July 2007
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An expensive lesson

So did I learn anything from the $215 limit tournament that, truthfully, I should have never played?  Yes I did, but it definitely wasn’t worth the money.  I’m sure I could have learned exactly the same thing from a $30 or $50 tournament.

One thing I’d forgotten is that fixed limit poker plays out much slower than no limit, and how significant that could be in a tournament.  Because many more hands go to a showdown, you get to see play hands per level.  Even starting with 2500 chips (62.5 big bets at 20/40), it didn’t seem long before everyone was short stacked.  After an hour, 29 players (of 36 in total) still remained but with the next level being 150/300 and the average stack at just over 3100 chips, most players are already just two pots away from busto.

Players don’t go broke in the early stages, and even the very worst – or the very unluckiest – bleed away slowly, so unless you can accumulate a lot of chips (usually by runing very hot) you end up like the rest of the field: waiting to see a big hand and hoping it holds.  Therefore I suspect that, during the first few levels, looking for opportunities to play hands with big pot potential like suited connectors and small pocket pairs cheaply is much more valuable than trying to milk a tiny edge from your very strong hands pre-flop.  One extra bet won in level 1 is only worth half a bet as soon as the clock chimes in level 2.

The main point of strategy I’d overlooked though was blind play.  Whether it was trying to defend against suspected stealers or finding opportunities to steal myself, I never really got it right.  With more severe blinds stealing becomes more attractive and defending with marginal hands – particularly out of position to a button raise – becomes a very volatile strategy.

With a short stack, blind play requires great care indeed.  There is no such thing as a resteal move – the best you can do is offer the raiser 5-1 pot odds to see a flop – and you cannot open-push in order to put maximum pressure on the blinds.  If you decide to raise, you have to be prepared to play a flop.

The biggest mistake you can make in limit hold’em is to fold the best hand for a single bet.  However in a tournament, making thin value calls can be devastating when that single bet represents a large proportion of your stack, or even your last few chips.  Now that I am a little more prepared to think ahead, hopefully I will be able to avoid going too far in situations where a crippling river call would be mandatory.

I made many notes to try to convince myself I was getting something of value of the tournament.  I forced myself just to pick just one hand to write about.  I began with 1130 in chips – just over 5 big bets at the 100/200 level:

Preflop: Hero is SB with A, Q. Hero posts a blind of 50.
6 folds, Button raises, Hero 3-bets, 1 fold, Button caps, Hero calls.

Flop: A, 6, 5 (2 players)
Hero checks, Button bets, Hero calls.

Turn: 9 (2 players)
Hero checks, Button bets, Hero calls.

River: 2 (2 players)
Hero checks, Button checks.

I found myself insta-raising with AQ from the small blind when facing a button raise.  As you do.  However, I’m pretty sure this was a mistake when the reraise already committed about 30% of my chips to the pot, and possibly more if it was capped.  Although a smooth call encourages the big blind to come along for the ride, in this situation I think it’s a risk you have to take.

I should have chosen to control the pot size, rather than to force out the third player in the hand.  I figure that my hand is probably the best and I definitely want to see a flop, but I’m not going to check-call off almost all of my stack one bet at a time with just ace high.  Leading out when I miss the flop is going to be the only chance to bluff at this pot, and the smaller the pot, the more significant my flop bet will be.

So with the pot as big as it could possibly be, I immediately decided to just check-call with the top pair in an attempt to lose as little as possible.  His pre-flop cap showed strength, or so I thought, so AK was a very likely holding.  I couldn’t lay the hand down, but I did not expect to be winning.  This thinking is dreadful.

Had I thought ahead like I was meant to, I would have realised that one more small bet and two big bets would have left me with just 230 chips – barely one big bet, and almost no chance of recovery in the tournament.  The decision to go all the way if I hit the flop should have been made pre-flop.  Then, when I do hit, the objective is to get as many chips into the pot as possible.

That means I have to try to get in a check-raise for a big bet.  So I should check-call the flop and then let him bet again on the turn – as I did, but for the wrong reason, and without firing the check-raise with a hand that was committed to this pot.  If there’s no turn bet it means I’ve got it all sewn up so then I can lead the river (but probably don’t win any more money).

Trying to trap here, even without being at all certain that my hand is best, gives him the opportunity to lose money with worse hands than mine, and I don’t scare off unimproved pocket pairs by admitting that I liked the ace on the flop.  It gives me the best chance to get all my money in the pot, which is what I clearly have to do if I make a hand that I’m prepared to take to showdown.

He showed JJ, and I survived – for a little longer at least.

Here endeth the $215 lesson.