Poker metaphors often bleed into our daily lives. In political dramas, characters frequently say things like, “Don’t put all your cards on the table,” or, “Play it close to the vest.” Such phrases convey the idea that unpredictability is critical in cutthroat environments, which is just as true on the felt as it is in any movie or TV show.
Two of my friends were recently reviewing what they considered to be a straightforward hand. I, however, thought it served as a good lesson in mixing up one’s play.
One of my friends — let’s call him Larry — had just busted out of a tournament at the Venetian in Las Vegas. He was giving my other friend, whom I’ll call Ed, a recap.
In this hand, Larry had the button and started with a little under $14,000 in chips. The blinds were at $300-$600 with a $50 ante. Action folded to the cutoff, a solid, aggressive regular who had been doing well in the tournament to that point, and he raised to $1,300. Larry looked down at Kc Kd.
Larry and Ed were debating the appropriate course of action for Larry after the cutoff’s raise, weighing the merits of reraising by a relatively small amount versus going all in.
Ed was of the mind that a small three-bet, to an amount such as $2,400, would represent weakness and invite the cutoff to make a play for the pot, potentially with hands as bad as Js 9s or 2h 2c.
Larry contended that, as an aggressive player, he would be going all in with a variety of hands both strong and moderate, and he should therefore put his stack in the middle with his pocket kings as well, for the sake of consistency.
I asked why neither of them had considered the possibility of just calling. They scrunched up their faces in confusion as if I had just spoken to them in Martian.
But my question probed what I have noticed to be one of the most underutilized aspects of tournament strategy: the ability to make your opponents’ tournament experiences nightmarishly difficult.
If Larry had mixed up his play noticeably and in a balanced way in the early stages, he could have become frustratingly unpredictable.
Later on, by simply calling in this scenario, Larry could have put three players in a perilous dilemma: the two blinds and the raiser.
Having no good way to discern Larry’s hand, they would be unable to make any play fearlessly. This state of mind psychologically cripples even some of the best players. It stems from the fear that, because it is hard to get a read on our hero, every play could lead to an embarrassing disaster.
In the actual hand, Larry went all in, and his opponent, presumably sensing weakness, called with As 10s. And although lightning struck as the Ac rolled out on the flop, salvation came in the form of the Kh on the river, and Larry doubled up to about $28,000 in chips.
I don’t think Larry played the hand badly. But his overall game could benefit from some new stratagems, given that my suggestion of flat-calling wasn’t something he considered upfront. Keeping opponents guessing and forcing them to play in unfamiliar territory is one of the most powerful ways to find new edges and improving one’s return on investment in tournament poker.