5/10 NL, eff. stacks ~1000. With two limpers in early position, I over-limp 97o on the button. This is a spot I’m still not entirely sure how to play. Online, no one open limps besides fish, and for good reason: it seems to be a poor strategy both in theory and in practice. Early in my live poker career, driven by a desire to “punish” the limpers, I probably raised too much in these spots. That can lead to trouble if people are unwilling to fold. Of course, 97o is nothing to get excited about; there’s nothing wrong with folding. But I think over-limping and playing in position with a big stack-to-pot ratio can be profitable. At the very least it makes things more interesting.

The small blind completes and big blind checks. The flop is Q92 rainbow. It checks to me and I bet 1/2 pot, 25. I’m pretty conscientious about only betting with some equity when it’s checked to me in multi-way pots. It becomes obvious pretty quickly if you’re auto-betting when checked to and that’s not a particularly hard strategy to counter. In this case, my pair might be the best hand right now, but it’s likely to be difficult to win the pot if I check and let a turn card roll off. By betting I give myself a chance to win the pot right away. If called, I can either try to get to showdown or turn my hand into bluff, depending on the opponent and the turn and river.

It folds to Scott, who had limped in early position, and he calls. Scott is a winning player in the Motorcity game. He played a little in the very early days of online poker, but most of his experience is live. He’s pretty good at picking up other players’ tendencies and exploiting them, but has substantial technical leaks. I think his limping range is highly dependent on mood and game flow. It could include small pocket pairs, slow-played premiums, suited connectors, or medium broadways like QJ.

The turn is an A and I decide to turn my hand into a 3-barrel bluff. I don’t think Scott is especially suspicious of me so I think I can get him off a Q by the river. I think KQ and QJ are somewhat discounted because he would sometimes raise them pre-flop, and often bet them on the flop. I bet 65 and he calls.

The river is a 7. Now things get more interesting. According to my read, I think he’ll fold Qx to a river bet. I don’t think he ever has Ax, because that would mean he floated out of position on the flop, which I don’t expect him to do. If my assumptions are correct, if I bet the river I won’t be called by a worse hand…and I certainly won’t get a better hand to fold. That means my bet can’t succeed as a value bet or a bluff, which would seem to indicate that checking back is the correct play.

But there are other factors to consider. I think I have the best hand a very high percentage of the time. Even though I don’t expect him to call with one pair, I’m not certainly that he’ll fold every time. If I DON’T bet a hand this strong, I know my strategy will be extremely unbalanced — I’ll have way too many bluffs and not enough value bets. For these reasons I feel compelled to bet. I throw out 150 and to my surprise he calls quickly and mucks to my two pair.

Scott and I sometimes talk about poker, and after the hand I say something like, “I guess your strategy beat mine in that hand.”

“I’m not sure if I’m smart enough to know what that means,” he says. I point out that I was clearly bluffing, but he evidently intended to call me all the way; if I hadn’t hit a lucky river card he would have won the pot. He seems surprised by this line of thinking, which in turn surprises me: I consider Scott one of the better players in the game, so I would expect him to think in terms of strategy-vs.-strategy.

I think a lot of players gloss over hands they win, but that would be a mistake in this case. This hand strongly suggests my strategy against Scott was a bad one. He called, seemingly without much consideration, with a hand weaker than two pair. This indicates he’s calling a high percentage of the time with exactly the kind of hand my line was intended to make him fold. Even though I won the hand, I need to adjust my strategy against him in this type of spot in the future, in particular by bluffing less.

It’s also a good reminder that, even when you’re trying to play exploitatively, there can still be benefits to keeping a semblance of balance. Staying reasonably balanced gives you some protection against the times when your opponents behave unexpectedly. My line wasn’t great, but it would have been a lot worse if I didn’t value bet the river.

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