels like now, every time I join a game in progress. It’s like coming in halfway through a movie. I’m desperate to figure out who these characters are, and what I missed. Who is winning? Who is losing? As the movie plays on, I watch every scene, and I send out my tilt feelers, because the main thing I need to know is: Who is content? Who is agitated? By constantly updating that information, I can make better reads, better bluffs, better calls.” – Tommy Angelo
... it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the same pair of deuces
Here are two hands in which I was dealt an identical pair of ducks in the span of 10 minutes: 2♥-2♦. Both hands took place in a tough full-ring, $100NLHE online cash game. Would you play these two hands the same way I did?
Hand #1: I have a pair of deuces in the small blind and get open-raised 3xbb by a tricky and aggressive player in late position. He is purposely playing a short-stack of 30bb. He opens for 3x the big blind. The action folds to me. I muck.
Hand #2: I have a pair of deuces in the CO seat facing a 3xbb raise by a TAg UTG player with a full 100bb stack. I call.
What? Deuces are deuces, right? And the first villain in middle position has a much wider (read: worse) hand range than the second villain in EP, right? Don’t I have the actions in these two hands backward? Nope. Let me explain…
A few years ago I was showing a family friend how to play online poker. My friend dabbles occasionally at poker, but he doesn’t believe that the online games are beatable. It’s rigged, he says. It’s filled with ‘bots. And any kind of poker–live or online–is all about hot streaks and lucky runs, anyway. You can’t beat a random chance game in the long-term. So why study and read about the game? Worse, why write a damn blog about it?
My friend is so sure of himself, that he basically calls me a liar whenever I point out that I make a decent hourly wage at this online “hobby,” and thereby fund the occasional large discretionary purchase in my personal life through my winnings at the tables. Well, he doesn’t actually use the word “liar,” instead choosing the less inflammatory, “You’re so full of sh!t” term of endearment.
Anyway, in my long-running effort to convince him that he’s the one who is full of sh!t, I opened a couple of micro-stakes fast-fold “Zone” poker games when he had stopped by to visit with his wife. Here’s what happened:
And don’t immediately dig yourself a hole. Unless your name is Maverick.
Remember the movie “Maverick”? Yes, the ersatz old-time poker movie with Mel Gibson playing the lead is silly, cheesy, over the top, and highly unrealistic—but I enjoyed it anyway. And, surprisingly, there are a few decent nuggets of poker wisdom hidden in the rest of the silliness. Take the scene where Mel’s character, Bret Maverick, is trying to convince a group of grizzled saloon players that they should let him sit down and play cards with them. They eye him as an interloper and cardsharp, and some of them are adamant about not letting him play—that is, until he says:
“I promise that I will lose for at least an hour.”
The players like this idea, so they let him sit in the game. And in the ensuing hour, Maverick indeed does lose. But not a lot. More importantly, he takes that first hour to learn what his opponents’ tendencies, tells, and betting patterns are. At the end of the self-imposed losing period, Maverick begins playing real poker, exploiting all that gathered information—and promptly starts crushing the game. Let’s talk about this.
Here’s a short video demonstrating what some people might consider a big preflop fold. In reality, this is a pretty easy fold– provided you understand that early position (EP) limp-shoves from villains at the online micro- and small-stakes tables almost always means they have Aces or Kings:
Back in Issue #40 of the Exceptional Poker Newsletter, I posted a short article on why “betting to protect” against draws is not smart poker. Wow, I struck a nerve. I’ve subsequently received a half dozen emails and questions on the subject. Most were polite and respectful, but some weren’t. Here’s an example:
“…You obviously don’t understand the reasons to bet in texas hold-em. When you have top pair hand and you’re [sic] opponent has a straight draw that can beat yours you have to bet to protect your hand against the straight. Read any book on poker and it will tell you this is why you need to bet. I don’t think you understand poker as good as you think you do if you tell us not to bet to protect against draws. I am going to unsubscribe from you’re [sic] newsletter because of this bad advice…”
Uh, I’m sorry you’re leaving the list, but I respectfully disagree with your statement about betting to protect. You should never bet in poker to “protect” your hand, just as you should never bet in poker to gather information about your opponents’ hands. These two things (protection and information) are nice side benefits of betting, but they should never be the primary reason you make a bet or raise. The only* two reasons to bet are: a) for value (i.e., you think you can get a worse hand to call) or, b) as a bluff (i.e., you think you can get a better hand to fold). Sometimes we bet as a middle-ground combination of these two things (e.g., semi-bluff), but we never, ever, ever should bet for the reason “protecting” our hand. Doing so is dumb poker, and it’s costing you money. Let me explain why this is so with some escalating hand examples:
Question: You’re in a $5/$10 NL full-ring cash game. Everyone has $1200 stacks. The UTG player (tight-aggressive) raises to $50 and gets two calls from solid, tight-aggressive players. You’re in the BB w/ KhKc. You re-raise to $250 and get 3 callers. The flop is Qd-8c-3h. You bet $300 on the flop. The UTG player calls and a middle position player moves all-in for $750 more. What should you do?
Question: You’re in a 6-handed $5/$10 NL cash game. Everyone has about $2000. A passive middle position player raises to $40. The button re-raises to $70. You are in the big blind with 8s8c. What should you do?
Call and semi-bluff all-in on low flop
Raise to $180 half the time, call the other 50% of time
Question: You’re in a $5/$10 NL FR cash game with a $1000 stack. A very tight, inexperienced player with $1000 makes a standard raise from EP to $40. You are on the button with 9h9s and call the raise. The blinds fold. The flop comes 9cKdAs. The villain bets $60, you raise to $200, and he re-raises to $500. What should you do?