Anatomy of a Slow Play -- Part III
In his Little Green Book, Phil Gordon talks in detail about the four levels of strategic poker thinking. I don't know if Phil invented this way of thinking about the game or is just passing it on -- I know I've heard Antonio Esfandiari and some others mention the concept before as well -- but Phil does a great job describing the details in what is really a great book, if you don't already own it and are looking for another top-notch holdem book to supplement Super System and the Harrington books, maybe Hellmuth's Holdem book, etc.
Level 1 thinking is just asking yourself "What cards do I have?" Everyone, even the fishest fish that ever fished, uses this level of thinking. It's just looking at your cards, and evaluating the strength of the poker hand you can make. Period. No future thinking, no real attempt to give or discern any signals about anyone's cards, etc. Level 2 thinking takes that one step further -- instead of just asking what cards I have, you also ask yourself "What cards does my opponent likely have?" This takes into account his actions so far, his betting on the current round, any reads you have on that opponent, etc., and is a crucial part of playing smart poker. Your trip Kings on the flop sure looks like a solid hand in a general sense, but when the board is TJQK with 3 of a suit and 4 other players allin ahead of you, you need to accept that you're almost surely beaten despite having yourself a solid hand for most situations. So, every Good poker player lives in or beyond Level 2 at all times, but a small percentage of the donkiest players don't even spend much time wondering what their opponent could have to be betting like they are. These are people it is fun to exploit at the tables, the ones you just hope plop down to your immediate right at a cash nlh game with a huge stack just waiting to be bled away.
The great players start to separate from the just good ones when you get to Level 3 poker thinking. Level 3 asks "What does my opponent think I have?" This is where the slow play lives. I know I have a dominating hand, I know it doesn't matter much what my opponent has because I have a monster that is better, but now my job becomes to make my opponent think I have something much weaker than I actually do, to get them to hitch on to their inferior hand and ride it to the end. Incidentally, Level 4 is when you take it just one step further and ask "What does my opponent think I think he has?" This level takes into account what moves your opponent is trying to put on you during a given hand, and is an area where the real experts of the game are constantly operating in as involuntarily as breathing or blinking their eyes, while many of the non-professionals out there might struggle to get their heads to consistently function in this ultra-strategic place.
In any event, as I mentioned the slowplay lives in Level 3. When you get dealt pocket Aces preflop, immediately you need to jump right up to Level 3, figuring out how to send consistent misleading signals indicating that my hand is not really that strong. I want to get just enough money into the pot when the betting gets back around to him, and instill just enough thought in his mind that he is sure he has the superior hand, that he will feel compelled to reraise me at the first chance he gets. If I don't get the reraise from at least one opponent, then in my mind my slowplay has failed.
And that takes me to another important point from one of the latest poker books I'm reading. In The Book of Bluffs, author Matt Lessinger explains that, to be effective, a bluff [or a slow play] needs to be misleading, but not confusing. That's a key point that I always try to focus on. If my slowplay involves me betting strange amounts, huge overbetting (in most cases), or alternating between betting hard and then checking on later rounds (or vice versa), then I'm not coming at it exactly right. As I've mentioned in my earlier posts, to truly slow play perfectly, you should be
On Sunday night in the Full Tilt 19k guaranteed tournament, I was dealt three monster starting hands within the first hour of the tournament (I ended up busting out around 200th place when I failed to read a big-stacked opponent for hidden trips, and my fish lover's special TPTK sent me packing). And in each case in the tournament where I was dealt a premium hand, I managed to fuck with at least one person pretty damned badly before all was said and done, and those three hands probably comprised 95% of my chippage from the beginning of the tournament to my highest point, which was 3rd place out of around 660 players remaining.
Fairly early in the tournament, I am dealt AA in second position, and first position has already raised me 2x:
So, I already know I have the best possible hand, and better than my opponent's by definition, so I'm straight to Level 3. While many people like to just limp from early position with AA, no way I want to do that with another raiser already in the pot who is therefore more likely than not to be willing to call or even reraise a reraise from me. So I'm going to reraise here. But to execute this perfectly, I want to subtly to send this guy the message that if he has a medium pair, or certainly a high pair, or even maybe AK, that I'm not really that confident about what I'm holding. Maybe I have AQ, or a medium pair or perhaps a high suited connector. So with my raise here, I need to increase the size of the pot and the price to play the hand, but also make it seem like I'm not that thrilled with my hand and really hope he doesn't have something strong that led him to raise 2x from first position. So, with that in mind, here's my move:
I reraise to 250. This is only a 3x reraise of the original raise. And notice I didn't move in with my best possible starting hand, which many beginners and fish alike would be more than happy to do. That is likely to chase all but the very best hands out. I want the guy with the medicorely strong starting hand (say, 99 - QQ or AKo) to stay in with me. So, I'm not representing Aces to this guy with a reraise of just 3 times the original raise. And the 250 chip total bet I've made is very reasonable for this point in the tournament, such that anybody with a good hand can make the call and still have chips left over, and even the blinds might consider calling if one or two other stragglers stay in to see a flop as well.
Only the original raiser stays with my 250 bet, and the flop comes Ten-high with three clubs (I am holding the Ace), with the total pot now at 560 chips, and my opponent checks to me. This is where you have to remember the "misleading not confusing" mantra once again. If I check here, I feel like I've missed an opportunity to keep up the story I've been selling him from the second I saw my Aces in the pocket -- that I have a good hand, but not the best possible hand. AK, medium pair, etc. That's what he thinks I have (Level 3), because I've gone out of my way to make him think it. So what's the best thing to do here? In my opinion, it is to make a weakish looking lead. If I check, he might suspect me of something after an early position reraise preflop (if he knows his shizz anyways). But if I make a weak-looking lead, I'm just going to confirm the exact message I already sent to this guy with my actions preflop, that I'm strong but not too strong. An overpair maybe, or AK. So, I lead with this bet:
Just over half the pot. Exactly what you might expect as a continuation bet from a guy with, say, big slick, two Nines, etc. I'm just throwing him the line, continuing with the story I set him up for with my preflop reraise, and now I'm hoping to reel me in another feesh:
Slam! So I've now gotten an extra 870 chips from this guy after his original preflop raise, basically all with my aggression and misdirection. And I'm holding pocket Aces, while he's the one raising me! In this case, I elected to re-reraise allin, even though if I could take it back I might have just smooth called given that I held the Ace of clubs in my hand anyways, but he folded:
and got me off to a fast start in this MTT.
About 20 minutes later in this same tournament, the following hand came up:
Pocket Kings in the cutoff position, and again a first position raiser with a 3x raise. Again I'm figuring him for a medium to high pair (hopefully not Aces!), or maybe AK or AQ. So I want this guy to play, but it's important that I build up the pot, get these guys a little more committed, and maybe chase out any medium Aces in case they might draw out on me. That's Level 2 talking -- he has a good hand, I want him to raise. But then you move to Level 3. Again I don't want to push in 2000 chips or anything, because I don't think that is likely to keep anyone in the pot, and I view all of these monster hands as opportunities to get someone else's entire stack coming my way. So, I make a similar move to the first example above:
400 chips. Enough to build a nice pot when the original raiser calls it, but small enough that basically anybody whose hand justified a 3x raise from first position would also have to call this raise at this point. So I have what I have to assume is the best hand heading into the flop (as long as no Ace hits, of course), and I'm more or less forcing this guy to put in another 250 chips. Yet, I'm using my Level 3 thinking to again send this guy a subtle message that my hand isn't so great that it would warrant a raise to much more than this 250.
Two quick points here before I move on: First, this play works so well with me, because by not raising it up a huge amount, I am playing this hand exactly the way I would be likely to play, say, AQo in middle position, or 99, or something like that. So it is almost impossible for anyone without ESP to read my hand for what it actually is, because I'll be putting in 3x raises and 3x reraises all day long again and again and again, and the table has already seen me do that on several occasions, so to my opponents, nothing about this move stands out at all. If I played like a stone cold nut peddling rock (not something I need to worry about as you readers probably know), this move would not be nearly as effective because the table would know I had something good when I reraise preflop, even a fairly small reraise amount. And point #2 is another thing I keep stressing -- the messages you send to your opponents to influence what they think you have (Level 3) have to be subtle. If you're too obvious, people will pick up on it, especially good, observant players, and the jig will be up. Additionally, it is just a fact of nature that people tend to believe a hunch more if they think that they thought it up themselves. By just betting fairly small on my reraise, I'm reraising so I'm not coming out and suggesting that I have a weak hand. Much the contrary, I'm reraising here! But given the way most online MTTs work, not moving in more aggressively in most cases is going to make my opponent think, on his own, that I don't have a great hand, but rather just a good one. Even if they don't realize it at the time, that's the idea that formulates in their head as soon as they see my 2x or 3x reraise preflop. Good but not great, good but not great. Perfect.
Anyways, back to the hand. So I reraised it to 400 chips with my pocket Kings, and got a nice surprise as the action moved back around to the original raiser:
The original raiser called my 400 of course (I forced him to, remember?), but we also picked up the big blind as well. Beautiful. The flop comes 862 with two hearts. I barely even have the chance to formulate my strategy before the big blind moved in the rest of his nearly 1000 chips:
Unfortunately the original preflop raiser, my original mark in this hand, quick-folds to the bet, and I of course have to call, crossing my fingers that I don't see Aces here:
Not a terrible move on his part, with the texture of the flop creating a decent chance that he had the best hand with his Sevens. But all that only happened because I managed to reraise him preflop and yet still leave him convinced, either consciously or subconsciously, that I didn't have a great hand. So when this hand was all said and done:
I was up over 4600 chips early on, nearly three times my starting stack, and in the top 10 in the 19k from nearly the beginning.
My third big hand, about 45 minutes into the tournament, was the highlight of my tournament (gives you some idea how things ended up for me). This was another pocket Aces, this one dealt to me on the button. The button is my favorite position to play a preflop monster from, because it always looks like you might be stealing, even with one or more limpers coming in ahead of you. In this case, middle position raised it up to just over 3x:
Following the same logic as above, I need to get more money into the pot that I figure to win, chase out some of the hands that could draw to beat me, and yet signal that I have a good but not superb starting hand. So I reraise again:
Now this move was particularly dastardly on my part, because I had been at this table for the entire tournament so far, and the table had seen me press more than just a 2x reraise on several occasions, including the two examples described above. So when I bumped this guy from the button just more than twice his original raise, you could almost see everyone at the table harumphing, figuring me for a steal. Nobody believed I was strong at all, a message that I directly and purposefully sent to them, and they were about to play right into my sneaky little hands.
Long story short: The guy right after me sees my "bullshit" raise and says F this and moves in:
I can almost guarantee you he would not have moved in against just the preflop raiser if not for my raise that he perceived as suggestive of a weaker hand than his holding. Then, when it gets to the original raiser, he knows he likes what's in his hand, and he thinks he "knows" that I am weak, and the allin guy is desperate on a short stack, so he calls the 820 chip bet as well. Using my Level 3 thinking, I'm quite sure he expected me to fold to the allin raise and then his allin call, because I saw to it with my weakass reraise that he thought my hand was weak. So I did what I had to do here:
I'd like to point out for the record my signature move again in play -- the all-in-minus-one-chip-for-my-opponent™ move -- which I love to do to torment players I'm about to beat hard, or occasionally as a bluff to really fuck with someone who knows my game and has seen me do my signature move (heretofore to be called "The Hoyazo") to someone who is about to go down to my nut hand. Anyways, at this point the guy feels he has to call, and part of him still can't get that wimpy preflop reraise out of his mind, and has him wondering if I'm still trying to steal this pot on a bluff. The three of us turn over our cards:
The first guy who moved allin, I can understand his play on a short stack, though I would not have made that allin move against a raise and a reraise in front of me with just AQo. But for MachTwenty, there is just no excuse. He didn't even have an Ace in his hand, and had to KNOW, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that by the time he called me for the rest of his chips, he was at best a slight underdog in a race against a pocket pair lower than Queens. He should not have called, but I sent him a consistent message from the second the cards were dealt that said that I didn't have much, and that's what gave him the courage to push hard preflop and eventually put me on a bluff and call me allin for the rest of his stack. The hand held up for me as it should have given the counterfeiting going on between my two opponents:
and this pot managed to keep me in the top 10 of the tournament from around the 550-person level down to below 400, before extreme card deadness, and some poor timing on steals and semibluffs, started knocking me down and eventually led me to push with my TPTK at an ill-advised time. But hopefully the above are more good demonstrations of how you can construct a story for your opponents, and then sell it to them hook, line and sinker to get them to give you all of their chips when you already have the best of it going in.