Choose your weapons

Why it’s vital to change tactics based on who you’re playing

For the record, I’m not a great poker player. If I was, I’d be doing the Roland de Wolfe thing and playing the game professionally rather than writing about it. However, I’m not terrible either. I’m okay. I’ve won money and lost money, but I have done enough things right to ace a few small tournaments. In the last one I played (a freebie, put on by a Vegas casino for high-rollers and a smattering of invited guests), I felt pleased with my performance – until the end.

The tourney was basically a sitand- go that you had to win in order to play in the larger tournament – the one that would give you a reasonable shot at decent money. At least one pro rotated into the table (hot saucesipping Robert Williamson III) and a couple of good amateurs were present as well. Fortunately for me, there also happened to be an older lady, seated directly to my left, who had no clue (thank you, Lord).

Whatever the case, I played a good, aggressive game and got to heads up with a weak, passive player.

I had him outchipped two-to-one and my plan was to slowly whittle him down to nothing. The guy was a complete calling station, so that should have made the job easy. Plus, the blinds were going up at a rapid enough clip to work in my favour.

Then came a hand in which he called my normal four times the big blind pre-flop raise, and I made top pair on a Ten-high flop. At that point I forgot about the slow-bleed strategy and put him all-in.

He thought long and hard about calling before turning over pocket Jacks. He won the hand and suddenly had a slight chip lead. In retrospect, of course, I should never have given him the opportunity.

He played so slowly that I could have beaten him with small bets. And I should have realised that there was no way he’d call with anything that didn’t dominate top pair. He was that conservative. But, on the other hand, who’d expect a guy who’s trailing heads-up to slow-play Jacks? Even if he’s passive…

Lessons learnt

The good that came out of this is that it got me thinking about a few things: Getting the job done with as little risk as possible, remaining focused on your opponent as well as the game’s progress, and the need to customise your play to suit specific situations.

Ironically, I got to where I was in the tournament by playing a good, aggressive game. Taking advice that Chris Ferguson once gave, I never called pre-flop. I played raise or fold poker, and it totally paid off for me.

Up to that point. However, once I got to heads-up with a weak and passive player (really, the two mesh together so nicely), it was time to go smallball. I should have been limping preflop, dipping in with probing bets, pushing him around in a way that would make it difficult for him to get any oxygen. Instead, like an impatient fighter who seems poised to win a match on points, I went for a knockout and opened myself up to get slugged.

Rather than playing my cards, I should have been playing my opponent to a heavier degree than I had been. Had I done that to the proper extent, I would have handily meted out a slow but sure death.

Maybe I should have been talking to him the whole time, keeping him relaxed and off guard, allowing him to commit a kind of painless, player-assisted poker suicide.

That leads to something that the veteran gambler Billy Baxter once told me about Stu Ungar: among Stuey’s major strengths was an ability to know precisely how little he needed to bet in order to induce a fold. For all of Ungar’s ballyhooed aggression in his prime, he wasn’t pushing all-in like crazy.

He did the job economically, with as little risk to his own stack as possible. And if his opponent called the properly calibrated bet, well, then he knew it was probably time to slow down. He also got the information cheaply. In my case, jabbing and stabbing bets would have been the best mode of attack. Instead, I came in with a machine gun, and it backfired.

Will I know better for next time? I think so. I hope so. How did I windup making out in the tournament? Unfortunately, I’m guessing that you’ve already intuited my inglorious flameout…

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