I very recently completed a challenging grind, one that involved many aspects of a poker player’s life. From the start this was, as far as individual sessions go, to be an important day for me. Not only had I to climb back from the deficit I owe my bank and life roll, it would be best to get started this week, before I hit the road for another long trip where poker opportunities will be unfortunately minimal. Yes, my plan is to put in serious late fall and winter hours once I return, but a strong result here would be worth the struggle twice over. That’s not all. My recent reflections and off table work need to be put into action. I’m eager to be thinking even more clearly about future streets, a significant theme of my conversations with Christian Soto. So corrections can and need to be made, not just in the mind. Further, the games won’t always run this big. For all these reasons, and if only for my peace of mind, now is the time to bring the A game and fight.
So when I hit the bank to pull out my standard number of buy-ins, only to find the doors locked for Columbus Day, I am thrown for nearly one more loop than I can handle. To complicate the matter, I’m unusually short on cash, having made a small loan to a member of the Coven who had run badly over the weekend. My entire plan is off kilter and the session in jeopardy. I had asked the bank to up my ATM withdrawal limit, so even if I could not take out the correct amount for the big game, I would a little more than one bullet. I can take a shot, see how things go, then move down if it is not to be.
However, when I attempt to pull out the max allowed to me, it turns out that their machine has its own limit, independent of mine. This completely defeats the purpose of the increased personal number, of course, and is exasperating. I’m not at some unbranded, suspect ATM in a convenience store, or even at a remote location- I’m at my bank branch itself. Yet now all I can take out is the default client amount. I punch the buttons angrily and do this, but I am now headed off to a tough game with exactly one hundred big blinds and sandwich money.
On the drive to the Village, I go over my options, and form a new plan. I will only sit in the big game if it looks soft. This will allow me to play exploitatively. If I have to play the preflop cat and mouse game with the usual pros and excellent regulars, I am simply not properly rolled for the variance of even one night. When I stick in the 3bet with AJ in a good spot but am jammed on, then have to check/fold AK versus a multiway field on a caller’s board, I will suddenly be short stacked and crippled, which is no way to play poker against good opposition. I have several buy-ins for the smaller game, and that will be not only my consolation should things go south, but wise game selection given the cash problem.
It’s a fairly long drive, at least for someone who hates commuting, and I have time to reflect on my planning errors. I did not know it was holiday. That means not only was I unprepared for the financial aspect, but I was not thinking ahead to the possibly different crowd. Some of the pros like to show up later in the afternoon, so what will they do today? What about the talented players, some of whom are close or even better than the pros, who now have the day off? Will the holiday also mean more inexperienced opponents? Tourists even? While focusing on my issues, I had not really meditated on the game itself.
When I walk into the poker room, it’s a red light. The big game is packed with solid players and only two marks. This isn’t necessarily bad. One spot can make a game worthwhile, but with my one bullet, it’s not the game condition I was looking for. I was looking for Calling Caleb to be sitting, in addition to the other two regular bunnies. I put my name on the 5/10 list but sit at 3/5. Maybe I can earn a few stacks while I wait and make a decision. This might work out perfectly. I’m next on the list.
However, instead of chipping up and building ammo for the battle, I get dusted in the 3/5 skirmish. After starting off strong by convincingly raising a donk bettor off his hand, I lose two flips versus short stacks. Now, if a seat opens, I can’t get into 5/10 as the minimum buy in is 100 bbs, which I no longer have. Frustrating, but it’s not game over. My table is soft, I still haven’t been summoned to the bigger game, and a player to my left whispers me some good news. A complete irregular has shown up (there’s the Columbus Day effect) who has been sen spewing fantastically. He’s sitting down at my current table and his name is on the big game list as well. I need to slow down and watch how all this develops.
However, the initial ambush isn’t over. The dealer gifts me kings, and I get action from the Grumpy Pineapple, a miserable piece of work who is twenty five going on sixty-five. He face is a permanent scowl. He wears headphones at the table, and is often deeply engaged with a Pineapple app, slowing the game down just enough to not be rude, but to have a measurable effect on hands per hour, as all Pineapple players do. He only says something when things don’t go his way, and then they are all expletives delivered at a disturbing level of vehemence. In one of those deep twists of irony, he is a favorite of many of the female dealers, because they never hear his twisted litanies of abuse, as he talks low and quietly, seeming to be an otherwise aloof and good looking young man. (Dealers’ general daftness in regards to poker and people is an interesting subject for another time.)
Against the Grumpy Pineapple I flop top set. There are draws. I cbet and he calls. Only a gutter comes in, and we get it all in on the turn: he has binked the gutter, and top set is ruined. What’s also destroyed are most of my remaining hopes of playing in the big game. Now I’ll have to grind out 3/5 just to get even. I am in a corner, but unlike other days, I’m not going home. This is a real battle and there is no retreat today. I’m prepared, scored extremely high on the mental game prep quiz, and should be playing poker.
I put my final buy in on the table and the Goddess decides I have had enough runbad. I decline to isolate 67hh from the big blind, as my opposition is on the shorter side. I lead a favorable straightening and heart flushing board, prepared to go broke if necessary. One caller. Magically, I hit the straight flush on the turn. I check it over to my opponent, who has straights and flushes in his range, and may not suspect I am leading draws. When I check, my hand looks like a pair, which may have picked up a draw. He bets, I call. A blank on the river. I think he has a big hand, so I shove for 4x pot. I watch him from the corner of my eye, and get a read that he is calling. After a full minute, he proves me right, and now I have most of my money back.
With a better image and the new, rumored spewer at my table, I make a Gargamelesque maneuver. I take my name off the 5/10 list, with the intention of putting it back on, at the bottom. I don’t want to go into the main game, but be placed at the table that’s going to open, and which will have several weaker players. After a few orbits, this transpires, and 5/10 is formed. I have my hundred bbs and a very manageable table for a one shot effort.
Or so I thought. Instead, the spewer that was pointed out to me declines 5/10! I’ve come around to flank him but the enemy is not there. I look over at him helplessly, like a cop who has been bested by a clever, winking robber. However, it gets much worse. The spewer is replaced by a pro you’ve seen on the various streaming games and TV. He has direct position on me.
This is almost checkmate to my battle strategy. It’s not that I’m afraid of tangling with him, it’s that the variance will be too high for one bullet. Poker is a game of information, and information comes not only from the present, but the past. We will have to tangle and dance to establish a victor or at least who goes to the cage with more plastic discs. One or two hands is nothing, and all the information, if not the money, will be lost.
I like the rest of the table, so I decide to give it a few orbits. I don’t run very well, having to miserably fold queens to a flop raise from a player with nearly no bluffs in her range and the right kind of positional indifference to end up with a better hand in that spot, but I break even. Then an oddity develops. The strong pro has stepped away, and his seat is accumulating missed blind buttons. Soon he should be removed from the table. Most dealers know to not call the floor when a fish is at risk of being racked up, yet this player is given so much respect and latitude, his chips sit untouched for far longer than they should. Without him the game is fine, and after an hour I decide to go on break to refocus. I’ve taken a small beat and need to sure I am in the right mental place to make this work.
When I return, the game has gotten better, but there is a problem just when I want to continue. A strong tournament player who loves to straddle is encouraging rounds of it. I can’t play 50 bb poker, and nor do I want to. I’m not here for high variance. I make the decision to give up 5/10, at least for now, and beat a strategic retreat to 3/5. I had planned for this, so I am not defeated. I am up a few hundred dollars, and at very least, I’ve moved the trench forward.
However, the Goddess doesn’t want me there. Bizarrely, the 3/5 list is shortening while the big game list lengthens, in what seems to be another holiday ripple. The floor informs us that our game will be converted to 5/10 if we are willing, which will allow more players overall to have seats.
This table is exactly the kind of table I was angling for earlier. It’s short-handed and soft, exactly suited to my skill set. The tournament player who loved straddling ends up at my table, but shorthanded, I know I have the edge and don’t mind whatever he does. Within a few orbits, I have made my hourly for the day and have control of the table, should it continue. I defend in one spot, hit a text book board to float and steal on the river, and it goes down as if it were from a textbook. I get a three bet called and win with a cbet unchallenged.
Unfortunately, the tournament reg breaks the victim of my float steal by making a gambling call, and in doing so, our game gets even shorter and is pieced out to the other tables. I am now back, by coincidence, to the first 5/10 table I sat down out in the afternoon. However, now I have the ammunition to play better.
I am given a very favorable seat, with the short stack on my right, a very good nit on my left, and relatively good position on a very aggressive, almost button clicking player who will in time define my night. He is a mystery. Like many big game players, he does not grind the smaller stakes where I often play, and I only see him whenever the stakes get higher than 3/5. I do not know what this means. I have the feeling is a former tournament winner who now has a family and can only play certain days, including this one.
This is a full ring game with all seats filled, and I pick my spots carefully. I let the mysterious loose aggressive take me off Ace high on one turn when the runout favors him. I take back the money in an equivalent spot. For an hour or so the movement and feints of battle set up my image as tight. Then I start the moves, three betting and accumulating chips. It’s not the hardest game, but not the softest. I am never all in, no one is gambling, we’re all fighting for pots at a high frequency. In the smoke and confusion of so much action, I’m chipping up, slowly bleeding my earn from the table. That is often what NL is.
However, just when you think the day is won is when you should be on your guard. I had made all the right moves for hours, on the table and off, then ran into trouble as I counted down my last few hands. There are multiple levels of problems to sort out, and even as I write this, I see that I can take some comfort in having recognized them, at least. All the difficulties in my session, even the table and seat decisions, had to do with conflicting ideas. Yogi Berra may counsel taking the fork in the road (as both paths apparently led to his doorstep), but poker is a Choose your own Adventure story where each consequence is different.
Two spots reversed big gains I had made in the final hour of my play. In the first one, I felt I was forced to respect the UTG range of a very good but tight player, and chose not to 3bet a very strong hand from the blinds. When he checked back the flop, I realized he was at the bottom of his UTG range, that I had been tricked into being cautious. I took the lead and decided to go for two streets. However, on the river, a bad card came, one which completed straights and a single two pair combo that he might play in this fashion- maybe. This, unfortunately and as I have I written here before, did not deter me from a thin value bet. I was in fact conflicted about the value bet, but again went to my happy place, trying not to see monsters.
I was called by the two pair combo and I realized my focus was wavering. I had not learned the lesson I written about. Yet if it were earlier in the day, I may have been able to make a better decision: fatigue might be creeping in. Yes, he had gotten lucky and I had gotten unlucky. However, there are other problems. When he shows up with this hand, it means his game has changed. He is not as nitty as before, and the three bet from me would have taken down the pot or won it by the turn. My old info conflicted with the new.
The final hand of the session was inevitably with the mysterious aggressive player. I had won quite a few pots from him today, and clearly had the upper hand in our own, shadow dynamic I doubt anybody but us knew about. With a big stack in front of me, I picked up a premium pair, which I choose to three bet over his UTG range. The LAG’s range is very different from the tight player in the hand I just described, really night and day, so that here I can three bet, not regardless, but with confidence that I am far ahead. When the action got around, he snap called, which was odd and out of sync with his usual timing and behavior: he had planned to call the moment he opened. I realized his range was not the A8s garbage he drives the table with so often, from any spot. He had two very playable cards, and they were likely the same number.
I continued on a very favorable flop, and was called. This is standard for him, and means very little. He will float with any pair and any good ace. I need a blank now; we are very deep and my whole stack is at risk.
Then a remarkable thing happened. On the dealing of the turn card, my opponent gave off a classic strength tell. This is a tell that has saved me so much money in the past, and given me an almost unfair advantage in the war of reciprocity.
The problem was my analytical side refused to believe it. The card was a total, blanket, blank blank. I would have wished for this exact card, if I did such things. A nothing card. It made one hand or two types of hands, really only one passed on positional hand reading and the snap call.
So what happened is that I bet it anyway. And he check raised me. The thing about this player, is that he is very aggressive with the betting lead or when checked to, but has no real check raising range.
I fold. Because of this bet on the turn -which disregarded a priceless observation- I missed out on showdown, even possibly resucking out, or at least realizing my equity. Perhaps most preciously, confirming my read. All I had to do was check behind and call the river bullet. Now I'm in the dark.
There was a recent thread in 2p2 where Mason Malmuth extolled the virtue of strategy over mental game, and although I agree with his premise that one is more important than the other, this spot shows entirely why mental game is a serious thing to consider. Analytically, my turn bet was the right play. There is no doubt about this. I am far ahead of his range and can be called. It is a value bet scenario. Yet I have secret information that tells me I should check. Properly rested and in a perfect state of mind, I make a wonderful check here that goes against optimal strategy.
I rack up. I have made two mistakes in a row and have just punted off a hefty portion of my profits, literally a day of my win rate in one hand. Yet as I badly as I felt or should have felt, and despite these casualties, I had put in an important win. I came into a tough game with one bullet and made it work. I never got to cooler anyone or luckbox anything. I made fundamentally good folds that if I had been undisciplined, would have yielded me some lucky donkey dollars. What I have done, is fight my way to my hourly for the day, and then some.
No one cares about me when I leave or even says a word, but I have retired with grace from a complex and challenging field, one of the victors, and ready to do better when summoned again.