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Unavoidable and unlucky

Last night I played in a neighborhood bar game – free to play, $50 gift certificate to the winner. Mostly the same people play every week and I’m familiar with the general table dynamic there. We started with stacks of 3000 and blinds at 25/50. On the second or third hand of the tournament, I got unlucky. I don’t I think I could have done anything but lose most of my stack here. 6-handed, one caller in early position, folded around to me on the button.

My hand: K-K

(I don’t remember the suits but they weren’t important in this hand.)

I raised to 150. Why not a larger raise? In a game this loose, I could have raised to 4, 5, or even 6 big blinds, and the players to act behind me would have been as likely to call as they would have my 3BB raise. Also, I felt like a larger raise would have been holding up a sign reading, “I have a big pocket pair.” I’m not happy about giving opponents such a good price, but I feel there’s a need to conceal the strength of my hand. AA-QQ are really hard to play in bar games when the stacks are large relative to the blinds.

Early-position caller called my raise and we saw a flop.

Flop: T-J-Q

Opponent bets 200. Yikes, that’s a dangerous flop. He could easily have a made straight with AK, K9, or 98. He could also have two pair. I don’t think a set is likely, because he would have raised TT, JJ, or QQ pre-flop as opposed to just calling. He could also have numerous hands that are drawing to a straight.

Although there are hands that could beat me, I think I have to raise here. I have an overpair, as well as eight outs (the Aces and Nines) to a straight. It’s too likely he’s drawing, and I need to charge him to do that. I raise to 700. If he reraises (which will probably be all-in), my Kings are probably behind and I should fold.

He puts in 500 more to call.

Turn: 5

Opponent checks. That’s a harmless card. The only hand it helps is 55, and he couldn’t possibly have called a raise on the flop with that after seeing three connected overcards. Once again, if he’s drawing to a straight I have to charge him. I bet 1000 and he calls. I have 1100 left.

River: K

I just improved to a set of Kings, but any Ace or Nine just improved to a straight. This is a horrible card.

Opponent checks. From his body language I get the sense that he isn’t completely happy with his hand. So do I bet?


In situations like this on the river, you have to ask, “Can I get a better hand to fold?” before putting in more money. One very likely scenario is that he has a Nine, making a straight but not a nut straight. The way I’ve been playing this hand, I could easily be holding an Ace – AA and AQ would very likely be in my range. A lot of players in this game would even play AJ, AT, and A9 the way I did.

So I could bet and represent an Ace-high straight. The problem is, I only have 1100 left in my stack, and the pot has become so bloated that he’s not very likely to fold his hand.

Could I bet for value, and get a worse hand to call? There’s no way my opponent would think two pair has a chance on this board. Sets of Tens, Jacks, and Queens might call, but I already ruled out those holdings based on his pre-flop behavior.

I check behind, and he turns over the Nine for the win. I guess I picked up a moral victory by preserving my remaining 1100 stack, still enough to do damage at 25/50.

Do you see any way I could avoided losing so many chips?

Beating the low-limit ring games in Zynga Poker

Recently my friend Puckett got me hooked on Zynga Poker, which I can play on Facebook, my iPhone, and my iPad. It’s play-money poker, but at least I can get some practice in until Congress legalizes real-money poker.

The players at the low-limit ring games (the “Hold’em Tables” icon in Zynga Poker) are just terrible – so terrible that I realized standard poker strategy cannot be applied. Standard strategy at a ring game, if you like your hand and are first to act pre-flop, is to raise to about 4 big blinds. If you want to re-raise the raiser, you generally raise about 2 1/2 times the raiser’s amount if you’ll have position after the flop, and 3 1/2 times if you’ll be out of position. On the flop, turn and river, bets tend to be about 1/2 to 3/4 of the size of the pot.

The players at the low-limit Zynga tables didn’t seem to understand this at all. At a 10/20 table, the first player to act would raise to 620 (31 big blinds!!!) and the next player would go all-in. I’d look at my hand and find KK. Obviously I was quite happy to call with that! Five people ended up calling, with A6 suited, A3 offsuit, 75 suited, and 83 offsuit. An Ace hit the flop, and I lost my entire stack to the two Ace hands.

The thing is, none of these players should have called an all-in with their hands.

  • A6 suited and A3 offsuit – bad players tend to over-value any hand with an Ace in it. Ace-rag hands (A9-A2) occasionally get lucky, like they did against my Kings, but in the long-term they will lose money because they’ll run up against Aces with better kickers.
  • 75 suited – this guy thinks any two suited cards are worth playing for all his chips, another common misconception. The vast majority of the time his suit won’t connect with the board, and then he has Seven high.
  • 83 offsuit – no explanation needed. This guy is just a complete idiot.

Obviously, a lot of mistakes were being made, and other players’ mistakes equal opportunity to profit in poker. However, because there were pre-flop all-ins nearly every hand, a lot of my advantages – my understanding of position and pot odds, and my post-flop skills – were negated. The first few days I had Zynga poker, I didn’t see how I could do anything other than gamble and hope to get lucky.

Then I remembered the days I played on PokerStars. There were players with Chinese screen names like “chendidi” and “yahai” who’d buy in for the minimum, 20 big blinds, rather than the 100 big blind buy-in preferred by the rest of the table. They’d either go all-in or fold, and they’d only go all-in with premium hands. I HATED those guys. It was incredibly annoying to try and make a move in middle position with 87 suited, to have “yahai” to my left go all-in.

However, I realized that the Chinese players’ strategy was PERFECT for low-level Zynga ring games. So I started buying in for 20BB at those tables, and going all-in with 99+, AJ+, A9s+, KQ, KJs. That’s only 8% of pre-flop hands. The other 92%, I fold. The only exception is when I get a free look at the flop from the big blind, and if I connect strongly with it I’ll shove then.

So yesterday, I took my iPhone out with me, and played frequently throughout the day. I started the day with about 87,000 chips. Bankroll management (which I doubt hardly any players on Zynga Poker understand) dictates that I can buy into a ring game with at most 5% of my stack. So, I’d be buying in with 4000 chips, which is enough for a 20 big blind buy-in at the 100/200 level. I stuck to my strategy throughout the day. The result? I sailed past 160K in chips, allowing me to move up to the 200/400 level with 8000 chip stack buy-ins. I didn’t win every time – the worst hands in my range (99, A9s, and KJs) got busted a few times, but not enough for me to determine them to be -EV. By the end of the day, I had 173K in my bankroll, almost double what I started with. Doubling my bankroll, while never having more than 5% of it at risk at any one time, is a nice result indeed!

My friend Puckett, who has been playing Zynga Poker for a while, tells me that when you get to around 1,000,000 chips, the kind of bad play I’ve been experiencing goes away, and if anything players tend to be too tight. So when I reach that stage I’ll be able to buy in for 100BB stacks again and resume play of proper poker.

Another thing I don’t get about the ring game players – there’s a “Tip Dealer” button, and people actually tip after a big hand. I guess they don’t understand the difference between Zynga and a live casino – THE DEALER ISN’T A REAL PERSON!!!! It’s a computer! Why in the world would you tip? You can also buy “gifts” for the table or for individual players. One of my opponents spent some of his chips so we could all have pizza. Great, for the rest of the game, I had an icon of a piece of pizza next to my username. What a waste of chips!

Next time I’ll talk about Sit’n’Go strategy on Zynga Poker. The SnG players are as bad as the ring game players, but in different ways.

Rookie mistakes

I’ve been thinking back to 2009, the first year I played poker. I had some good runs but overall it was a losing year. Here are 7 things I did that cost me a pile of money.

1. Calling with hands like KJ, AT, etc. in a full 9-handed game when an under-the-gun player raised. Good players usually play tight under the gun, often with a range of 88+, AK and AQ (suited or not), AJ suited, KQ suited. So I would call with the second-best hand, and although I had position on the raiser (except when in the blinds) I lacked the post-flop skills at the time to make up for it. AT has 31.3% against this range; KJ has 31.6 %. Not off to a good start in either case.

A quick aside: How did I come up with those numbers? I won an iPad week before last at a poker game. The first and only paid app I bought for it since is a program called PokerCruncher. It lets you see how a particular hand will do against other starting hands, against other starting hand ranges, with or without the flop, turn, and river dealt. It also lets you see how your hand will do against a random hand. It’s like PokerStove on steroids, for those familiar with that program. For math nerds like me, it’s well worth the $6.99 price.

2. Folding big draws on the flop. Let’s say I raise in middle position with A♦9♦, one of my favorite hands, and the button calls. Flop comes Q♦9♦5♠. I check, and the button bets a little over half the pot. The first year I played, I would think to myself, oh no, they hit the queen, my middle pair is no good, and I’d fold. Even if my opponent had hit a Queen, however, folding was a mistake. My hand had three outs (the remaining Aces) to improve to two pair, two outs (the remaining Nines) to improve to trips, and nine outs (the diamonds) to improve to a flush. With 14 outs, I was getting the right price to call. I shudder to think how much money I left on the table by folding these hands.

3. Being overly scared of kicker trouble. When I first started reading about poker, I was taught that KICKER, KICKER, KICKER is the key to avoid losing a lot of money. But I took that advice too far. For example: Folded to me in the cutoff, I’d put in a 3.5 big blind raise with A♣T♥. It would be folded to the big blind, who would call. Flop would come A♥7♦4♠ and the big blind would lead out with a bet about 65% of the pot. Unless I knew the big blind to be a complete maniac, I’d fold here, figuring I was surely up against AK, AQ, or AJ. Again, this is a place where I left money on the table. In most cases, I should have called. Top pair is simply too strong to fold on the flop. If the big blind was paying attention, my call would slow him down, and he’d be less likely to bet the turn out of position without the big Ace I’m worried about, or two pair or better. I wouldn’t want to play a big pot with top pair, marginal kicker, but my hand has a lot of showdown value if I can get to the river cheaply. Plus, if he fails to bet the turn or river, I have an opportunity to bet the river for value, then being pretty confident my hand was best.

4. Too much slowplaying. I’d see a flop with a hand like A♥9♥ and hit a flop of Q♥J♥7♥. I can see some argument for checking the flop, since a bet might tip my opponent(s) off that I flopped a flush. I failed to account for the possibility that a bet might just look like a c-bet that is trying to represent a flush. Plus, people who flopped a straight draw with AK, KT, or T9 might very well call, which would be wonderful because they’d be drawing to the second-best hand. Checking is correct maybe 30% of the time, but mostly I should have been betting to build the pot on the flop. Even more inexcusable is I’d sometime check the turn as well, thinking, “Well, it’s obvious that I have the nut flush if I bet,” passing a second opportunity to bet for value.

5. Playing way too tight when folded to me on the button. First to act, I might open with 22+, any two Broadway cards, and maybe A9s and A8s. That’s only 18.6% of hands (again, thank you PokerCruncher). That is way too conservative on the button, especially if I know the players in the blinds to be tight.  I passed up too many opportunities to make money with hands that have blind-stealing value as well as post-flop potential. Nowadays, against tight blinds I might have a range of any pair, any Ace, any suited King, any two cards 9 or better, Q8s+, J8s+, K8, Q8, 32s+, 64s+, 87o+. That’s 42.4% of starting hands.

6. Playing way too loose when opening in early position. I used to open with any two Broadway cards and any pair. That’s way too many hands, 17.9% of all total hands (and you’ll notice, less than 1% difference from my button range in the early days). Against tight opposition, I’d now stick to 77+, AQ+, AJs, KQs most of the time. That’s less than 7% of hands. To keep from becoming too predictable to my opponents, I do occasionally add more hands to my range, but they’re usually hands like 87s+ and Ace-rag suited. These are hands with big drawing potential, but that can be thrown away cheaply. Hands like QTo that were in my early-position range during my rookie year make second-best hand out of position so often that they’re big money losers. I wonder how many opponents had a “poor understanding of position” note on me back then.

7. Using the same starting hand selection in free bar games that I use in real-money games. I often play in weekly bar games where it’s free to play, $50 tab for the winner. Players in these games tend to have no starting hand standards at all. Given those conditions, it’s a serious mistake to play only 77+, AQ+, AJs, KQs under the gun. I still account for position a little, but my range tends more toward my button range no matter which seat I’m actually in.

An example: Play goes call, call, call, fold, call, call, nuisance raise to 2BB, all remaining players call the raise. It gets to the river between the initial limper and the nuisance raiser. Limper shows down Q5, and nuisance raiser shows 84s which hit a pair of Fours to take the pot. Nuisance raiser comments that he had to raise with a premium hand that had both straight and flush potential.  Against opposition like this, you have to play a wide range of hands (but not as wide as their range) and hope to figure out where you stand after the flop.

My game is still far from perfect, but having made an effort to correct these 7 mistakes, I’m leaving less money on the table, and getting away more often from circumstances when I’m putting money into a big pot with the second-best hand. Hurry up and legalize online poker, Congress! I’m ready to go!

Could I have extracted more value from this hand?

Last night I played in a weekly poker tournament at one of the local bars. It’s free to play and draws 12-18 people on an average week. I had an interesting hand that I won, and I’m presenting it because I’m wondering whether I could have extracted more value from my opponents.

Blinds were 50/100, and my stack was about average at around 2500. This tends to be an extremely loose game – a few hands earlier, my left-hand man had won a big pot when his powerhouse hand of 7-2 suited hit a flush. It also tends to be a passive game, with lots of calling and little raising on the early streets.

Six-handed, I found myself in the small blind, and my four opponents to act ahead of me all called. I looked at my hand and found Jack-Four offsuit – pretty trashy. Yeah there’s a picture card, but overall the hand is not much to get excited about and usually I’d toss it. However, given the way the table had been playing, I was pretty sure the big blind was going to check his option. That meant I was getting 11-1 odds, worth a call with pretty much any two cards. I completed the small blind, aware that if I didn’t hit the flop nearly perfectly I’d have to fold to a bet. The big blind checked.

Flop was QJT rainbow. Middle pair was not horrible, but being first to act, there was no way I was putting money in that pot. I could be losing to a made straight, and even if not, at least one opponent likely had an open-ended straight draw. I would also be losing to Q-x hands, as well as J-5 and better. Way too much chance I’d be getting money in with the worst hand. I checked, and all five opponents checked too.

Turn was a Jack. Now my hand had some potential! I’d improved to trip Jacks, but again, for all I knew a made straight could be slow-playing. If I were in late position and checked to me with this board, I’d bet, but in first position, checking seemed prudent. Next two players checked, and the player in middle position bet 100. Rather small bet given the pot size. If he had a straight, I reasoned he’d bet bigger to try to build the pot. He’d probably bet bigger with a Queen in his hand too. Most likely, I thought, I was looking at a hand with a Ten in it, or a pocket pair 99-22. I called his bet, as did a couple of other players, and we were off to the river.

River was a Jack, giving me quad Jacks for the nuts! If I was correct about the range I put him on, he just improved to a full house, Jacks over something. I decided to check for a third time, and see if I could get him to make a mistake. Action checked to him, and he bet 100, another extremely small bet. This time I check-raised him to 250, he called, and the others in the hand folded. As I expected, he had a Ten in his hand, and my quads took down the pot.

One player at the table congratulated me on a well-played hand, but I don’t know if I agree. The key thing in poker is not just to win pots, but to win pots that are as big as possible. I’m not sure I built the pot as well as I could have. Let’s examine my betting:

Pre-flop: I like my call here. A lot of my success at these bar games has come from completing the small blind to get excellent pot odds, then getting the calling stations to pay me off when I connect solidly with the board. In a live cash game where people play tighter, I would not do nearly as well with these small-blind moves.

Flop: Checking was the right move. I was first to act, so I had little information, and I was potentially behind a LOT of hands.

Turn: This is where I think I made my mistake. I agree with my initial check. To bet into a QJTJ board with five players to act behind me would have been SCREAMING, “I have a Jack.” Most likely all of my opponents would have made the read and folded. However, I think I should have check-raised my opponent’s bet of 100 on the turn. If I’d raised to 250, would I be telegraphing that I have a Jack? Not really. I could have an open-ended straight draw, or maybe A-x for an overcard and an inside straight draw. I could even have worse; I’ve seen players in this particular game bluff-raise later streets with nothing. I think a raise to two and a half times the size of his bet might have convinced him to call and put some more chips in the pot.

Then, when the river came a Jack, I could check again. That would really look like a busted straight draw. My opponent would then surely bet – and maybe he’d bet bigger than 100 this time, given the ballooning size of the pot – and I’d be able to hit him with a second check-raise. He’d probably perceive my range as A-x for a missed overcard/gutshot straight draw, K-x or 9-x for missed open-ended straight draws, or the few hands that could beat him, the hands containing the one remaining Jack. With his full house, Jacks over Tens, he’d be ahead of so much of my range that he’d likely call to make me show my cards. (I don’t think he’d re-raise all-in, though, since that would only get called by hands that would beat him, namely J-x for quads or Q-x for a better full house.)

I made it to the 400/800 round, but my stack really hadn’t improved since my quad-Jack hand. (The three hands in a row in which I was dealt 9-4 were representative of the cards I was getting.) Finally I got A-10, shoved all-in in a desperation move, and got knocked out. If I’d done a better job building a stack on the turn with the hand I described here, I wouldn’t have been so short at 400/800, and wouldn’t have had to make the desperation play.

The best players extract value ruthlessly. I didn’t play the hand terribly, but I think I could have done better.

Shallow-stacked rebuy tournaments

There’s a live tournament I play in from time to time. It’s usually multi-table format, with an average of 15-25 people showing up. The structure is as follows:

2500 starting chips
20-minute blind levels
Rebuys allowed through the first 3 levels
2000 add-on at the end of the 3rd level

Blind levels:

As you can see, this is a VERY fast blind structure – they double nearly every time, as opposed to the multi-table tournaments I play on PokerStars where the blinds increase about 20-30% at each new level.

I’ve never won the thing, so take this advice with a grain of salt, but these are the lessons I’ve learned:

1) You cannot play tight-aggressive poker in this game. 20 minute blinds sound like a long time, but since people have to physically shuffle and deal, you’re seeing fewer hands per level than in a turbo on PokerStars. You can’t sit around and wait on premium cards, because they will often not come before the blinds eat you alive. Also, you’ll be so tight compared to everyone else at the table that you won’t get action when you do hit your premium hands. Hands like QJ, A9, 55, and T9 suited have to be played strongly, even from early position, and even though those are all hands that can get you in a lot of trouble. You have to play these hands, hope they hit, and then hope to double your stack by the end of about the second level, so that you still have enough chips to play proper poker rather than shove-or-fold.

2) Never, ever rebuy. If you bust out at 100/200 and rebuy, then what? You get 2500 more chips. That’s only 12 and a half big blinds. Again, not much proper poker to be played. Perhaps you could limp into a pot and then try to take it down after the flop, but generally you’re going to be shoving or folding.

“But wait,” you may protest, “you’re forgetting about the 2000 add-on at the end of the third level!” Okay. So your 2500 stack improves to 4500. Meanwhile, the blinds are up to 200/400, reducing you to just over 11 big blinds. Again, not much opportunity to rely on skill to win, especially if you think your biggest advantage over the others is post-flop play.

The one time I rebought, which was paid for by a friend who is a fan of my other blog, I picked up JJ on the second hand. Not wanting to face a tricky situation with overcards falling on the flop, I shoved my 12.5 big blinds in. The friend who paid my buy-in picked up KK and put me out a second time. I would have been steamed had I actually paid to only see two more hands. There are others who come to this tournament who will rebuy 3, even 4 times though, so I guess the structure is successful as far as getting more cash in the game.

My general rule when considering a rebuy, whether it’s a home game, casino tournament, or online, is that I’ll only do it if the stack I receive is at least 20 times the sum of (small blind + big blind + antes), or 20M, as Dan Harrington would say.

If I ever win the tournament I’m writing about here, and the path that takes me there includes any element of skill, I’ll recap it.

Wait a minute. Surely a few of my opponents know about this blog. Maybe I won’t.

Fighting the big stack: Calling vs. 3-betting

In the last post, I wrote about making it into the money in a 1000-player, 8-max tables tournament Friday night on PokerStars. Although books I’ve read recently have considerably improved my game, I still made mistakes. I’ll discuss one of them here.

I had the misfortune of being moved to a new table not long before the bubble, a table where the biggest stack in the entire tournament happened to be sitting. At 500/1000 ante 125, I had about 16,000 chips, or 16 big blinds. The big stack had around 110 big blinds. He was doing what the big stack is supposed to do – putting in lots of bets and raises, making everyone else at the table uncomfortable, adding to his stack whenever the other players were too weak to stand up to him. Fortunately he was seated to my immediate right, so I knew what he was going to do before I had to act.

I picked up AK hearts in the small blind. Action was folded around to the big stack on the button, who as usual was a pest and put in a raise to 2500. I thought about raising, but remembering what Daniel Negreanu had said about keeping the pot small until you see if you like a flop, I elected to smooth call. Flop was 3 little cards, rainbow. I can’t remember if one of them was a heart; if it was, the backdoor flush possibility was the only way I’d even remotely connected with the board.

I checked, and big stack bet. I had no choice but to fold. Given his stack size, he could have been raising with complete garbage pre-flop, but some of that garbage could have connected, leaving me behind in the hand. Calling would make me pot-committed, given the size of my remaining stack, with only the overcards and the backdoor flush possibility as outs. With the bubble approaching – I think there are 115 players remaining, and top 104 got paid – I chose to give up the hand and live to fight another day.

What should I have done? Let’s look at my options pre-flop:

Folding – My opponent was deep stacked and on the button. He could have been raising any two cards. Laying down Big Slick suited was definitely not an option.

Calling – Would let me see a flop cheaply, but I’d be seeing it out of position. I’d have to act post-flop without any knowledge of my opponent’s holdings, and if I put any more money in the pot, my entire stack would more or less be committed. If I were deep, calling would be a reasonable choice and a good way to disguise the strength of my hand, but shallow stacked it was absolutely the wrong move.

Re-raising pre-flop to 5500 – Would be telling the big stack, “Hey buddy, I know you’re bullying everyone like you’re supposed to, but this time I have a real hand, so you better back off.” This play would have given me more options post-flop. If I shoved after missing the flop, the big stack would most likely have to give me credit for a big overpair. If I checked the flop, the big stack would probably suspect a trap and would give me a free card.

Shoving all-in pre-flop – There’s some merit to this option too. At 500/1000 ante 125, the cost per orbit was 2300, giving me an effective stack of about 7 orbits. Given that, shoving is the officially recommended play. The problem with it here is that my opponent was so deep stacked that he could afford to call me with any two cards, and I did not yet have a made hand. I also had to worry about getting called by the big blind, who was yet to act.

There are merits to both of the last two options. Calling in this spot, though, was just plain wrong.

The other thing to consider was that I was on the bubble. That probably caused me to lean toward more conservative play, and that was incorrect too. As it turned out, I finished 72nd and won $10.80, a profit of $6.20 for my 4 hours’ work in the tournament. That’s chump change. What I should have been doing was aggressively building my stack to make a run at the final table. The top six places paid more than $100, and the winner got $750. If, as a result of my aggression, I got knocked out before the bubble, no big deal, that $10.80 I would have missed out on is not significant in the grand scheme of things.

Oh well. Getting better. Learning. The day I quit making mistakes is probably the day I die. The day I quit analyzing my mistakes and learning from them is the day I should give up poker.

Lessons learned

I’ve been reading Harrington on Hold ‘em: Volume III The Workbook, and as I mentioned in the last post, it has been one of the most helpful poker books ever. It helped me think through each bet in No Limit Hold’em hands, analyzing the play as a pro would. Last night I decided to see if I’d gotten better as a result of the book. I entered a $4.40 buy-in tournament on PokerStars, with 8-max tables, maximum 1000 entrants. Top 104 got paid, with first place receiving $750.

I played with so much more confidence. The exercises in that book plugged so many leaks in my game. One hand serves best as an example.

With a stack of about 18 big blinds, I picked up KT diamonds in the big blind at 350/700 ante 85. A middle position player who’d been very aggressive raised to 4 big blinds – a little bit bigger than a normal raise fairly deep into a tournament, but my read told me he was trying to buy pots. I elected to defend my blind and called.

Flop was something like QT2, one diamond. Now, here’s where the first hole in my game was plugged. Oftentimes before, I’d fire off a continuation bet here, to try and take down the pot immediately. However, after reading Harrington’s book I was better able to analyze the situation. Out of position, if I bet and he check-raised, what then? Would I really want to put in more money with middle pair? If I bet and he called, that would be bad news too, because then I’d have to put in another bet on the turn, and even that wouldn’t be guaranteed to take down the pot. Splashing around c-bets with marginal hands out of position has cost me so many chips over the past two years. Eliminating that one mistake was the biggest reason I got as deep as I did in last night’s tourney.

So I checked to the pre-flop raiser, and he bet. Now, here’s where I plugged leak number two. Even before, I would have been fairly sure he didn’t have a Queen. Yet before I would have laid the hand down, not wanting to take a chance on a pair of Tens with a Queen kicker being good. Now, I saw the hand differently. I saw that I had outs. A King, a Ten, or running diamonds could hit and give me best hand. With those outs, I decided my hand was strong enough to call and see one more card. I also realized that my call would tell my opponent I had something, even if not the nuts.

Turn was a 6 of spades, eliminating the possibility of a flush draw. I checked, and my opponent bet again. I was now down to about 7900 chips, a little more than 11 big blinds. If I called, I might have to face a river bet as well, and my stack would be extremely short if I continued with this hand. In the past, I would have laid it down in these situations, even though I was well aware I could be folding the best hand.

However, this time I stopped and considered my table image. I’d been playing the hand timidly up to this point, check-calling all the way. I’d been playing previous hands conservatively relative to my opponent’s style. He expected me to be a mouse and fold to his aggression.

I shoved the rest of my stack in. He had about 30% more chips than I did. If he called my bet and was wrong, he would be severely crippled chip-wise. He thought for about 30 seconds then folded, and I took down a pot that considerably improved my stack.

Why it worked: Even if he had a queen, he had to think he was beaten when I shoved the turn. That play just reeked of a set. Either I’d been holding pocket Sixes and hit my set on the turn, or I was slowplaying pocket Tens or Deuces that had hit the flop. My play to that point had led him to think I wasn’t skilled enough to represent a set I didn’t have.

I made it into the money, and finished 72nd in the tournament when I went all-in with Jacks, Sevens called me, and a Seven arrived on the flop. The $10.80 payday I received was nothing compared to the confidence I had at the end of the tournament. I felt my game had improved vastly over the past month. I remember Chris Ferguson writing that it took him about two years to totally “get it” about poker. Same time frame for me, maybe. I feel like I’m now a serious threat at any tournament.

After I finished all 50 quizzes in Harrington’s book, I totaled up my score – 371. He rated a score of 300 or more as “solid base of skills to build on” and 400 or more as “player who should be showing a solid profit as a tournament player.” Almost there.

To thank Action Dan, and to improve my game more, I ordered his latest book, Harrington on Online Cash Games; 6-Max No-Limit Hold ‘em. Can’t wait to read that one. I love 6-max.

In a future post, I’ll outline my biggest mistake in last night’s tournament.

One of the best poker books I’ve read

I’m currently reading Harrington on Hold ‘em: Expert Strategies for No Limit Tournaments, Vol. III–The Workbook, and it is one of the best poker books I have ever picked up. I read volumes 1 and 2, which teach the reader how to navigate through Texas Hold’em tournaments, last year, but skipped over volume 3. “A workbook?” I thought, “Who cares, I can skip that.”

That was a mistake.

The book consists of 50 hands. Harrington lays out what’s happening – your starting hand, your position at the table, stack sizes of each player, information you’ve picked up on who’s tight, who’s loose, who’s aggressive. Then, at each stage of the hand, Harrington has you pick from several possible actions. For example,

“It’s the first hand of an online tournament, so everyone at the table has a stack of 1500 chips with the blinds at 10/20. You’re in middle position with KJ offsuit. Second player to act raises to 60. Do you

a) Fold
b) Call 60
c) Reraise to 200
d) Push all-in

Harrington then gives you points based on how profitable your selected action is likely to be. In this example, he’d probably award 4 points for folding, since the initial raiser could very well have KJ dominated, and 2 points for reraising to 200 since it’s an aggressive move that might push the initial raiser out of the pot. He wouldn’t award any points for calling (too passive, given the strength of the hand) or pushing (a stupid, amateurish move with the blinds being so low relative to the stacks). By doing these 50 hand quizzes, you get to see where your actions differ from those of a very successful tournament poker player.

Better yet, Harrington not only analyzes his hands, but hands played by other top poker pros. There are quite a few hands Phil Ivey has played – who better to study than the top poker player of our time? You really get a look into the mindset of Ivey and other top pros – if you never understood how Ivey could raise pre-flop with 93 offsuit, raise on the flop and turn after completely missing his cards, and end up winning the hand, this book will help you get it.

Harrington’s book helped me better understand another book I own, Every Hand Revealed by Gus Hansen. In this book, Hansen walks the reader through every hand of a poker tournament he played in Australia. Reading Harrington’s workbook helped me relate to the strategy that Hansen and other top pros use when they play in tournaments – they aggress relentlessly to build the biggest stack at the table, then they use their stack to be the “table captain” and push the other players around. I’m going to try that strategy next time I play a large multi-table tournament. That strategy may cause me to bust out early half the time, but the other half I’ll have a stack big enough to go very deep and hopefully make the final table.

Kudos to “Action Dan” on an outstanding book. It’s one I will re-read multiple times, and will probably learn new things on each pass through.

Low and micro limit cash games: Just no fun without a fish at the table

I’m starting something new this week: I’m doing a bankroll challenge. I’m pretending that I only have $10 in my PokerStars account (I actually have much more, but I’m pretending) and I’m going to see if I can grind micro and low limit cash games to build it into something substantial. I decided to do this after getting on PokerVT and watching videos of Daniel Negreanu attempt to do something similar. I’m also inspired by PokerVT member Annette Obrestad, who used this method to literally build a bankroll from nothing after funding her account with a few dollars from a couple of freeroll wins.

(A PokerVT subscription, by the way, would be a great Christmas gift for a poker player if you’re looking for something.)

Last night was a Saturday, and on a chilly night with no holiday parties to attend, I decided to come home early and start my grinding. I got on a .01/.02 table. I turned on PokerTracker, a program that overlays PokerStars (and most other major sites) and gives me stats on the other players, and my own play.

I laid back for a few rounds and let the tracker gather some data. I was quite happy with what I saw. Two players were seeing flops with approximately 70% of their hands. That’s way, way, way too high. Even at my most loose/aggressive I only see flops about 30% of the time in full 9-seat cash games. At 70%, that means they’re probably calling with any hand containing a face card or Ace, any two cards that are suited, and any two cards like 84 that have even the remotest of straight potential. They were showing up to flops with a lot of garbage and often making hands that were second best.

Better yet, they were willing to call bets all the way to the river with second-best hands. As little as a pair of Treys for bottom pair and they’d stay in and call my value bets when I had strong hands. These calling stations are the most profitable players to play against. Of course, occasionally they’ll hit their miracle card – I had one hit a straight on the river last night, and that was frustrating – but it happens. You just have to notice the texture of the board and keep the pot small when there’s a chance they hit their draw.

Another good sign was the chat box, where a player from Austin typed in, “I’m drunk, who else here is?” I was pleased to get into as many pots with her as I could. I busted her and she bought back in. I made a note that she’s a player I’d like to sit down with again.

After an hour and a half, I was up $1.10. That may not sound like much, but it’s 55 big blinds. Given the bankroll size, it’s as significant as going to Vegas or Tunica and winning $110 at a $1/$2 table in an hour and a half.

By about 1 AM Central time, I was starting to get tired. I hated to leave my fish when they still had chips on the table, but I wanted to get some sleep. So I shut PokerStars down.

Insomnia hit, and by 2:30 I still wasn’t asleep. I decided to fire up the laptop for another session. Back on PokerStars, where I found another new table. I turned on PokerTracker, and again laid back for a couple of rounds.

This new table was no fun. Most players were seeing flops 14-16% of the time. There was only one “wild” player at the table, at 34%. Furthermore, these people were raising. At the previous table, four or five people would simply call the big blind pre-flop, and I could limp in behind them with hands like 56 suited to try and catch a straight or flush. Not so at the new table. Action was often folded to me, and if I wanted to play 56s I had to put in a decent raise or my hand wouldn’t be respected.

I played for half an hour and lost back 35 cents of my previous winnings. Again, not much, but it’s 17 1/2 big blinds so it is significant. There just weren’t many opportunities, and I got bored and put more money into pots than I should have with marginal hands.

It’s amazing how the presence of just one fish at a poker table changes the entire dynamic. Not only is that player loose, but everyone else loosens up to try and get his stack. Tight-aggressive players start limping more, and start widening their range. That lets me bet 7-8BB pre-flop for value when I wake up to a premium hand like AQ suited.

Will continue my bankroll challenge this week. I’ll report back if anything interesting happens.

Hand analysis: Shoving pocket Tens in the big blind

Last night I played a poker tournament at Max’s, a little sports bar in the South Main district of Memphis.  The bar was known as Calhoun’s until very recently, when they changed their name due to there being a restaurant named Calhoun’s in the eastern part of the state.  The bar has the Buzztime trivia/poker system, and every Thursday night they have a poker tournament.  Even though it’s on video it functions pretty much like a Sit’n’Go would online, with a starting stack of 10,000 chips for each player and blinds that increase every 15 minutes.  Everyone has a Playmaker box, a little blue wireless box, where they can see their hand and bet, raise or fold.

Just less than an hour in, I had a stack of 8900 with the blinds at 400/800 (there are no antes in this tournament).  I was in the big blind and found myself looking at pocket Tens.  Max’s tournaments tend to attract a lot of calling stations, people who love to call with most any hand but rarely show much aggression.  So three people called and the small blind completed before the action got to me.

That put me in a dicey position.  TT is a very strong hand, but it can get in a lot of trouble post-flop if an Ace, King, Queen or Jack hits.  With just over 11 big blinds left, I didn’t want to face a difficult decision after the flop.  Therefore, I decided to force my opponents to make a difficult decision pre-flop.  All in!

One opponent, who goes by “Kitty,” called me with 44.  That was not a bad call at all – she probably guessed I had something like KQ or AJ, and with a pocket pair she was slightly ahead with an already made hand.  With all the dead money in the pot from people calling pre-flop, that call with 44 definitely was not a bad play.

Two people folded, and another opponent, “Ribs,” called too.  He had KJ offsuit.  Now, normally, calling an all-in with KJ would be a really stupid play.  What could I possibly hold that KJ could expect to have a decent shot at beating?  If I were desperate I might shove with KT or QT, but I had 11 big blinds so I wasn’t exactly in desperation mode.

However, with Kitty already in the hand, I think his call was absolutely correct.  He needed to put 8900 in the pot to have a shot at winning the initial 4000 + my 8900 + Kitty’s 8900 = 21,800.  The pot was giving him better than 2 to 1 odds… if I’m doing the math correctly, he only would need to win about 29% of the time for the call to be profitable, given what the pot was offering.  I plugged the hand into a poker odds calculator.  The results may not be absolutely correct because I don’t remember the suits of everyone’s cards, but I they’re close.  With my Tens, I was favored to win about 45% of the time.  Kitty’s Fours would take it 19% of the time, while Ribs would win with his KJ 36%.  With Kitty in the hand, Ribs was getting a good price to make the call he made.

What if Kitty had folded?  Then Ribs would be paying 8900 to win 4000 + 8900 = 12,900.  He’d need to win about 41% of the time to make the call profitable.  KJ is about 43% heads up against my pair of Tens.  So should he have called in that case, given that it sounds like the pot was offering him a good price?  I still don’t think so.  Remember, he didn’t know I had an underpair to his two cards.  There are just too many hands that have KJ dominated:  AK, KQ, AJ, and of course AA, KK, QQ and JJ.  It’s an underdog to AQ as well.  These are the kinds of hands people would shove 11 big blinds with.  I personally would have laid KJ down facing an all-in and no callers to me in that situation.

So, what actually happened?  Board was looking good, with a bunch of little cards, until the river, when a King hit.  Ribs put both Kitty and me out of the tournament.  It was one of the few times I’d lost at Max’s this year.

This was one of those cases where all three people in the hand made the correct move, but only one person could win, and this time it wasn’t me.  That’s poker!