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Fortune Favors the Bold in Poker

Getting aggressive and pouncing on “ABC” players

By Kevin Blackwood


The key to winning these pots is focusing more on what your opponents are holding, rather than your own cards. If they seem uncomfortable with their hand, it can be very lucrative to swoop in and grab the chips in the pot—even if your cards are weak.

When you first start playing poker, it is only natural to fixate on your own two cards. If you hit the flop with top pair, you bet. If you miss the flop, you fold. This style of play is known as “ABC poker,” and unfortunately some people never advance very far beyond that. To win at poker you need to learn how to play your opponents, too—not just your own cards.

A lot of my success at the tables comes from taking advantage of these one-dimensional poker players. Novices who don’t think beyond this first level are easy to exploit. One way that I do this is by scooping up pots when my ABC opponents show no interest in them. These are commonly called “orphan pots,” because no one wants to claim ownership of them. My strength in these situations comes from reading my opponents and determining when they aren’t excited about putting any more chips into the middle.

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My experience has been that going after these unwanted pots can make the difference between winning or losing as a poker player. Even though many of these pots are fairly small, adding them to your stack really makes a big difference over the course of a tournament. And the best thing is that in most cases, you don’t have to risk many chips to win these pots. If your read is correct, nobody else really wants to get involved with their marginable hands.

Usually orphan pots come into play when your opponents check to you on the flop. Although some players are tricky and might be trying to trap you, most players’ actions are fairly straightforward. A bet normally means they are reasonably strong, and a check typically means they are weak. But if you’re out of position, you might not have this information in time to win on the flop. In these cases you can still take advantage of their flop checks and try to pick up the pot on the turn or the river.

Here’s an example of a hand that I played recently against a single opponent. I was in the big blind and called an early position raise with pocket sixes. Medium pair hands like these are fairly easy to play, as you normally want to call, hoping to flop a set and win a big pot. However, sets don’t come along very often—only about once every eight flops. So in order to make money on medium pairs, you sometimes have to pick up the pot when you don’t flop a set.

Anyway, back to my pocket sixes. The flop came out K-8-7 with no flush draws. I was essentially done with the hand, since there were three overcards on the board to my sixes. Because I was up against an early position raiser, there was little chance that I had the best hand. But surprisingly, my opponent also checked. This new information meant he probably had a high pocket pair, such as jacks or queens. In that case, the king scared him and froze the betting. Of course it’s possible that he also whiffed on the flop (with a holding such as A-Q),  or was slow playing a monster (such as three kings).

The turn card was a 5, which gave me some straight possibilities, so I decided to lead out with a bet just over half of the pot. My opponent quickly called, which helped me to narrow down his hand range even further. Now I could likely rule out hands like A-Q. With three cards to a straight on the board, it was very doubtful he would only call, rather than raise, if he had a really strong hand like a set of kings.

The river was a 2, which probably didn’t improve his hand. If my read was correct, he most likely had my sixes beat. But would he fold either jacks or queens if I bet again? There are a lot of variables to answering that question, such as stack size and the type of opponent you are facing. My experience is that in many cases you can win this pot with another bet, so I fired about 75% of the pot in what essentially was the second barrel of a bluff. After thinking for a long time, my opponent flipped over jacks and threw them into the muck.

In the above example, I had to risk quite a few chips to pick up the pot. But the important thing is that my betting was consistent with the story that I was trying to sell—that I had a king and wanted to check-raise him on the flop. However, in most cases orphan pots can be won with little risk and smaller bets. The key lies in reading the texture of the board, and the mood of your opponents.

If everyone has checked to you on the flop, it usually means they either missed the flop or they hit it hard and hope to check-raise you when you make a continuation bet. Determining which of these two options is most likely is never easy, but with experience you can often narrow down their holdings. And if you make smaller probe bets, you will risk a lot less in your attempts to bring the orphan pots back to their rightful home (your chip stack).

Here’s an example to demonstrate that principle. Suppose you raised with K-Q on the button. Both blinds called and the flop is 9-8-7 with two diamonds. If both blinds check, I would rarely make a continuation bet, as it’s far too likely this board gave at least one of my opponents a strong hand or a powerful draw. Any bet on my part is likely to run into a quick check-raise. However, if both opponents check again on the turn, then it might be worth re-evaluating the situation. And if no one has put any money into the pot by the river, it’s often  worth taking a stab at the pot.

But if we take the same hand (K-Q) and transform the flop into A-7-2, everything changes. Now if both blinds check to me on the flop, I will bet almost 100% of the time. Here both my bet and my story are very believable. Unless they have an ace in their hand or they flopped a set, they will fold most of the time. So if you bet half the pot in these situations, you will show a strong profit even though you often won’t have the best hand.

The key to winning these pots is focusing more on what your opponents are holding, rather than your own cards. If they’ve whiffed or seem uncomfortable with their hand, it can be very lucrative to swoop in and grab the chips in the pot—even if your cards are weak. They say fortune favors the bold, and poker is a game where well-timed aggression leads to greater profitability at the tables.

Play Like The Pros

Gus Hansen is the poster boy for today’s aggressive young guns. The crazy Dane acts like there are no two cards he ever wants to fold. But there is a method to his madness. Hansen loves to raise preflop with junk in order to take control of the pot. Even though he often has trash in his hands, he knows that his opponents will not hit anything on the flop almost 70% of the time. Armed with that mathematical knowledge, his continuation bets on the flop allow him to win a large number of orphan pots.

I don’t think anyone is better at winning with the worst hand than Gus Hansen. But he does it in a controlled small-ball style, and he’ll rarely play a big pot without a big hand. Instead, he’s content to scoop up the chips nobody else wants—which helps him build the huge stack he needs to win major poker tournaments.

Gus Hansen is a Full Tilt Poker pro and the only winner of three WPT titles.

Private Poker Leagues

The vast majority of poker players are seeking entertainment and social interaction rather than cashing big bucks. They may secretly harbor dreams of winning the World Series of Poker, but most are happy to play once a week with their buddies for small stakes and lively conversation. Now there is an online site that emulates the atmosphere of your favorite neighborhood game, and you can participate without leave your house.

Hog Wild Poker Leagues (www.hogwildpokerleagues.com) is a website that can track, clock and even host your private home game. This is a great feature for friends who either travel a lot or have moved away. With this site, you can arrange and customize a game or tournament just for your own group. Or, you can join one of the many public leagues that are currently running online.

The site, which is free to join, even offers a voice feature that can connect everyone at your table so that you can trash-talk with your friends. It also has easy tools for tracking your stats, which gives the game sort of a fantasy-league feel and allows you to see how you’ve fared historically against your buddies.

The Tournament Scene

The World Poker Tour returns to the Bellagio this month with sixteen events spread over two weeks. The Doyle Brunson Five Diamond World Poker Classic begins on November 26th with a $500 tournament that is sure that draw a huge field. While most of the events are no-limit Hold’em, there is one limit Hold’em tournament, two Omaha tournaments, and a tournament that is restricted only to seniors (aged 50 or older).

These preliminary events range from $500 to $5,000 and should attract hopeful amateurs and tough pros from all over the world, as Bellagio is considered the favorite destination for many poker players. The main event, which will be televised later as part of the popular World Poker Tour show, starts on December 3 and runs for six days. Entry for this tournament runs $10,000 and past winners have included many of the biggest names in poker, including Gus Hansen, Daniel Negreanu and Joe Hachem.

Kevin Blackwood has written three books, including Legends of Blackjack and Casino Gambling For Dummies. More information about his books can be found at www.KevinBlackwood.com.

Fortune Favors the Bold in Poker.

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