Learning From Losing

LEARNING FROM A LOSING SESSION

Last night, I got clobbered.

It all came down to two all-in pots I had—I lost both. I don’t say that to whine or complain, it’s just what happened. The “good” news is I broke even across the rest of my session, but at the end of the evening, I was down a bunch of money, which is never any fun.

I think many of us have one of two initial reactions: (a) “I’m the unluckiest poker player ever,” or (b) “I’m the worst poker player ever.” The good news is neither of those assertions are true, so we need to dig a bit deeper to find reality.

Since the net change in my bankroll was tied up in those two big pots, it’s reasonable to reflect on those and see if I made any mistakes. The pots for stacks are where mistakes are amplified.

POT 1

I was in the big blind of a 1/2 NLHE game with king-nine offsuit (K9o). There were three limps, including the small blind, and I checked. I know some people would raise here; I believe that’s a serious error. Bloating a pot multi-way out of position with a mediocre hand (yes, K9o is mediocre) is how you lose money at poker.

With 8 in the pot, the flop came Ks-9d-6s giving me top two pair. That’s how you win money at poker—flop top two when you get a free look. To my surprise, the small blind (SB) came out betting 6. With a million draws available and the opportunity to play the hand in-position, I felt raising was the only reasonable option. I made it 22, and as expected, it folded back around to the small blind. Totally unexpectedly, he promptly shoved all-in for 500. I had started with 240, so I had the effective stack (that is, it wouldn’t have mattered if he had 500 or 5000, since I only had 240).

Now I had to stop and think. As poker players, we’re taught to think a step ahead, and this is good advice. But as human beings, we naturally plan for likely outcomes. That is, if you’re driving down the road and an emergency vehicle comes driving up behind you with its lights flashing, you’re familiar with the drill and pull over to let it pass. Conversely, if a light aircraft begins a landing descent onto the road directly in front of you, you probably won’t be sure what to do (this actually happened to a friend of mine).

I was somewhere between “emergency vehicle” and “light aircraft landing” on the “preparation” continuum after the small blind shoved. Did he have a set of kings? Unlikely; he would have raised preflop. A set of 9s? Certainly possible, but improbable; there were only two 9s left in the deck. A set of 6s? That was definitely a concern. However, there were a zillion possible draws he could have and I was beating those handily. Let’s discuss those draws.

His draws could range from a naked flush draw (perhaps with the ace overcard) to a flop-smashing 8s7s, giving him an open-end straight-flush draw. Against QsJs (flush draw with a gut-shot) I’m 60:40 ahead. Even against the nightmare 8s7s, my hand would be a 52:48 favorite.

Let’s pause to note if I’d had AK (i.e. top-pair-top-kicker or “TPTK”) with no flush back-up, the best draws would either be very close to me or have me in bad shape. AdKc is only a 53:47 favorite over QsJs on this board. And it’s a 43:57 underdog against the 8s7s straight-flush draw. Furthermore, having AK would triple the number of “sets of 9s” he could have. In short, I’d be a little in front, or way behind; folding would be easy. There’s a big difference between top two and TPTK. But with my hand, I had an easy call.

He had Qs9s; a pair and the second nut flush draw. That’s a great outcome for me; I was a 65:35 favorite. Unfortunately, he hit his flush on the turn and I didn’t improve. But I felt good about the decision (and the decision process).

POT 2

Just a few minutes later, the same villain, still on my immediate right, limped in for 2 under-the-gun (UTG) and I woke up with KdKh. I made it 9, got two callers in the field, and the villain called. With 38 in the pot, the flop was Jc-8d-7c. Not an ideal flop, but I was probably in the lead. The villain checked, and I bet 22. This is a large-ish flop bet, but multiway with that many draws, this is the correct sizing. It folded back around to the villain, who promptly shoved. Of course, his stack was now more like 800, having busted me ten minutes prior, and I was at my starting stack of 240. So I had to call 210.

Well, we know he was perfectly capable of shoving with a pair and a draw, right? I even cackled a little as I called, “Got you now.” Only I didn’t; he had a set of 7s.

I’ve been thinking about this hand, and a couple things stick out in my mind.

AN OVERPAIR IS NOT TOP TWO

Remember that discussion above about how different it is to have top two compared to TPTK (or an overpair)? Yeah, I worked out those numbers when reviewing this hand. If he had a range of any two random clubs, JT, 87s, 98s, J9s, 88, 77, and T9s (!), then I was dead even money. You can check that out here. The problem was his pair+draw hands (e.g. JT) were far more likely to call; the hands that had me crushed would be the ones shoving. It was much more likely I was going to be shown 87s than JTs. Conversely, if I’d had J8o, seen a flop for free, and caught top two, I’d be a 60:40 favorite against that range. Again, an overpair is a very different (much weaker) beast from top two.

HE PLAYED IT DIFFERENTLY

“No, he shoved both times.” Yes, but remember how we got there. In the first case, where he had indeed flopped a pair plus a draw, he bet out. Only when I raised did he decide to ship in his stack. In the case where he flopped a monster, he let me keep the betting lead. He certainly hoped to trap one or both of the players in the middle; but whatever happened, he let me put money in the pot first. I should have sniffed out that difference in his line.

Therefore, unfortunately, I give myself a C- on play of this hand. Raising preflop is correct and I like my sizing. Betting the flop is obligatory; it protects against pair+draw hands and again, the bet size was good. But once the villain check/shoved on me, it was time to be done. Either I was in a very tight race or I was crushed; in this case, the latter.

SUMMARY

You can’t win every pot and you can’t win every session. The key to winning poker is to go back and review your play—from winning and losing sessions—and figure out how to play better next time.



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.