Sunday, February 7, 2010

Poker Diary: Playing In Enemy Territory

So I sat down at a tournament table in Mahnomen, Minnesota Friday night. There were ten tables with ten or eleven players at each table (mine had ten), so there were over 100 players. The starting stack was $6000 in chips.

There's a scene in the movie Rounders where all the principal characters end up at a poker table in Atlantic City together. Two guys in business suits sit down and a voiceover informs us that if you can't spot the "fish", that is, the inexperienced player, then it's probably you. Of course, the businessmen lose their money pretty quickly.

I'm not so inexperienced as to be a fish at a table in Mahnomen, but it became obvious as we waited for the call to begin dealing that I was the only stranger at the table. That put me at a severe disadvantage right at the start. Not because, like Mike D. and the others in the movie, the casino regulars were acting in concert, but because these people knew how their poker buddies played, their strengths and weaknesses. Normally I play a little tight at a table where I don't have any inside info on the other players; I like to take the time to watch a few hands and see if I can pick up tendencies. I decided right away to play very tight with this bunch.

Once the cards started coming, it turned out my strategy was more than supported by the terrible cards I was getting. Since I was playing tight it was hard to lose much money in the first level, but it's generally a good goal to double up your stack by the first break. It didn't look promising early.

Things picked up in level two and I started loosening up. While I don't expect most players at the table paid attention to such things, there were three players I pegged as dangerous. That is, they were smart and they looked for patterns. The danger of the ultratight strategy is that, by not seeing many hands, you miss out on the those times you luck into a great flop with terrible cards. The kind of hand other players never see coming. The other big drawback is that when you do have something worth playing, it can be difficult to get any action on your bets; you've spent so much time telling everyone you only play good cards that they start to believe you.

That is also the opportunity the ultratight strategy presents; once you've established you only play good cards, smart players will fold to your bets. This opens the door to bluffing. Your 8-7 offsuit looks like AK when you bet after a flop with an ace in it. You can steal a few pots this way with cards you would normally fold. Of course, you have to be careful. You also have to realize that your reputation will evolve. Bluff too much and you'll find yourself getting called more often.

As I started to get some playable cards and got at least a rudimentary read on the table, I started playing more hands. I won a couple big pots and lost some little ones. This is a recipe for success. My stack grew and I was feeling pretty good. When we got to the break I wasn't quite doubled up, but I was close enough.

I should have been better off but I made a mistake, one I make all the time even though I know I shouldn't. I outsmart myself and it costs me bigger pots. I'll illustrate this mistake in a later post by taking you through the hand. It's going to have pictures and everything!

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