At War With Myself?

This week, I returned to AC so that I could try and satellite into the WPT main event. From playing at the Borgata last week, I figured that the satellite fields would be fairly weak. The fields were indeed weak, but I still managed to swing and miss in both tournaments.

In these tournaments, I played well and accumulated chips through the early and middle levels. But then, in each tourney, big hands arose in which I made poor decisions that crippled me. After the fact (yeah CBO log!), it occurred to me that both hands involved a distinct internal struggle: my instincts and my training were at odds. In both instances my gut told me to take one course of action but I chose another. Both times, my decision was based on the text of books i’ve read. And both times, I should have trusted my gut.

Poker players typically just sit down and play. Most beginners play purely on instincts, with experience serving as a guiding hand, reshaping those instincts as time progresses. Not entirely so for me. Since I have read at least twenty poker books (some of them several times), I can often cite the reason I am making a certain play, along with the author who told me to make it. However, I’m not a computer and I do have underlying instincts. My game is not totally pre-programmed by books and videos.

Instinctively, I am a very tight, conservative player. In a vacuum, priority number one for me is to protect my stack and avoid confrontations. Come to think of it, this “instinct” might not be 100% inborn. The very first book about tournament poker that I ever read was T.J. Cloutier’s book, which preaches super-tight conservative play and counsels against unecessary risk taking. Frankly, this book is complete garbage when applied to the modern tournament scene, and reading it before I read any other books probably set me back a good deal. It was only when I expanded my tournament poker library that I opened up my game and began to see results.

In any event, whether it is my own doing, T.J.’s doing, or some combination, my hard-wiring says to avoid big confrontations in tournaments. However, it is also indisputable that selectively welcoming big confrontations is required to win poker tournaments. So at certain junctures in a tournament, a little war is being waged in my head. Sometimes my gut says one thing while page 157 of Harrington On Hold ‘Em says another. Here are the two hands from the supersats where I should have obeyed Mr. Gut:

Supersatellite #1:

About half the field is gone. The blinds are 200-400 with a 50 ante. I have an average stack of about 12,000. My table is broken and I’m moved to a new one. The most exciting thing about my new seat, incidentally, is that it is located two seats to the left of the one being occupied by Captain Tom Franklin.  (Google “Tom Franklin” and “Brandi Hawbaker” for some background). At this new table, about 10 hands are played, none of which really give me a read on what’s going on. Then I am dealt JJ in middle position. I make a standard raise to 1200, and the player three seats to my left, who has about 8,500 chips, makes a reraise to 3200.  I have absolutely no read on this player. Everyone else folds.

My gut was screaming that he had a big hand and was making a small reraise to entice action, and that I should therefore either fold, or call, then check-fold if I don’t flop a set. 

However, this type of situation is discussed in several books (among them Harrington’s, Erick Lindgren’s, and the Kill Phil book). Each of those books states that big hands only come around every once in a while, and that you simply have to play them, especially when the blinds are large in proportion to you stack. Harrington’s book also states that when you have no particular read on a player, you should never discount the possibility that he is bluffing. He states that players can and do make strange moves, even if they don’t appear to make any sense. While my instinct said “get away!” these two concepts were telling me to go ahead and play the hand. In an effort to talk myself into the book-learned play, I also told myself that since I was in a supersat, I needed to accumulate a lot of chips soon. Further, I noted that this player could not bust me. After perhaps 40 seconds of internal back-and-forth, I finally pushed all my chips in, my opponent called and showed KK, and I was crippled. 

Supersatellite #2:

Once again, about half the field is gone and the blinds are 200-400 with a 50 ante. My stack is at around 5500 and fading fast. My table draw was very favorable, and there are many bad players. One of the bad players is a total nit–a very conservative player that is scared to put his chips in play. He has me covered and is in the big blind when I pick up pocket queens in middle position. I am technically in all in-or-fold territory, but I know that most of the players at the table, including the big blind, are not savvy enough to know this. I instead raise to 1000 in order to induce action. Everyone folds to the big blind, who calls.

The flop is Q-10-x with two diamonds, giving me top set. The big blind checks, and I desperately need him to catch something (flush draw be damned), so I check behind. The turn is the ace of clubs, and the big blind bets 400 into the 2500-chip pot. I put him on a weak ace and flat call. The river is the jack of spades, making the board A-Q-J-10-x. My set of queens no longer looks so good when the big blind fires 2000 into the pot. From almost any other player, I would instacall this bet, because a bluff is very possible in light of the prior action. However, this player was a very scared player who was clearly uncomfortable playing in a tournament of any magnitude. My gut began to scream “fold!” but I’ve been trained to calculate pot odds and not to discount the possibility of a bluff. Both these factors made this an obvious call. But somehow calling didn’t feel right. I called anyway. Despite being virtually certain I was beat.  The nit showed A-K and took down the pot, crippling me. Unbelievably, he didn’t reraise all in preflop with big slick.         

A few years ago, prior to my exhaustive exploration of poker manuals, I would have laid down both of the hands I desribed without much thought. I would have felt beat and thus simply gotten away. My education actually was detrimental in those two hands. But before I can curse those stupid books, I need to remember that I probably never would have advanced as far in those two tournaments without them. 

I think good tournament players understand all the important NLHE tourney concepts, most of which have now been written about in books I’m very familiar with. The really great tournament players not only understand these concepts, but also know the exact right times to disregard them, trust their gut and go with their read of specific situation and do something unorthodox. I’m still fine-tuning the delicate balance between my knowledge and my “feel.” I owe my lack of success on this trip to the fact that my game isn’t 100% fine-tuned.

2 thoughts on “At War With Myself?

  1. Funny you should say that – the first training I got similarly counseled ultra-tight, aggressive play as the mark of a pro, a player to be feared. And then, in my first couple of live tourneys, surprise surprise, I noticed it became nearly impossible to get action when I needed it, except from the occasional luck junky hoping to beat the odds. Luckily, more experienced players and further reading broadened my horizons.

    I’m not as advanced a player as you, but as I continue to study the game I’ve also found that my book learning and instincts sometimes get ahead of each other, and I’ll either go with my gut (to my 20/20 hindsight regret) or go with what I’ve read (to my 20/20 hindsight regret). But it doesn’t sound like you made an unreasonable play – you needed chips early, a premium hand came, and while your gut correctly perceived he felt he had something strong, that something strong could have been many combos weaker than JJ. But you’re right – the greats have almost psychic instincts as to when to disregard otherwise shrewd play, and iron discipline to boot, and achieving both is indeed a work in progress.

    In any event, congrats from a fellow NYCer on winning the Foxwoods tourney.

  2. Cloutier’s was my first tournament book as well, and I’ve been stuck working a short stack ever since. Just ask my wife. Nyuck x 3. Thank you. I’ll be here all week.

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