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.