Monday, July 14, 2008

Poker is a Harsh Mistress...

I've been playing a lot of online poker for the past six or eight months. Mostly no-limit Hold 'Em tournaments. I mostly lost at first, then I studied, read a lot of books, spent time looking back at my hand history and figuring out what I was doing wrong. Then I went through a long period where I pretty much broke even, giving back what I won in one tournament through the buy-ins to all the others I didn't win.

Now, I've moved up to being a (marginally) winning player. I am up around $4000 in the past two months. I cashed in seven tournaments in three days at one point. I have won a number of tournaments, including on where I picked up $2700 and one where I won $1295. Just last friday I came in fifth in a small $3 buy-in tourney where I picked up $350.

What's frustrating, though, about improving as a player is that the better you play, the more bad beats you take and the fewer you give out. After all, a bad beat is when you have the best hand compared to your opponent but then your opponent catches whatever miracle card he or she needs to beat you. In order to give your opponent a bad beat, you have to have made a bad play and gone in with the worst hand. So, the better you play, the less often you are playing with the worst hand, and the less often you can give out a bad beat, while you have more opportunities to take one.

But the worst is the beats you just really couldn't see coming, the hands that, even looking back, you can't figure out how you could have gotten away from. Case in point: This weekend, I bought into a relatively small $30 tourney, thinking that the high buy-in (relative to what I usually play) was worth the risk because I had a better chance against fewer players. Well, I lasted exactly one hand.

I had AK off-suit in early position and made a raise of 2 1/2 times the big blind. I had one caller, the big and small blinds folded, and we went to the flop. The flop comes 3 - 10 -A. I flopped top pair and top kicker. I bet about 2/3 of the pot. My opponent called. At this point I'm putting him on middle pair or maybe an Ace with a worse kicker. The turn comes another A! I check, hoping to induce a bet with my trip As, and my opponent obliges. I raise him. There are enough chips in the pot at this point that I'm willing to take it down right there.

He re-raises. I re-raise, and he goes all-in.

All-in? What? So I'm trying to figure out what he could have. He just called me before the flop. So, he probably doesn't have some big pair that I could beat like KK or QQ, since he didn't raise me. He didn't raise me on the flop, either, like I would expect he would if he had something like AT or A3, since those hands would be vulnerable and unwise to slow-play when I bet pre-flop and on the flop. Could he have called a pre-flop raise with something like T3? It's the first hand, so I don't have a read. Maybe. He's in it deep if he did.

But most likely, I'm thinking, he probably has something like AQ or AJ. He's got three As now and thinks he has the best hand, but I have him out-kicked.

Besides, how can you get away from three As? I call.

And, of course, he turns over pocket Ts for a full house, Tens full of Aces. For the uninitiated, the chances of flopping trips with a pocket pair are about 22.5 to 1 against, so the odds weren't high that he had TT or 33. And not very many people have the nerve to just smooth-call when they flop three of a kind and there's an overcard (the A) on the board. Most players (in my experience) would re-raise on the flop, wanting to see right then if I had an A or not.

So, anyway, the river is a blank and I'm out. Maybe a better player than me could have gotten away from that hand, but it's awfully hard to fold trip Aces. Especially online, where players are so aggressive and people often are willing to go all-in on the first hand on a stone-cold bluff.

So, I didn't feel that bad about it. But, it was a little exasperating when it happened again on Sunday.

I'm in early position on the second hand with AK off-suit again. I raise, the small blind folds and the big blind calls. At least I had position. The flop comes 4 - A - 8. My opponent checks. I bet the pot. My opponent calls.

The turn comes with another A. My opponent checks. I bet about half the pot. My opponent comes over the top all-in.

And I'm sitting there, like, what the hell? Come on, he couldn't have pocket 4s or pocket 8s, could he? There's just no way. Two people hitting a 22.5 - 1 card on me in two days? Is that more likely, or is it more like that he's bluffing or has AQ, or AJ? Can I get away from trip Aces?

Well, I already told you I couldn't. He had 44, giving him a full house, fours and aces. River is a blank and I'm out again.

Those are the hands where you look back and try to figure out how you could have gotten away from them. I mean, I can lay down pocket As or KK when I know I'm beat. I can lay down a full house when I've put my opponent on a better full house. But heck, if you aren't willing to go to war with trip Aces and top kicker, when will you go to war?

Ah, the poker, she is a harsh mistress. She punishes bad play and good play when it suits her.


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