Clash of the Titans

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I got the first message, looked over, and saw Dom sitting to Will’s left at 5/10 NL (I was playing PLO). Naturally I hoped my two friends would get into some big pots that I could later dissect and they didn’t disappoint. They soon played an interesting pot that I heard about from both players individually.

Two passive players limped in early position, Will raised on the button to 50, and Dom three-bet to 185 from the blinds. The two limpers folded and Will called. The flop was Q42 rainbow, Dom bet 200, Will raised to 450, Dom went all-in for 1250 total, and Will folded.

I heard about the hand first from Dom, who had AK. His three-bet pre-flop with AK is completely standard, of course. On this dry flop he’s going to be continuation betting most of the time. Betting around half pot is also standard here: he can still easily get stacks in by the river and there’s no need to risk more on this texture. Naturally he would use the same sizing whether he was value betting or bluffing. When Will raised, he thought he was representing a very narrow value range of QQ, 44, 22, and maybe slow-played AA or KK. He didn’t expect Will to raise with KQ or AQ, and in fact didn’t expect him to raise with sets either, since most people would slow-play them on such a dry flop. Having ruled out most value hands, he concluded the raise was most likely a bluff and went for the re-bluff.

Since Will raise-folded the flop, his hand ended up looking like a bluff, but I had an inkling that he might have had a marginal made hand like JJ, TT, or even a weak Q. As it turned out he had QT suited. I would over-limp this hands sometimes, but raising passive players in position with a fairly strong, playable hand certainly can’t be bad and it’s what I would do most of the time. Will probably expected Dom to be three-betting wide, since Dom usually gets more than his share of three-bets in and I assume this session was no different. But I actually don’t think Dom would be getting out of line here. He has a lot of history with the players who limped in early position (although there’s no way for Will to know this) and they would be cold-calling him here a decent amount; plus, he probably saw Will as one of the tougher players at the table and wouldn’t go out of his way to get involved in a big pot out of position against him. Overall, it’s just not a great spot and I don’t think Dom would be very likely to try a raise without a strong hand. Given all that, Will could have folded QTs here. It’s a nice-looking hand, but it’s dominated against a tight three-betting range of, say, TT+ and AQ+, and stacks aren’t deep enough to maneuver too much post-flop. But this reasoning depends on some reads he couldn’t have been aware of, so I can’t really fault him for defending QTs in position against an aggressive opponent.

The flop showed why defending a hand like this can be dangerous: Will flopped about as well as he could hope to, top pair, but still couldn’t be thrilled about his hand. He raised in an effort to slow Dom out and perhaps gain some information, but once Dom shoved Will was convinced he had at least an over-pair and mucked his hand.

As I’ve discussed before, raising to “find out where you’re at” is dangerous against tough opponents. The problem is that if they don’t react honestly you’ve built a big pot without gaining any information. In Dom’s shoes some players would just give up their bluffs without thinking too much; others would be suspicious, but wouldn’t pull the trigger on a re-bluff for their whole stack. Will was unlucky to run this play against the worst possible opponent, in that Dom would perceive the raise as bogus and do something about it.  In fact, I think Dom would be so convinced that Will’s raise was a bluff that he wouldn’t shove if he actually had a value hand; he’d call to allow Will to continue bluffing. So once he shoves the flop, he’s almost certainly bluffing.

Arguably Will’s only mistake in the hand was folding to the shove, but unfortunately, it was a big mistake. Many players just ask themselves, “Am I beat?” but it’s far more valuable to think in terms of equity. Once Dom shoves, there’s a total of 1900 in the pot. Will has to put in 800 more to call. His break-even equity is 800 / (800 + 1900) which is 29.6%. Against an over-pair, he still has five outs, which gives him about 20% equity. He’s not so far from being priced in against Dom’s value hands, which means Dom doesn’t need to be bluffing all that often to make this into a call. Based on the above reasoning, Dom is actually bluffing quite often here, making it a clear call.

Which means that Will’s raise would have been brilliant had he been planning to call it off. This is known as raising to induce. A lot of good players have no raising range on a flop this dry, but I think that’s a mistake. Dry flops are unlikely to improve either player, which means it’s pretty likely no one has anything. The battle of nothing versus nothing is the most important battle of all in no-limit hold’em. Taking raising out of your strategy makes it a lot harder to win this battle. Raising with a balanced range of bluffs and value hands is a powerful strategy on dry boards as well as wet ones. I think a good strategy on this flop would be to raise and call it off with top pair-bad kicker, and call down with top pair-good kicker (KQ/AQ). This has a few advantages. If your kicker is low, you’ll have five outs against an over-pair, giving you about 20% equity, whereas if you got it in with KQ v. KK, for example, you’d only have two outs for about 8% equity. Additionally, a K or A on the turn is more likely to get bluffed than a low card, so your bluff-catching equity is better with KQ/AQ, because you’ll improve to the effective nuts on cards that are more likely to be bluffed. These may be small differences, but it’s good to have reasons for your plays because it allows you to maintain good frequencies while finding edges where others don’t.

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