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Poker Strategy:Psychology

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Lots of books have been written about how to play casino poker strategically. Some of the best players in the world have put it all on paper for our benefit. However for the low-limit casino player, the danger with some of this knowledge is that it does not pertain as much. Or, the other problem is that professional players/writers recognize the unique mathematic attributes of a low-limit poker table, but do little more than touch on the subject.

There needs to be some perspective for the low-limit poker player, and there are only so many books that have been written about it. The tables are looser, and there are strategies that best capitalize on the climate of the table, the number of players staying in, your position, and the cards you are dealt. Whether you have never read a book on poker or have read them all, it is important to understand how the low-limit table has certain mathematical and psychological fundamentals that can be understood and utilized.

We will begin our discussion with a review of the math of pot odds, and how they should be measured at a low-limit table. We then move to the fundamental observation that more players play more hands at the low-limit table. This means bigger pots (relative to the size of the bets), but more cost if you want to stay until the end. This in turn means a difficult balance between staying in often enough to win pots, but not so often that a string of losses breaks you for the night. We also review the need to understand upfront how many hands you will need to fold, and coping with what some would call boredom.

We will also look at the types of hands that will be attractive before the flop and on the flop when there's more cards to come, but a lot of action to call if you want to get there.

Pot Odds

First, a quick review of the concept of pot odds. Let's start by looking at how the game of Craps makes the casino so much money. At any time in the game of Craps, you can bet that the next number rolled on the dice is twelve, or two sixes. If you make this bet (good for one roll only) and double sixes are indeed rolled, you are paid 30 times your bet. Yet, there are 36 possible ways for two dice to land, and double sixes is only one of those possible ways. Therefore, you are being paid 30 to 1 for a long shot whose probability is 1 in 36. If you bet one dollar on this 1,080 times, then you would win 30 times and you would lose 1,050 times. For the 30 times that you win, you would be paid thirty dollars each time, and for the 1,050 times that you lose, you would be paid nothing. At the end of 1,080 such bets, you would be up $900 and down $1,050. See? Not a good bet.

If this were a game of poker, you would be a sucker to ever take that bet, since it does not pay over the long run. This concept applies to poker in every instance where you are being asked to put money in the pot. There is an amount of money in the pot, and there is an amount of money that you need to call in order to stay in the hand. If there is $50 in the pot, and you are being asked to put in $5, then that is a payback of ten times. You would be wise to call that bet if you have at least a one in ten chance of winning the pot.

Let's face it, though, nobody has time to do that kind of math at a poker table. Decisions have to be made quickly, and even good players can get bogged down trying to do math at the table when a quick decision has to be made. Great players do this intuitively. Great players understand and adhere to pot odds, but can make instinctive calls based on some rough amount that they believe is in the pot, and some rough idea of their prospects in this hand. It is enough to know that when you are unsure of the value of your hand, or if you are chasing a particular hand, that you should be more inclined to call when the pot is big and more inclined to fold when the pot is not.

David Sklansky introduced the concept of implied pot odds, which is a powerful concept when it comes to low-limit tables. Sklansky pointed out that not only should you be thinking about the current size of the pot, but also the future size of the pot. It would be narrow-minded to ignore how much bigger the pot could be based on the number of players who have yet to act. This has strong implication at the low-limit table, but with a caution.

The implication is that when unsure of your hand's value or when chasing a hand, you may be more inclined to stay in. Because it costs money to stay in the hand, take this lesson with a grain of salt. In other words, when chasing a hand, be sure that if you do in fact make your hand, that it will be strong enough to take the pot. If you are chasing a straight when there are three cards of the same suit showing on the board, you might make your straight and lose to a flush. If you are chasing a flush and there are two pairs showing on the board, you might make your flush and lose to a full house. Be sure that you are chasing a hand that would indeed win if made. You can help determine this by keeping a very close eye on the board, and asking yourself what potential hands could be made with those cards that would beat what you are chasing.

As a (very) general rule of thumb, I will stay in with any four cards to a flush or four cards in numerical sequence if the following two conditions are met:

  • There are at least two other players in the pot against me, from whom I can win money if I make my hand, and
  • Based on the cards on the board, the hand that I am chasing will win me the pot with great certainty.

  • So, we imply that more players will pay to stay in the pot, and therefore, that the implied pot odds are higher at such a table. Higher pot odds means that it is more worthwhile to call bets and chase hands. Now, the caution. When you imply that the pot odds are higher because more players after you will call the bet, you must also imply that players after you may potentially raise the bet. This means not only are you measuring the size of the pot and the bet being asked of you now, but that you are measuring the size of the pot once all players have called and that the bet being asked of you might include another raise or two. To deal with this added factor, you need to measure two things:
  • The number of players left to act after you.
  • How aggressive these players are.

  • If the players left to act after you are loose, but passive, then you enjoy the benefit of the higher implied pot odds without the worry of a raise from one of them after you call. However, if at least one of them is aggressive enough, you may be forced to call another raise by staying in. Let's go through an example to conclude this point.

    There is $50 in the pot and again, you are being asked to call a $5 bet to stay in. The pot odds are ten to one. There are three players left to act after you. Two of them are quite loose but passive, in that you believe they will call, but not raise. That means the implied pot odds are better than ten to one, because the pot will be $60 after they have called their bets, and still for only $5 from you. Those pot odds are twelve to one, worth chasing many hands for a payback like that.

    Now, imagine that of those three players, two are loose, but one is far more aggressive. You believe that the first will call the bet, but that the second is likely to call and raise, thus putting in three bets between the two of them. This means that all of the players that acted before you will have another raise to call if they want to stay in. Let us assume that there are three of them and all of them will call the raise. The math then is that six more bets are going to go into this $50 pot before it gets back to you. When it gets back to you, you will owe another $5 on top of the $5 that you are being asked to put in. That means an $80 pot, and $10 being asked of you to stay in. Those implied pot odds are eight to one, not as good as the twelve to one pot odds from the previous scenario.

    All of this discussion needs to be brought into perspective. You cannot pull out your calculator at the table to make these kinds of decisions, so a review of the concepts is more worthwhile:
  • The larger the size of the pot, the more inclined you should be to chase hands.
  • If the players who have yet to act before the betting round ends are tight players, then the pot in front of you may be as big as it gets.
  • If the players who have yet to act are loose but passive players, then the implied pot odds are higher, and you should be more inclined to chase hands.
  • If the players who have yet to act are loose but aggressive players, then the implied pot odds are lower, and you should be less inclined to chase hands.

  • See and Call

    Pursuant to the previous discussion, you will find yourself chasing many hands, but with a substantial number of players in the pot with you. These players all have the option to bet and to raise while your hand has prospects, but isn't made yet. It is here that we need to challenge so-called 'smart play', as dictated by some.

    Smart poker players are advised to act in preference of betting, folding, and calling. In other words, if your hand is worth calling a bet, but no such bet has been made yet, then you should bet. If your hand is not worth calling, then you should fold. And, as a last resort, if you call a bet, then you are 'playing too passively'.

    While there is truth to this principle, it needs some extra consideration at the low-limit table. If you are chasing a hand, the conditions that would prompt you to make a bet are far less than the likelihood that somebody after you is going to raise your bet. In fact, at most low-limit tables, you need to precede a bet with some measurement of whether or not your bet will simply be raised by an aggressive player. If so, you will have a bet to call on top of the one that you intend to make.

    The concept we are challenging is that if your hand is worth calling a bet on, then you should make the bet. At a low-limit table where there is some likelihood of your bet being raised, you would be more inclined to call if you are chasing a hand. If, for example, you are four cards to a flush and in middle position, you should opt to call. If nobody behind you raises, then you get to see your next card for free. If there is a raise behind you, there is some likelihood that the raise would have been made on top of your bet, in which case it will now cost you two bets to see the next card.

    Of course, having said all this, if you have a strong hand, then bet and in some instances, bet without hesitation. This discussion is more in consideration of when you are chasing a hand.

    Types of Hands

    Whether it is because they do not take the low stakes seriously, or whether they are sitting at the low-limit tables because they are bad poker players, is a mystery. It is likely a combination of the two that makes for a lot of players in the pot and loose tables. Every now and again, the table seems to tighten up for a spell and nobody is betting, but there is a good share of big pots with lots of players.

    Mathematically, this is the best way to characterize the generic low-limit table. The pots are bigger, and therefore two important principles come to mind:

  • Bigger pots mean better pot odds, and thus, bigger returns on your bets. You should be more willing to chase some hands.
  • Low-limit tables feature loose players who are staying in, not especially because they are smart. But, if these players are allowed to stay in the pot, they may make a miracle hand, and you might be surprised at how often it happens. This means that big cards and hands like a big pair that look great before the flop might lose their value.

  • At such a table, you need to be cautious with big cards. By big cards, we are referring to any two cards that are both Tens or higher, including pairs. These hands are strong before the flop, but they play best against a small number of players who have less chance of making that miracle hand. Because it is a low-limit table, there isn't as much chance that you will get it down to a small number of players. As such, you will be forced to proceed into the hand with some caution as to how your hand holds up.

    Imagine, for example, that you are dealt a pair of Kings. You are responsible for some betting before flop, which is advised, but then on the flop, two cards of the same suit fall. You are still advised to bet and 'charge' players who are chasing the flush, but now have to be mindful that if a third card of that suit falls, that your pair of Kings might be worthless.

    Or, imagine that you are in the dealer's position (last to act before the blinds) with an Ace-Jack. Four players call the blinds before you, so you opt not to raise since you do not believe it will successfully trim down the number of players in the pot. Therefore, you allow both blinds to go to the flop without a raise. Either one of them could be holding weak hands that turn into great hands if they match what falls on the flop. An unsuited Six-Four in the hands of the Big Blind could turn into a Straight because he was permitted to go to the flop for free.

    Big cards can be difficult to play since they play best against a small number of players who have less chances of improving to beat your hand. But, at the low-limit table, you will be hard-pressed to get the table down to a small number of players.

    For this reason, the best cards of all to be dealt at a low-limit table are not just big cards, but suited big cards. The reason for this is because not only are your cards quantitatively high, but you also stand some chance of matching up with the cards on the board for a powerful hand. Some would argue that a suited Ace-King is the best hand you can be dealt at a low-limit table, better even than a pair of Aces or Kings. You want a hand that isn't just big, but potentially good for chasing a Straight or Flush.

    Early Position Bet

    Briefly, we touched on the subject of narrowing the number of players when you have big cards. Another danger is that in betting or raising to try and thin the number of players, you may only succeed in making a giant pot if all of those players decide to call your bet. Although thinning the number of players can be difficult at the low-limit table, it is not impossible.

    A move that sometimes does and doesn't work at the low-limit table is the early position bet as a means of folding as many players as possible at a loose table. The premise is that if you are one of the first players to act and you come out swinging, it will be more intimidating. Plus, these players will not want to fold to a raise if they have already called a previous bet. When you are in early position, however, there are few or no players that have already called a bet and who therefore would be more inclined to call your bet. It is a psychological move, in that you hope a big swing out of early position folds more players than usual. If you are first to act and have a pair of Jacks or better or else an Ace with a face card, you should consider a bet to thin the number of players.

    I also find that this move works equally well if you are second to act and the player before you has bet. You piggyback onto that bet with a raise that sends a double-bet around the table. You can be sure that this will fold most of the table, but the obvious concern is that the original bettor may have you beat or that he may raise your raise, making it a total of three bets to stay in. I would not hesitate to make this move with a pair of Queens or better, or with an Ace and a King or a Queen.

    Get Ready to Fold

    This is a psychological lesson. It is important before playing casino poker at any level that you be mentally prepared to fold far more hands than you will play. At the 3-6 table in the Circus Circus in Las Vegas, I had the benefit of watching many players sit down and go to the flop on virtually every hand. The home poker player cannot be faulted for playing in this way (at first). After all, we play poker to play hands, not to fold hands. However, it is clear that some hands before the flop are not playable and some hands after the flop need to be folded in light of the number of players and their actions.

    Prepare yourself for this before you go to the table. Use the opportunity while you are out of so many hands to observe how other players are acting and the hands that they show down at the end.

    Legitimate Play

    This has been touched on in previous articles: play your hand like it's dealt to you.

    If you have a strong hand, don't bother slowplaying, just bet. You needn't worry about folding too many players at the low-limit table. Even if you are perceived to only play sure things, there will be at least a couple of players who will stay in the pot with you and call your bets.

    If you have a weak hand, don't bother bluffing, just fold. Not only you have proper experience can you begin to bluff to win pots at a low-limit table. It takes a keen observation of the right factors to know when a bluff will succeed, or where it is just throwing away money.

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