Just A Cooler. Or Not.

Poker players say it all the time: “Ah, it was just a cooler.” That is, a situation where two opponents have extremely strong hands, and the chips are inevitably going into the middle; the only possible ending to this movie.

First, a brief tangent; do you know the origin of the term “cooler?” It comes from a swindling technique known as a “cold deck.” That is, a deck that’s been stacked so the mark gets an extremely strong hand, but the swindler (or their accomplice) gets an even stronger one. That deck is snuck into play at the appropriate time. The exquisite “swindler swindling the swindlers” scene in the classic movie The Sting involves a cold deck. In fact, you hear Robert Shaw say to his lackey, “Stack me a cooler…” Why “cooler?” Because a cold deck hasn’t been sitting in the dealer’s hands and is still cool to the touch.

Where was I? Yes… “Just a cooler; nothing to do.” Such a hand came up in my hand discussion group recently. I’m reluctant to shrug and label hands “coolers,” because I believe that, with thought, one can escape many situations that initially look like coolers. In fact, in my recent Global Poker blog post, I described how a friend of mine managed to fold kings preflop in an NLHE game. With that said, this one did have me shivering from the cold.

Our hero, Ernie, is playing a live 2/5 NLHE game and has a stack of 1400. He’s in the big blind with AdJd. There’s an early position raise to 20 and four callers. Ernie says, “I could have re-raised, but I’d have to bomb it on the flop, and these people aren’t fond of folding.” I agree, a raise here is a mistake. Ernie has the chance to close the action and have perfect relative position on the preflop raiser. That is, on the flop, the preflop raiser acts immediately after Ernie, so Ernie gets to see what everybody else wants to do with the likely continuation bet (“c-bet”) before he has to act. This allows him to extract maximum value if he smashes the flop, or get away cheaply from a difficult situation.

Well, Ernie smashes the flop. It’s a delicious As-Js-3d, giving Ernie top two pair, with a bunch of second-best hands and draws available from which to extract value. Ernie’s all set to check-raise the preflop raiser when something unexpected happens. What I like to call a “pot twist.”* The small blind (SB) leads right into the 120 pot (and four opponents) for 45. This puts Ernie in an awkward situation. He would love to trap some more opponents in a pot where he’s way in front, but if he just calls here, he’s giving the field almost 5:1 to call behind him. That’s a darn good price for somebody to hit an unlikely card and win Ernie’s stack.

So Ernie does something reasonable—he raises to 150. It folds back around to the original bettor, who pauses, thinks, and then makes it 500. Before we go further, I should tell you Ernie describes the villain as, “a backpack/headphone reg/pro.” Which I take to mean this cat knows what he’s doing, he’s not just punting chips away, and you need to take him seriously.

Anyway, Ernie then asked the group, “Well, what do I do now?” He’d already made his decision and lived with it, but he wanted to see what we thought before he told us what he’d done.

My first reaction, and that of most of the group, was, “There are a million draws out there, which you’re crushing. He has A3s sometimes, which you’re also crushing. Certainly if he’d had pocket aces, he’d have 3-bet preflop, and probably the same for pocket jacks. Yes, he can have pocket 3’s, but…

If he has pocket 3’s, it’s just a cooler.

I even posted something to the effect that, “Sometimes you are just going to get broke if the villain has a particular hand. This is one of those situations, so stop worrying about the combos of pocket 3’s he can have.”

But as the discussion continued—all 145 comments—some interesting points were made. Would a tough pro 3-bet a draw after Ernie raised him? If he has a draw, then Ernie more likely has a value hand, and 3-betting there would just give Ernie a chance to 4-bet shove his stack in. Then the pro would have to call the all-in (he’d be getting far too good a price to fold), knowing he was way behind.

I also did some simulations and discovered if we give the pro 33, A3s, and all the royal flush draws, Ernie has a sliver of an edge—53:47. However, and I’ve written about this before, you can’t treat all of his possible hands as equally likely. As each action happens, you have to narrow his range. When he 3-bets the flop, the chances of his having A3s or a big draw plummet, and it becomes more likely that he has the dreaded bottom set.

The more I read, the more I thought, “This is not, ‘just a cooler’.” Nobody could fault Ernie if he 4-bet shoved his stack in. But if you followed everything the pro did – especially that 3-bet – folding looks to be a reasonable choice, certainly one you should consider before shoveling the chips in.

YEAH, I KNOW YOU WANT THE RESULTS.

We always want to know the results, right? Well, here they are, sorta. Ernie finally decided he was likely against a set; he tossed his cards into the muck. He said, “This guy is not one to discuss hands, and I didn’t ask. But I feel good about the fold.” Benton, who runs the hand discussion group, and is a tough mid-high stakes pro, wrote, “I like all your reasons for a fold, and I think you made a good one. I would just shove and rebuy.”

Benton is being wantonly humble. I think he might wiggle out of that spot too. The point here is having a very strong hand is not sufficient reason to just shrug and put all your chips in. Stop, think the situation through, and then act. It may not be “just a cooler.”


Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.

*Thank you. I’ll be signing autographs later.