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Out On the Edge

I went into my regular card room on a weekend afternoon. Inside the crowd of $20-$40 hold'em players had not occur much. There I saw one game going three-handed. I knew the players and also knew that while I welcomed two of then in a ring game, they were aggressive and would make for a challenging short-handed lineup. Realistically the third player was a solid player who happened to be experienced and skilled at short-handed play. I had played once against him heads-up for a long period and had found him to be a tough, thinking player. However, I enjoy short-handed play and thought I can have an edge, though not to that level I would normally like. As I hoped, the game to fill up before long anyway, I took a seat.

I saw that the two generally loose, aggressive players had jacked up their usual levels of aggression by two notches and were deeply into an "attack and counter" sort of play. Despite their over-aggressive styles and excessive bluffing these were thinking players. Their bets and raises were not illogical. They bet aggressively but were also competent enough to lay down the hands. They were deceptive and had some mix in their play. They were frequently functioning around the third stage of thinking that Skylansky has mentioned. (Refer to the "Psychology of Poker" section in Theory of Poker by Skylansky.) A player would bluff his rival, who had a hand of fairly little value, would suspect the bluff and bluff-raise, then the first player, familiar of the likelihood of the bluff-raise and would bluff-re-raise.

To put other way, I realized that this game was more sophisticated and my edge even smaller than I expected. I would have chosen to take a break until more players showed up. This day was good for me and got an opportunity to sharpen my short-handed game.

However, before discussed the way one hand played out, I should state that I do not present a hand to suggest that I had a good time playing in this game. This happened to be an interesting hand which I remember always, perhaps only because I won it. I would also like to mention that in an aggressive short-handed tip game such as this one, a play which might correct at one time may be entirely wrong just a little time later against the same rival. Your status, your rival's emotional state, and what is thinking about your play all change instantly in such situations. You should very careful from all of them to keep your edge.

I was in the game for less than an hour. We were four-handed. I was in the big blind. The two players not in the blinds folded and the small blind whom we'll call Pierre, raised. He was one of the usually loose, aggressive players and the better thinker of the two. I had doubt that he had stolen a couple of pots from my previous hands. I knew that he will raise loosely at this point. He might do so with all but likely with his weakest hands. I was holding

I might have re-raised. It would be a fair chance against some players or against Pierre at a different time. I knew that he was looking at three bets when he raised my blind. But I was not sure about it at that point, as he had not so far been raising to excess in that place anyway. More significant was that at that time in the session I felt that my raising tendency was just a starting approach a level at which Pierre would not take my raises seriously. This would destruct my ability to bluff successfully, and welcome more re-steal attempts from Pierre. With defending my ability to bluff in mind, I merely called his raise.

The flop came

He bet. What should I do, fold, call, or raise? It was truly closer than it would look to many players used to playing only in ring games. In reality, readers lacking short-handed poker experiences might wonder how I could consider anything other than a fold. Deciding under normal ring game conditions, mucking would be quite normal.

On the other hand, these situations are different. In short-handed play, particularly when aggressive players are involved, bluffs and semi-bluffs come at a tendency that exceeds the typical ring game play. I knew that Pierre would surely bet that flop irrespective of his hand. If he had little or nothing, he would expect that I would fear a king and fold. With a stronger hand, he will check but might well bet even then, as he would know that I would find his check doubtful. Hence his bet did little to thin out his hand, but as he would usually have little, yet still bet, there was a strong chance he was bluffing or semi-bluffing. He might have something like:


but those were unlikely than having something like QT,A4 or 33. They were in fact less likely. And he would just readily bet with a hand like:

While playing against Pierre, I need to consider that:
1. Queen-high might be the best hand on the flop.
2. If queen-high was not best, pairing either of my cards would give me a reasonable chance of winning.
3. I had a straight draw which could give me an open ended or gut shot draw on the turn.
4. I had the second nut backdoor flush draw.
5. If I hit any one of the draws on the turn, the high likelihood that Pierre was bluffing would increase my chance of winning the pot on a semi-bluff as a re-steal.

The above factors stated that I did not fold. If I frequently fold in this case like this against Pierre, I would be giving up too much. Moreover, he would explain my passivity as a license to steal from me every chance he got. Folding was of course not the play (though it could be at some other time). The option was either a raise or call.

Before proceeding further, let me note that having played similar hands before, I knew on this flop what I was going to do. I didn't spend any time of what option to pot. Now I'll discuss a detailed analysis only to show you the logic behind the play.

Coming back to the hand, though a raise was not out of the question, it would narrow down on being a pure bluff at that point in the hand. I had no outs which would give me a very strong hand, much less a sure winner on the turn. However, the small flop bet would barely give Pierre pause if he had any hope of winning. He would be disappointed by a raise on the cheap betting round, and would call, almost forcing me to bet again on the turn, exceeding my bluff over two rounds. This did not give me any leverage.
However, calling on the chance of picking up either a pair or one of my draws on the turn would give me the opportunity to semi-bluff when Pierre would it seriously and I would have outs that would possibly win if they hit. (Cards that would achieve this were any queen, jack, ten, nine, ace, or heart, for a total of 23 cards.) I knew that Pierre would not bet again on the turn. So I also have an option of taking a free card. I hence called his bet on the flop.

The turn brought the best possible draw-creating card for me - the ten of hearts. I had now straight draw and a flush draw for 15 outs. (There was some chance Pierre held the A denying my flush outs). Pierre bet again and I raised. Pierre thought for some time and called. His call could mean that he held a heart, a nine, a pair, or might be ace-high. The reason he might call with ace-high was that he knew that I realized he was a habitual bluffer, and thus may have been careful that I might try to re-steal from him with a semi-bluff. But I missed. The board now read as:

Pierre thought and bet after some times.
Did he have a king? I suspected. He paused too long to think on the turn. Pierre was a player who would have called automatically with a king or better. Furthermore, with only trips now he would not be too likely to bet into me after I had so strongly represented a flush or straight. No, I put him not on a hand, but on a "move." His play was uniform with a complete bust, a weak pair such as A7 or might have an ace-high hand with which he was trying to steal the pot using the paired king as a scare card. He possibly expected that I held a busted draw (as I did) and would not consider raising, or the fear of trips will force me to fold a weaker hand. The only difficulty was the possible one pair and ace-high hands he could hold. I could not call in the expectation to win with my queen because those hands represented a big portion of the hands he could have, especially in light of his having stayed with the hand till the river. With the same likelihood that he had very little, but just enough to beat me, it was obvious my best play was to re-steal from him. I was sure that my image with Pierre was at least reasonably tight, and he would have a hard not going for a raise from me. He may have been doubtful that I held a big hand when I raised on the turn. But it had been uniform with a made selection hand, and a second raise now would go a long way toward removing my uniformity. I raised and he thought for few moments and folded.

I should again stress that given only bit different action on my part at nearly any point in the hand. Had I not been little concerned about how Pierre was focusing my raises, for instance, I might have re-raised the pre-flop. Had Pierre been a less aggressive, less habitual bluffer, I might have folded on the flop. The turn decision was normal, but calling instead of raising could have been an option under some conditions. Ultimately, the raise on the river whose aggressiveness and bluffing frequency tremendously reduced the chance that he held a hand with which he could (or would) call.

Poker decisions tend to be situational in character. They depend on the specific situation of the hand. This is not true in the short-handed play. In short-handed games decisions are strongly influenced by how you think your rivals are looking your play, how you want to affect their following thoughts about it, strong image considerations, your rival's emotional states, how you interpret tricky nonverbal indications and more. In addition, quick thinking is the best as you are always faced with new, unexpected options on successive betting rounds. For instance observe, in the hand I played that I had not expected a bet from my rival on the river and had to decide immediately how to confront it.

The combination of the call on the flop, the semi-bluff raise on the turn and the bluff-raise on the river made this hand slightly "extreme," a hand played "out of the edge" in relation to more tough hands. Such hands come up sometimes in short-handed play, frequently than they do in ring games. They focus more on thought processes of play poker and the situational nature of play. Subsequently, short-handed play can help sharpen your thinking for ring games where most of your play need not push the limits without any difficulty. Refer to the essay "Short-Handed Play: Don't Miss Out" for more details in playing short-handed.

Continue Here: Consideration In Two Blind Stealing / Defense Situations