It was Day Three of the World Poker Tour's L.A. Poker Classic main event earlier this year. I'd been short for much of the tournament but had built my stack to $125,000, just behind the average stack of $140,000. About 110 players remained, and blinds were $1,000-$2,000 with an ante of $300.
A player with $200,000 opened under the gun to $4,600. The next player had $50,000 and called. My turn, and I looked down at Qh Qs.
The standard play is to raise, but here's the problem: I wouldn't be raising as a bluff, and I wouldn't be expected to bluff in this spot. Raising would make it easy for my opponents to put me on a premium hand and easy for them to play against my narrow range.
The key to making the correct decision is to first make a plan, anticipating potential pitfalls. Let's consider our options.
First, we could raise. If we do, our opponents should assign us a range that's something like pocket 10s or better, A-K and maybe A-Q. If they all fold, cool - we win the pot, albeit a small one. If we're called and see a flop, fine - we have position and a strong hand. If somebody four-bets, we're unhappy.
What would we do if somebody four-bet behind us? Go with it? Fold? What if the initial raiser or the guy in between decided to four-bet? You should have answers to these questions before raising. Sometimes, folding to a four-bet is fine, but even if our opponent's range is A-K to pocket queens or better, we still have a 40.2 percent chance.
Second, we could just call. This alters our perceived range to a wide selection of decent hands, discounting A-K and pocket jacks or better. (Opponents don't expect you to overcall with premium hands.) This will invite action behind us, encouraging players to call with a wider range, as they'll see a cheap opportunity to win a big pot. Opponents also will be more likely to reraise with a wider range, seeing so much dead money in the pot.
Allowing more hands to see the flop cheaply isn't ideal. But raising would mark us for a premium hand, and if someone reraises, it would be unwise for us to continue with a hand that's at the bottom of our perceived range. If we merely call and someone raises behind us, we'd feel much better about going all-in preflop, since our perceived range wouldn't be as high, and our hand exceeds that range.
It seems that in most cases I'd be happier with the road less traveled. I simply called. Action folded to a player behind me, who barely resisted raising and just called. Then both blinds called. Now there was $30,300 in the pot, with six players seeing the flop - not optimal, but not that bad.
The flop came Jc 9h 5c. Check, check, check, all in. I had to decide whether to call $45,100. Despite my efforts to avoid a tough decision, I now had one.
Fortunately, my hand beat his range, since he'd usually have one pair or a draw in this spot. Unfortunately, I had lots of opponents behind me. After I judged that they were disinterested, I called, not liking my plan of folding to a shove from one of them but liking it better than folding now. Everybody else folded, and my opponent turned up the Ac 2c. He hit the flush on the turn with the 9c, and a 3h on the river secured him the pot.
Make a plan before you put chips into any pot. Your plan won't always work, but the results are usually better than if you wing it.
Bryan Devonshire is a professional poker player from Las Vegas. Known as "Devo" on the tournament circuit, he has amassed more than $2 million in career earnings. Follow him on Twitter: @devopoker. Poker Pros runs every week.