Pro concepts: Taking shots at poker

Taking shots in poker is exciting, says Simon Hemsworth, and it can be very profitable. Learn how to do it well and watch your bankroll grow

There are many ways you can approach taking shots in cash game poker. You can take the more measured approach that a lot of the well-known online pros advocate, or perhaps go for the very aggressive route of someone like Viktor ‘Isildur1’ Blom. Although we all love the sheer guts of Blom and the entertainment he provides, his strategy will end in ruin for most of us. Unless you have Viktor’s incredible natural talent and ability to handle some of the most extreme swings online poker can hand out (perhaps losing $4 million in a day hurt a little), you are better off sticking to the more sensible approach. 

When to take a shot

The most important factor when deciding to play higher than usual is your bankroll. I’m not a fan of setting precise bankroll requirements because it depends on the individual, but let’s generalise it by saying you should have enough of a bankroll so that if the shot goes wrong you can still play the stakes you were playing before.
A lot of players have an unnecessarily large bankroll for the stakes they are grinding and miss lucrative opportunities to play higher stakes where their financial expectation is much larger. Playing at the $0.25/$0.50 level with 200 buy-ins isn’t sensible – it’s silly. Man up and take a shot at some $0.50/$1 or $1/2! If it goes badly that’s part of the game and you should just be prepared to move back down.
Making sure the shot you are taking is +EV is obviously imperative. There is no point in quitting a juicy $2/$4 game to sit on a tough $3/$6 table. When you are playing lower stakes this process is much easier as there will usually be plenty of tables to choose from. So as soon as your bankroll allows, you can pick the best games and, hopefully, clean up. At higher stakes this is more difficult as juicy games either rarely run or are difficult to get into as the regs tend to swarm in very quickly. In this case you may need to work around the games a bit more and shots might not always be available at times that are ideal for you. This is an unfortunate consequence of the current high-stakes poker economy, but there are still good games to be found.
Choosing a game to take a shot at isn’t simply a case of there being a fish in it. Is the fish a complete drooler or just a bad reg that plays too tight? For example, if the available seat on a table is not of good relative position to the mark and there is a very aggressive, good reg to your left you might want to give it a miss.
Being on a confidence high is a great thing in poker and particularly when taking a shot. Feeling good about your game will ensure you are most likely to transfer your A-game from your normal stakes to higher limits. Conversely, taking a shot when low on confidence can be devastating as your negative feelings will lead to making poor decisions like playing too tight in an attempt to not ‘get unlucky’.

How to approach a shot

Some people might buy in for the absolute minimum, some just enough to cover the fish and some for the max. I’m a fan of just doing what you are naturally the most comfortable with. If the fish in the game has 56BBs then buying in for exactly this amount might not be a good idea. For one thing, you may have very little idea of how to play this stack size correctly in the inevitable battles with regs. Also, buying in for exactly what the fish is sitting with is a rather unsubtle way of telling him you are here because of him. In other words, you are telling him he sucks, which he may not like too much. If you normally play 100BB poker then buy in for this stack because this is what you know best. If you think buying in for 100BBs is too much or too risky then the game is simply too big for you. (See link to Peter Eastgate video for how buying in for the wrong amount can backfire).
The fish are the reason you are playing and where the value comes from so this is exactly where you should try to extract money when taking your shot. You should be trying to get involved in as many pots with the bad players as possible by playing a wide range of hands when they enter the pot. Playing heads-up pots with the fish is the perfect situation to show your edge and this is best achieved by three-betting prefl op with lots of value hands, especially when in position. If you are playing with savvy regulars then they will probably not appreciate you doing this as they also are looking to stack the fish! Although it might not be a good idea to try to outplay regs from the get-go when taking a shot, you also don’t want to be submissive which leads me to my next point…

Don’t back down to regs

A common mistake I often see by people taking shots is playing too passively versus the regular players in the games. They want to play pots against the fish but end up being a loser in the game because they fold too many hands against the regs and never play back against them. It’s very important to set your image early to show that you aren’t going to be pushed around so why not throw in some light three-bets, or four-bet the regs when you strongly suspect you are being bluffed. These plays won’t necessarily show an immediate profit, but they will send a signal to the regs that you’re here to play.

Never be scared money

This next point follows on nicely from my previous point about not being submissive when faced with aggression from the regs. Playing with scared money is dangerous as you will start taking lines you wouldn’t normally take purely because of the money that is at stake. Typically this will involve doing things that are more passive than usual in an attempt to lower variance. For example, you will call a three-bet with A-Q instead of four-betting it or you will call down with a combo draw instead of raising. When taking a shot don’t think of the Xbox game, fl at screen TV, mountain bike or even the car you could have bought with the money you just lost a flip with. In the long run, if you are taking the most +EV lines it will all work out for the best. Keep telling yourself that.

Play your game

This next concept is linked to not backing down to regs or being scared money and relates to not deviating from your normal game because the stakes are higher than usual. Quite often players will suddenly alter their general strategy when taking a shot and perhaps take over-complicated lines in hands because they believe this new level requires it. Although usually people that play higher stakes will be better in a few specific and subtle ways, they will also do many of the same things successful lower stakes players do. Just play against them as you would normally against the lower-stakes regs, which can include making your usual hero calls, folds or big bluffs.

Stop loss

This is where a lot of people fail, especially those with a bit too much gamble in them. Shots will go bad a lot of the time, that’s just poker. But what will always turn a bad shot into a disastrous one is not keeping to a strict stop loss. The stop loss will be set depending on an your circumstances. It could be one buy-in at $10/$20 if you had a bankroll of $10k or perhaps a ten buy-in shot at $1/$2 with $20k. What is important is that you set the stop loss beforehand and then stick to it.

Make it hard for the shot-taker

All of the advice I have given so far is from the perspective of the shot-taker, but it is also important to know what to do as the reg when playing against the shot-taker in these situations. As I have mentioned, the more savvy regs will put a lot of pressure on shot-takers by three-betting them light pre flop and other forms of aggression. This tactic can be extremely effective against those shot-takers that are too risk averse, and will do anything to avoid being stacked. In postflop situations you can barrel multiple streets very liberally as shot-takers will not want to call down light and will frequently raise with strong hands to ensure they don’t get outdrawn.
You might find that situations against shot-takers that play too tight can yield more profit than those with the fish so try to pummel them with poker aggression at every opportunity. Eastgate shows that even world champs can get out of their depth.

Battling reg aggression when shot-taking

This is an example of a hand from a $25/$50 shot I took a year ago – and remember fondly! The villain in question was a very good high-stakes regular who I had noticed would relentlessly put pressure on shot-takers like me whose usual stakes were rarely higher than $5/$10. The game was just breaking as the mark at the table had just been stacked (by me I believe, must be nice) and the reg likely knew myself or the SB was not keen to stick around and fl ip coins for big money. As a result, the following silliness occurred:
Seat 1: SB [$7,363.00]
Seat 2: Rhymenoceros [$10,325.00]
Seat 6: VILLAIN [$7,115.00]
SB posts small blind [$25.00]
Rhymenoceros posts big blind [$50.00]
Dealt to Rhymenoceros [K-K]
VILLAIN raises [$125.00]
SB folds
Rhymenoceros raises [$400.00]
VILLAIN raises [$1,225.00]
Rhymenoceros calls [$900.00]
Rhymenoceros checks
VILLAIN bets [$1,350.00]
Rhymenoceros calls [$1,350.00]
Rhymenoceros checks
VILLAIN bets [$4,415.00]
Rhymenoceros calls [$4,415.00]
Rhymenoceros shows [K-K ]
VILLAIN shows [4-9d]
Rhymenoceros wins $14,254.00
In this hand the reg took his relentless aggression too far, especially with such a terrible starting hand. Based on his thinking that I was playing tight due to the stakes he should also perceive my three-bet as strong and just fold. It was nice to turn his aggression against him and a PP relief to hold against those eight outs as well!

Eastgate: bad buy-in decision

Shortly after winning the WSOP Main Event for a bazillion dollars Peter Eastgate decided to play in High Stakes Poker with the usual mix of talented high rollers and rich amateurs. Despite winning all this money in the WSOP this certainly counts as a shot for Eastgate who will never have played cash games this high before, and the potential of losing hundreds of thousands will be in the back of his mind. He decided to buy in for $500k, presumably in an attempt to make a bundle in case any of the wealthy recreational players brought in for a similar amount. What he didn’t foresee were people like Tom ‘Durrrr’ Dwan putting massive pressure on him with such deep stacks.
In this very famous hand, Dwan pulls of a ridiculous bluff and Eastgate is forced to fold his trips because Durrrr is representing such a strong hand and he doesn’t want to play a huge pot without the nuts.
In this example, Eastgate decides to just call down with an extremely good hand versus a very aggressive opponent instead of raising the river. He is possibly scared of only being called by better hands or perhaps being reraised by Dwan and being in a difficult situation for a massive pot. If he were shorter stacked he could shove over Durrrr’s river bet without too much thought: 
Neither of these hands are particularly badly played by Eastgate, they are simply a consequence of buying in too deep.

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