By Justin Cherot
“Poker is like sex – everyone thinks they’re the best, but most people don’t have a clue what they’re doing.” –Dutch Boyd, professional poker player
I don’t watch it anymore, and mercifully it’s coming to an end, but I used to get a kick out of watching the people on American Idol that couldn’t sing… and thought they were amazing. In essence, they had an elevated sense of self that was so out of tune (literally) with reality that it’s ridiculous.
You know, like poker players.
Have you ever had a conversation with a player (other than people who were just learning, of course) that openly admitted, in a non-joking manner, that they were bad at poker?
Put it like this: I’ve had one more royal flush in my life than I have had conversations with such people.
Yes, in my 13-year poker “career”, I’ve had one royal flush: back in 2005, house cash game, nosebleed .25/.50 stakes, and there was four to a flush on the board, so me and my uber-shaky betting fingers didn’t even get a call. I remember it like it was yesterday.
My point is, when it comes to poker… especially when it comes to poker, people tend to project optimistically. I’ve had plenty of conversations with poker players who say, “I’ve had a sick run of cards,” or, “yeah, I’m down ‘such and such’ for the month”, but I’ve yet to run into the person who says, “I’m a below average poker player.”
Want to hear a sick truth that the top 1% don’t want the remaining 99% to know?
If you’re average… you’re losing.
I’d like to think of myself, overall, an extremely capable player. But, even though I’ve been playing for 13 years as I stated, I’ve only become competent within the past two summers.
That means, for 11 solid years, I wasn’t even average. I sucked.
And after two years of dedicating myself to the game, patching up some horrible holes and learning some expensive lessons along the way… I suck a little bit less.
Thus… I still suck.
This isn’t an exercise to beat myself up. Believe it or not, I’m actually very confident in my poker acumen. If you ask 1-2 regulars at the legal poker playing establishment, or even some bar tournament regulars, most of them would tell you I’m tough to play against. The beauty of it? Depending upon the person, they’ll even tell you two different things.
“Dude is a knit. If he raises a pot, chances are I’m way behind.”
“That Tiger Woods kid? He’s a fucking maniac. He can literally have anything.”
Like everything else in life, the truth is always somewhere in-between. I’d like to think I’ve created my own sub-class of poker player. Obviously you know there’s tight-aggressive, the en vogue loose-aggressive, etc.
I’m tight-creative: tight-aggressive at the core, but I’m more than willing to mix it up a bit if the timing, the opponent, and my chip-stack is right.
Example from two summers ago: I’m under-the-gun with pocket 4’s at a 5-10 game. I limp for $10. Four other people limp. Active Button Player decides to pop it up to $55. Folded to me.
My image: super, duper, ridiculously tight. Like “scared money” tight.
(In hindsight, playing in maybe my second 5-10 game ever, should I have maaaybe been a little more scared money tight? Yes.)
But instead of just calling in an effort to “set mine” (flop three of a kind), or folding (I mean, really you’re just calling to flop a set, and even though the implied odds are decent, the immediate pot odds aren’t really in my favor, so folding is reasonable), I made it $175 to go.
Everybody folds. And one guy four seats away says to the guy next to him loud enough for me to hear, “So obvious he had pocket aces there.”
Couldn’t help but grin.
I’ll also tell you my second-favorite 7-2 story (tops is one of my first times playing 1-2 but looking back on it my reasoning for making the play sucks so I’lI save it). I hope he doesn’t see this link (or maybe I do #leveling), but this past Sunday I was in a free-money bar tournament, carrying a fairly tight reputation.
It’s midway through the second level of the tournament, and to this point I had played precisely ONE hand. I look down at 7-2 off-suit on the button. In the blinds are two of the best players in the tournament. With the blinds 200-400 and my stack at about 18K, I make it 1.1K to go (not using dollar signs because, welp, it’s not real money). They both call.
Flop comes K-J-2 rainbow. Small blind (about 12K) checks. Big blind (more than me, but you’ll see it doesn’t matter) checks. I continue for 2K (so much easier to bluff when you actually catch a small piece). My c-bet cut the field in half: small blind calls, big blind folds.
Background on my opponent: he’s probably the one and only person in the tournament who I believe is objectively better than me. Super important, because, quite frankly, that’s the only reason I was raising with garbage on the button to begin with. I’ve learned the hard way that bluffing against loose-passive calling stations is a losing play in the long run (more on that later). It’s that disease of, “I just have to see it to believe it.”
After being called on the flop, against most people I would just cancel my plans, check it down and pray that my deuce somehow has showdown value. But I have four things working to my advantage: 1) my image, 2) my opponent can get creative, but he can also make big laydowns, 3) I have more chips, and 4) I have position.
Turn is a blank (in my mind, that is… my hand recall is usually sharp but if there’s a gun to my head I think it’s a 3). He checks.
If I check here, in one way or another I’m conceding the hand: he either fires the river and I fold; he checks the river and I check back; or he checks and I try to tell a story that makes no sense and get snap-called.
I try to put on his hat for a minute and think about what hands he thinks I might have that would bet for value on the turn. He more than likely rules out kings in this spot because of my image, because why would I bet the flop, right?
(For those reading, it is NOT out of my range to fire with top set on a dry board in this spot. I might even do it against someone reading this in the future.)
He could put me on aces, AK, KQ, AQ, queens, jacks, or tens in this spot because more than likely a knit like me would c-bet with all of those hands in this spot. If I check back the turn, he could try to “steal” the pot from me on the river if I have the latter four.
And then it’s a matter of what did I put him on? I ruled out the premium hands, only because he’s the type of player that would 3-bet me 100% of the time because he doesn’t mess around at the Tavern Poker format. I ruled out K-J and a set of 5’s for the same reason, because I would have heard about it post flop (he either donk bets or check-raises because his hand is vulnerable against my perceived range, in my opinion). I figured the absolute top-end of his pre-flop pair range is 6’s because, again, there was no 3-bet. I even ruled out A-J because more often than not he would have 3-bet with that, too, as a feeler bet.
My conclusion? K-9/10, or Q-J. So I think of the most sophisticated way possible to blow him off his hand.
He can’t just call. Half of his stack would already be invested if he did. He would have to either shove his remaining stack… or fold.
And he tanked. And tanked. And tanked.
Finally, he said, “I’ve got a really strong hand.”
See? I’m awesome at this game, right???
So awesome, in fact, that in the first example I dropped my $1500 buy-in, and the second example… wouldn’t you know it… I tried to bluff a calling station with bottom pair and got SNAPPED with top-top, leaving me crippled (the villain from the 7-2 hand finished me off when his K-J hit against my 7’s one hand into the final table).
Like, did you even read that first example!? What the hell would I have done if crazy button guy four-bets!? Five-bet!? Call out of position!? With $1500 of real money on the table!?
And I say I’ve gotten better, and maybe all of those thoughts went through my head when I had 7-2 on the button this past weekend… or maybe I just wanted to have something to write about to justify what on the surface would be labeled a “game theory disaster” by most players.
I have flashes of utter brilliance. Sometimes I can peg you to your exact hand. Sometimes I can play a perfectly balanced game that can keep my opponents super off-balance. Sometimes I can be so disciplined that I can drop pocket aces post-flop to one bet… or muster up the intuition to fold in a set over set sitch… or find a way to call a massive bet with queen high.
But, since I can’t do it all the time, I guess I suck.
Not that I’d ever tell you that… or believe it.