Learn from the pros: Tom Dwan, Jason Mercier, Phil Laak and Jake Cody

It’s great fun to watch the best poker players in the world, like Tom Dwan, but what can we learn from them? Quite a lot it turns out, as Ross Jarvis explains…

The original tagline for Full Tilt Poker was ‘Learn, Chat and Play with the Pros.’ It sounded good on paper but, in actuality only one of the three verbs rang true. You couldn’t really chat with Phil Ivey and would need a bankroll of $1m to play with Tom Dwan, but the one thing you could do is learn from the best players in the world. One of the most effective ways to improve your poker game is to pay attention to players better than you, find out what they are doing and add the moves to your own arsenal. In this article we’re going to look at four world-class pros who can all teach you a critical skill that you need to crush the tables.

Make huge bluffs like Tom Dwan

Tom Dwan vs Sammy George
Million Dollar Challenge, 2009

In the late 2000s Tom Dwan redefined the way that people played poker, and it was mostly down to his fearless ability to bluff anyone at any time – regardless of how much money was at stake. However, Dwan doesn’t just pile money into the middle and hope for the best. He is always thinking about what hand his opponent could have, what hand he can represent and if it could lead to a credible bluff. In short, he’s putting together all the elements of a story and then telling it. It’s a lesson that you should learn when you play.

In order to be successful bluffs have to be carefully planned out. Let’s take a look at what happens when a bluff doesn’t tell a coherent story to illustrate the point. Let’s say you call a raise with 8-7 and the flop is T-9♣-2♠. You check-call a bet with your straight draw. The turn is the 4 and you check-call a bet with your combo flush and straight draw. The river is the 2 and you miss everything. You now lead out for full pot. This is a terrible bluff, because you are representing a tiny range of hands on a river card that has not affected the board at all (you are unlikely to have a Two in your hand given that you called a preflop raise). It looks very likely that you have what you have – a missed draw – and so any capable player will call you down with a Ten, overpair, a Nine or maybe even just Ace-high. The only possible hands you would play this way that are strong would be something like 9-9, T-T or 2-2.

Instead, when you want to run a huge bluff like Tom Dwan aim for situations where you can credibly represent a wide range of strong hands.

Take this famous hand from 2009, where Tom Dwan wins a $162k pot with just 7-2. Dwan is playing heads-up against fishy amateur Sammy George and raises preflop with 7-2 (due to a prop bet the two are playing where you get a $10k bonus for winning any pot with 7-2). George calls with A-6♣ and flops two pair on a J-A-6 flop, check-raising to $27k. Dwan calls in position and bets $48k when checked to on the 3♣ turn. The river is the 3 and George checks again. Now Dwan shoves all-in – for around $400k into a $162k pot! It looks like a suicidal move on the surface, but when you break it down it’s a great bet because Dwan could have a multitude of strong hands here. By calling the check-raise on the flop it’s feasible Dwan flopped a big flush or a set. By the river both of those are strong enough hands to bet huge for value. On the other hand, George has made it clear that he wants to pot control with a medium-strength hand. If he was in love with his hand he would have continued to fire on the turn and river. It’s a great bluff by Dwan and it works perfectly when George mucks his hand.

While we’re not advising you start overbet shoving every river from now on – even Dwan falls short of this! – the lesson here is attempting to find spots where a bluff is so credible you can make your opponent fold strong hands. It helps if you have balls of steel too!

Make crazy folds like Phil Laak

Phil Laak vs Johnny Chan
High Stakes Poker Season 7, 2011

Phil Laak has a reputation for playing tight in high-stakes cash games, but he also has a tremendous ability to know when he is beat. Not only that but Laak has the confidence to throw away strong hands when he thinks he is behind.

It’s very important that you can fold big hands when the time is right. The first step to doing this is to appreciate how hand strengths change depending on the board texture and the opponent you are up against. For example, a King-high flush in most circumstances will be a strong enough hand for you to go all-in with. However, let’s say you bet with K-8 on a 2-7-9-4♣-J board. Your opponent now reraises all-in. If the board only had three hearts on it you’d have to call because it would be extremely unlikely – and unfortunate – that your opponent would hold A-X. But because there are four hearts on board it’s easier for you to be beat, as the single A in your opponent’s hand will do the job.

Combine this with a read on your opponent and the decision will become even easier. If the player you’re up against is tight or rarely makes huge bluffs then you have an easy fold. If he’s a maniac who loves to put pressure on, it’s more difficult. It’s vital that you don’t just call every time you have a good hand and face pressure though. Think through the action and make a measured decision.

That’s what Laak does here, against Johnny Chan. Laak flops a set of Sevens on the A-Q♠-7♣ flop and bets out, but the situation gets murky on the A-Q♠-7♣-J-A♣ board. Laak bets $16,400 for value but insta-folds when Chan pumps it up to $46,400. It’s an incredible fold.

Laak told PokerPlayer, ‘When I saw him cutting out a raise, it was so gross… I worked out the hand in my head and knew that even if he raised the minimum, I was winning only 25% of the time. I had to fold to any raise. The primal thing kicked in and I knew I was beat.’ Learn from Phil Laak and don’t be afraid to throw away a big hand when you are sure it’s only second best.

Make hero calls like Jason Mercier

Jason Mercier vs Eric Koskas
EPT Sanremo, 2008

It takes huge guts to make a call for your tournament life with bottom pair, Ace-high or sometimes even worse. However, there are times when you just have to do it. A correctly timed hero call is just as profitable as a great bluff, value bet or fold. The only problem is that there’s a very fine line between looking like Superman and looking like Bananaman.

In 2008, en route to winning EPT Sanremo (his first major title) Jason Mercier pulled off one of the greatest hero calls of all time on the final table. Facing Eric Koskas, Mercier held 9♠-5 on a 5♣-J-6 flop. It goes check-check and the turn is the 8♣, when Koskas fires out 220k (an overbet) and Mercier calls. The river is the 8 and Koskas immediately moves all-in for full pot. Mercier’s tournament life is on the line – how can he possibly make this brilliant call?

It all comes down to a combination of the bet sizing and the board texture. By betting so big on the turn and river Koskas is polarising his hand, meaning that he either has the relative nuts or air. However, when the Eight pairs on the river there aren’t many hands available that could now be strong enough to bet full pot for value. An Eight would, but it’s hard to give Koskas credit for that. Would he really bet so big with a Jack, which was his most likely holding? The story just didn’t make sense and that’s what allowed Mercier to make the call with bottom pair and set up an astonishing victory.

Making correct hero calls is actually very similar to making huge bluffs – all you have to do is look at the move in reverse. When you make a bluff you’re looking for the story to make sense and the right spot where you can represent several strong hands. When you’re looking to make a hero call you’re looking for spots where your opponent’s story doesn’t make sense and where it is difficult for him to have many strong hands. Remember these simple rules next time you attempt to hero and you can look like Superman, rather than Bananaman, at the table.

Make great value bets like Jake Cody

Jake Cody vs Robert Mizrachi
PCA 2013

All good poker players know that getting the maximum value in a hand is essential. Think of it in this way and it will become clear. One player wins ten small pots inside an hour but rarely bets the river when he thinks he is good just in case he gets it wrong. Another player at the table wins only two pots that hour but bets all three streets with his medium-strength hand and gets paid off by worse. The chances are that player number two will be sitting with more chips, despite getting involved much less then the first player. That’s how important getting maximum value is in poker – and you need to start taking risks today to add this feature to your game.

Jake Cody is a master of the thin value bet and, in this hand from the 2013 PCA, he perfectly demonstrates a situation where he wins extra chips most players would have left behind.

Cody c-bets A-5 on a 9♣-7♦-J♠ flop, and Robert Mizrachi calls with 8-8. Cody hits his Ace on the turn and is check-raised by Mizrachi, who is semi-bluffing. Cody calls this and Mizrachi now checks on the 4 river. Imagine that you are sat there with top pair, weak kicker having faced a check-raise on the turn. It’s so tempting just to check behind and get to showdown – after all, what worse hands can call you? If you have the aggressive image that Cody has, and a curious opponent in Mizrachi, quite a lot! Cody shoves all-in and gets called extremely light by Mizrachi’s Eights.

This is an extremely complex hand, but the main lesson to take away from it is that if you’re on the river and think you have the best hand, then you should go ahead and make a value bet.

Sometimes you’ll end up wishing you hadn’t as you’re called by a better hand, but in the long run – as long as you know where you are in a hand – these bets will make you a lot of money. Thin value is really important if you want to take your game to the top.

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