A showdown with a poker superstar reveals why I love no limit poker
By Gillian Epp
Hold ‘em is an amazing game when you play it deep and for lots of money. It takes on a whole different life at the higher stakes.
I always play the largest no limit game offered in the card room. The wins at high stakes games are fantastic, but the money isn’t the only reason I play big. High stakes games are more challenging. They force me to be creative, and to constantly adapt my style and play. There’s also a special combination of action, gambling, interesting players and risk that only occurs when you’re sitting at a big no limit game.
I didn’t always understand how different high stakes poker was. I started out playing live 1-2 NL Texas Hold ‘em. My game was consistent. I played premium hands, and when pressured, folded anything that wasn’t the nuts. When I was invited to bigger games, I would think, “Why would I move up when I continuously win here?”
To win consistently at low limit games, that style of tight-weak poker works best. Players aren’t deep, so it’s difficult to get players off their hands. Bluffing can lead to being committed and leaking a lot of chips.
Looking back, I’m appreciative that I didn’t learn to bluff at low stakes. Even so, my thinking was naive and narrow-minded. I didn’t understand how different deep stack Hold ‘em is. It’s an amazing game when you play it deep and for lots of money. It takes on a whole different life at the higher stakes. What’s just a card game at 1-2 suddenly turns into a battle of wills. The hole cards hardly matter, and the game is played with perceived images of people. It becomes an “I know you know, but what you don’t know is… ” game.
An example of this mental warfare occurred a month ago at a Bellagio 10-20 No Limit game between myself and one of poker’s most loveable superstars.
I’d been at the table for a couple of hours when Phil Laak, “The Unabomber,” sat down with 25K. As per Bellagio rules, Phil had to post $20 to be dealt in. He did so in cutoff position, immediately to my right. The hand began with two players limping, hoping to see a cheap flop. Phil, in late position and already invested in the pot, raises to $150.
At the big games, as well as in life, first impressions are hard to shake. Your image in the first few orbits tends to become what the players at the table will think of you for the remaining session. Playing on this information, good players create a memorable first impression and then switch gears and play the rest of the session opposite to how they’ve been perceived.
It’s my button, and I have J7 suited. I’m aware that Phil is capable of playing up an aggressive-loose image and then switching to solid poker later in the session, so in my mind, his range is wide open. His image of me is likely tight, based on our past history—and my gender. Myself and one other player call his raise, and we are three handed to the flop.
The flop comes AA6 rainbow. Paired flops at high stakes create action. Players are aware that removing two cards from the deck reduces the likelihood that an opponent holds one of the two remain cards. Mental warfare begins. Who will blink first?
An ace-ace flop is particularly fun, because so many hands in a player’s range contain an ace. This flop is great for bluffing—I know that—and I know Phil knows that.
The first player to act checks. Phil bets $300. I would love to raise here, but there is still a player to act behind me. Instead, I decide to float and see what the remaining player does. The player folds.
The turn is an 8. Phil bets weak, around $300. I like his bet here. He’s acting weak for two possible reasons. One, I perceive him as weak and raise; this would give him an option to re-raise and possibly win the pot right here. Or, his weak bet represents a player holding an ace trying to build a pot without scaring away a weaker hand.
I indulge him by raising. I minimum raise to $600. My play appears as either a rise to steal, or a value raise with an ace. Phil puts in a three bet now, three times my raise to $1,500. Again, this is a beautiful play by Phil; he’s representing an ace, and he did raise pre-flop. His bet is saying to me, “I hold one of the two remaining aces.”
The problem for Phil is, I play poker by using logic—as well as my female intuition—and for some reason I don’t believe he has an ace. I put an end to the hand by shoving all-in for $10,000. Phil can’t call and mucks his hand. I rake in a nice pot with a well-timed bluff.
The play that I described worked because we were both deep. At a small game, I would never recommend 4 betting a bluff. Your opponent is likely committed to calling your all-in bet.
At the small games, I advise playing tight poker and reaping the rewards of a growing bankroll. Practice self-discipline and never miss a value-bet, value-raise or value re-raise. Perfecting these skills will be profitable in any game. When you do move up, you will learn a completely new game that is mental and analytic. The deeper you are, the more of an arsenal you will have to fight the psychological war. There will be more ways to win the hand, many of which don’t require you to be holding anything. The players will be tougher, and the plays more complex, but that’s what makes high stakes poker so much fun.
The Bigger, The Better in Poker.