Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Home Game Poker

As I have alluded to here in earlier posts this week, I actually played me some live poker over my time away at the end of the year. Twice in fact, which for me is more live poker in a short period of time than I ever get to experience other than when I am out in Vegas for my annual summer poker run. The first was at a home game with a bunch of guys (and gals) downtown in New York City who I have played with several times in the past, but not for probably a good two years now at least since the last time, which is what I will focus on in this post. The second session was at Bally's in Atlantic City, where I went down with my brothers this past weekend to get my annual Christmas Vacation AC groove on, something I think I have done now three years in a row. Both sessions were profitable ones for me, and, as usual when I play the sparing live poker I get to experience these days, I truly enjoyed myself both times as well. Live poker is just so liberating to an online grinder such as myself I guess.

So a couple of days before New Year's, my brother in law invited me down to a home game he was having at his place in the city with a bunch of his friends, from his job(s) over the years, from other social outlets he attends in the city, former and current girlfriends, stuff like that. As I mentioned above, I have played with these guys before, although not for a good long while at this point. But every single person who was there that night -- save for a new boyfriend and a new girlfriend of some of the old standbys in the group -- was someone with whom I have played previously, and as I never really seem to forget the poker plays that people make in front of me, I still had a pretty good book built up on how each player plays from my limited past history with them, at least in general terms. But as a group, they all have probably played together maybe a hundred times over the past several years, while I could not have sat in their game even ten times in my life. So they all know each other and their games much, much better than I know how they play, which I figured going in would be a severe disadvantage for me, in particular given that I haven't played with this group probably since the winter of 2007 is my guess. And the other thing of note about the times I had played with this group of guys in the past is that I had an exceedingly good record of profitability over almost every single session I have played with this group, a fact which I know has been discussed by at least some members in this group in my absence previously.

Fortunately, there are a couple of things about this particular group of players that also put me at a significant advantage to them. First, they are not what I would call "serious" poker players. Sure, some of them have read Super/System and probably even a few other books, but I assure you that not one person there has read every poker strategy book ever written like yours truly, nor do any of them focus on things like hand histories, hand analysis and the like when they are away from the tables, at least not in any meaningful way like I do. A couple of the guys have played a lot of poker -- at least enough to have figured out that tight-aggressive is the way to be successful with the most regularity -- but many of them really only play a couple of times a month in their regular home games, if even that. The end result of this is that, for an experienced player who has spent hundreds and hundreds of nights over the past few years feeling out his table and getting to know the tendencies and what to look for in classifying his opponents, it's not nearly as daunting as it could be for me to get a read on what most of these guys are holding.

The other aspect to this particular group of guys is that, while this does not apply to everyone in the group, many of them are in fact what I would generally refer to as "starving artists". Now, that's not to say that any of these guys are actually starving, or so broke that they don't eat, or anything like that really. But, at the same time, we play for stakes that to me are more or less meaningless to me (one $20 sng and then a $20 buyin cash game), but which are not quite meaningless to most of them, many of whom have part-time jobs as short-term contract writers for some outlet or other, or who are perpetually pitching a script or a screenplay of some kind but who have yet to make any real big money from their chosen careers, etc. This also introduces some interesting wrinkles into the game from my perspective that I would not normally even think about, say, if I go down to AC and just play against a bunch of random unknown donks at the Borgata, the Taj or someplace similar to that, and I think it puts anyone at a major advantage if you don't care a whit if you lose your stack, but the other guy cares much more if he loses his.

So, as I mentioned, we decided to follow the usual plan and start off with a single $20 sng, and as there were 9 of us, it was perfect for one table. We decided ahead of time that the payouts would be 6-2-1 for the top three finishers, and things started off. I didn't get any playable hands for the first couple of blind rounds (we decided to go with 25 minutes, which was longer than I would have chosen for such a small tournament where others would be looking to get a cash game going as soon as people started to bust from the sng), so I mostly sat around and let my stack dwindle slightly. But it never got too far down, because, as I have often written about whenever I play live poker after countless hours of online-only play, I find myself simply overloaded with information from my opponents -- be it physical mannerisms, little habits they have, how they announce their bet sizes or even just the way they cut out their chips and move them to signify their bets and raises -- and I am usually able to tell if the players in a hand are weak, and if so, to apply sufficient pressure to win a decent pot here and there with nothing as I need it. So I was able to hold on all throughout the sng doing just that, picking up tells, making reads based on those tells, and then making moves based on those reads, and I never got one wrong on the entire night.

The great thing about this night at the poker tables is that I flopped a set. Two of them on the night, actually, strangely enough both with pocket 3s. My first flopset got me my first double-up and I think the second person eliminated from the sng when I checked to the preflop raiser on a 963 flop with two spades and the pocket 3s in my hand. Against a stronger, richer set of opponents I would definitely consider betting out here, but against this group of people, the lead-out is just likely to scare some people away and really I needed to effect maximum extraction with such a small field to play against in this sitngo. So I checked, one of the aggro guys in the group made his standard c-bet, which a player in front of me quickly called, causing me to put the second player on a flush draw. When the action came to me, I figured that given the stakes we were playing for and the aggro nature of the raiser in question, he would call if I raised or pushed in anyways with just his naked flush draw, so why bother raising here when I could maybe find a fold if a third spade hits on the turn or river. So I just called behind as well, and the turn came a stone cold rag. This time the c-bettor checked, the likely flush draw checked as well, and I wanted to lead out not so much to protect my hand by more to make sure the pot would be big enough by the river for an allin bet. So I did this thing I've been doing more and more with strong hands lately in tournaments, in particular nearing the end game -- where I look at my opponent's remaining stack and determine the size of my bet less in relation to the size of the current pot and more in relation to finding the right size that seems big enough, but which leaves my opponent with enough chips to make a large enough all-in reraise that he can reasonably expect me to fold. So I picked 25 chips for my bet, after eyeing aggroboy's roughly 80 chips behind (starting stacks were 100 chips), and not a couple of seconds went by before my opponent did indeed push allin on me. I called of course, shook my head and showed my set. He showed top pair Ten kicker and was drawing dead heading into the river.

That was really the only big hand I had in the first hour or two of the sng we played, but once again I was able to continually advance my stack even with no real cards to speak of for the next hour or two just by continually laying reads on people and relying on them with my play. With only around half of the starting field of 9 still remaining about 90 minutes in, I recall reraising the bet about 7x preflop when three other players had limped in ahead of me already, everyone reluctantly folded, and I got to show them the hammer which is always nice. Those guys didn't get why that move was quite so cool, but I know my brother in law did and we shared a secret momentary smile after I flipped up my cards and raked in another pot.

And all the while, like I said it was just as if I was flat-out overloaded with tells from all the players at the table, something you just don't get to experience in the same way during online poker play, and boy did I take advantage. I recall a hand where one of the guys who always does this fired a c-bet and then instantly a second barrel on the turn, but did so with far too much bravado as far as I saw it. Remembering perhaps the best piece of poker wisdom ever imparted by poker tell expert Mike Caro, that "strong means weak, and weak means strong", I just had a feeling that this guy was bluffing. It was like he was afraid that the table would sense that he was bluffing, so to overcompensate -- just as Caro says -- he was instantly placing his chips out there to make his bets, and slamming his chips fairly hard down on the table as compared to his usual betting style, and he was announcing his (large) bet amounts with significant authority. All of this told me he was bluffing, so when I flopped top pair and a decent kicker, I ended up calling him down on the flop and then again on the turn, and then I fired out a value bet on the river which he also called with his second pair weak kicker, giving me a very nice pot that under normal circumstances I would definitely have folded with just top pair middling kicker early in a tournament like this.

Another hand happened to knock out another of the players at the table where he made the #1 cardinal sin of poker according to Mike Caro -- the guy called another player's allin when the other player had bet after first making that clicking sound with his tongue that Caro does such a great job of describing in his seminal book on poker tells. I forget how Caro spells it, but essentially it is when a player puts his or her tongue on the roof of their mouth and then makes a kind of a clicking sound, normally indicative of disgust or disappointment with a given situation. Of course, again following Caro's "weak means strong" rule, when someone makes the disappointed tongue-click sound, but then goes on to bet anyways on that round, they almost always have a real hand and are trying to do whatever they possibly can to get you to call. Well, one of the guys did in fact call with top pair 3rd kicker in that spot, which I can basically assure you is never, ever good after the tongue-clicker bets, and he was up against a flopped set and headed out in 5th place.

Another one of the guys, again one of the more aggressive, Super/System type of followers, has a normal way of cutting his chips and announcing his bets when he actually has a hand and doesn't want a call, but he doesn't realize that he has a whole other way of moving his chips to the middle and making his bet known to the table when he is bluffing. In his case, I don't think its a "strong means weak and weak means strong" thing so much as just something that he doesn't think about at all when he's getting chips to make a bet with a real hand, but when he knows he is bluffing he tends to really think about his actions and ends up often giving off a major tell in the process. Twice during the middle portion of our sng, I was able to call him down on two streets based simply on the fact that I knew from the way he was handling his chips -- very carefully counting them out one by one, adding a few extra chips on top one at a time as he selects his bet size, and then lifting up the entire pile before placing it back down on the table in front of him as his bet -- that he didn't really have a hand he loved.

With all this help, I was able to easily coast into the final 3 spots, albeit as the short stack as one guy flopped a set over a straight to get a big stack, and then one of the beginner players knocked out the 5th and 4th place players on the same hand when her AA held up against QQ and JJ. It was shortly after this point that I recorded my one suckout of the night, when I got into a blind vs. blind pot from the small blind with just the beginner to my left and with me holding A5o, which I open-raised with preflop of course, and then when the flop came 999 I figured my Ace-high was likely good so I bet out again. Beginner Girl mulled it over for a while and then called. With all the mullage, and this being literally only the second or third time she had ever played an organized poker game, and of course this being a blind vs. blind confrontation, I figured no way she had an Ace or a pair under there as well, so when a raggy 2 hit the board on the turn, I announced that I was moving all in. She thought and thought, but eventually she called and flipped up AQo. Ooops for me. With just one card to come, I calculated that I was basically drawing dead to just eight outs -- the three other 5s in the deck to match my kicker and give me a full house for the win, and the two other Aces or the three other 2s to make a mostly-board boat that would give me a tie. But the river wasn't a 5, and it wasn't a 2 or an Ace either. It was the miracle case 9, making quads on the board and meaning that we both finished with hands of 9-9-9-9-A for a split pot. After taking some time to explain to Beginner Girl how she had just gotten screwed by essentially a 20% shot on the river (and being informed by her that it "just isn't fair" since she had that Queen in her hand while I just had a lowly 5 kicker, a sentiment I cannot really find any fault with), I had survived to play another day and Beginner Girl had lost her chance to gobble up my chips while they were available for cheap.

So I was still alive, in the money, and lucky for me the two other players in the money with me were both fairly inexperienced at the game. The one player was the beginner I mentioned above, and the other was someone who knew the rules of the game but clearly hadn't played much or at least not with a whole lot of seriousness, and who had shown himself to be a pretty severe calling station on several hands earlier in the night as I had registered early and often as any top pair and even most middle pairs were worth at least one call if not two or three if necessary with this person. So I simply waited until I picked up a good hand -- in this case, I called his flop bet with my pocket Tens on a K95 board after he had called my preflop raise, and then I turned a Ten to make my second set of the night, and here rather than checking like again I would be apt to do against more experienced opponents in a much deeper-stacked event, in this case up against a guy who loves to call and always needs to see that you have it, I figured I would just lead out in the hopes he would call. I led out for about 2/3 of the pot, which at the time was probably about half of his remaining stack, and he just called such that on the river I knew he was basically forced to call in the rest of his chips almost regardless of what he held. I flipped up my set and he showed third and fourth pairs, and we were suddenly down to two.

I recall that I was at about a 2.5-to-1 chip disadvantage as heads-up play began, and frankly I really don't remember how the action went from there to change things, but it did not take long for me to take the chip lead when I flopped KT6 with T6s in my hand and was up against Beginner Girl's K9o. I held and took the chip lead, which was awkward as it was because, due to her being a beginner, I repeatedly had to explain what her options were in the given hands, which made it hard for me in a way since some times I was bluffing and hoped she would fold, while others I really had a hand and wanted her to call. As she is a friend and I didn't want to do anything questionable, I tried my best to give fully uniform instructions regardless of the situation with my own hand, but who knows if I contributed in some small way by the way I presented things to the decisions Beginner Girl was making. There were plenty of others milling around and watching the action and helping Beginner Girl so I'm not actually concerned about the ethics but I do specifically remember a couple of times when I had already bet on a bluff and was then asked to explain what my opponent's options were in response to my bet. Anyways, once she lost the chip lead, my opponent acted like many beginning poker players do and started getting aggressive real quick with her bets and raises. So just a few hands later when I flopped KJ4 with KT in my hand, I checked rather than led out, and my opponent took the bait by leading out. I just called, setting up a properly-sized allin bet on the turn, and when the turn ragged out I immediately put Beginner Girl all in. She called pretty quick with second pair and a Queen kicker, but she did not catch, and I had won the sitngo. $120 back into my pocket, not bad for two hours of fun times.

Most of the group dissipated at this point in the night, as the sng had taken longer than usual due to the decision to use 25 minute blind rounds instead of 15 or 20 like I would have probably opted for, and we were left with just four players to play a cash game. We each bought in for $20 and received 100 chips as is our usual, and we played fairly short-stack no-limit holdem with 1-2 blinds. Lucky for me, early on I busted another of the most aggressive players in this group when I flopped my second set of 3s on the night after calling his preflop raise, and due to his known aggressive nature I managed to wait while he bet his entire stack with his pocket overpair before calling and flipping up my set for the stackage. And the other highly aggro player in the group also stuck around for our 4-handed cash session, and he too I managed to stack after I once again called him down on a two-barrel bluff with second pair and an Ace kicker in my hand, which definitely tilted him a little bit. Then the very next hand I was fortunate enough to pick up AKs, and when the same aggro player raised the $2 big blind preflop to $10, I reraised him straight-up to $40 just to clear out for my AK, a hand I love to reraise with before the flop in most situations as I have mentioned here previously. Aggro Guy made the call, and when the flop came King-high, I went for the check on the flop which was all Aggro Boy needed to cement his belief that he was ahead, and a few second later he pushed in the rest of his stack on the turn after my show of flop weakness. Not only was my TPTK ahead, but it turns out he had called my preflop raise with a classic Trouble Hand -- not even one of the stronger ones at that -- as my repeated calling him down on his bluffs throughout the night had finally gotten to him and caused him to tilt-call my preflop reraise with QJo. I felt a little bad as the guy literally emptied his wallet to me, but hey, that's poker, right? And again, we were only talking about maybe $30 total he lost to me overall in the cash session, so it's not like I personally bankrupted the guy or anything even close to that. But he was not happy, I can tell you that.

A short while later we wrapped it up for the night, and I was the big winner in the cash game just as I had been in the sitngo earlier that night. I won $120 for taking down the sitngo, and I left the cash game with a little over $60 after buying in for just $20 only maybe 90 minutes earlier. In the end it was a $140 profit or so for a fun night of poker, and I got to hear the same guys complaining that I once again was fleecing them for all of their money, that I was a ringer, a shark, etc. The quote of the night was definitely as I finished off Beginner Girl in the sng, one of the guys who had busted out earlier -- another lawyer, actually, as opposed to a writer as with most of the other players there -- says out loud to the rest of the group, "Of course the guy with the poker blog is taking all of our money!", as if this was the most obvious and natural conclusion in the world. Man, I wish this guy could play the Mookie one Wednesday night so he could see for himself just how great "guys with poker blogs" are at this game we all know and love.

What these guys don't know is that, while I definitely played great poker over the four hours or so I was at the game a couple of Wednesdays ago, I got extremely lucky flopping two sets on the night, and turning a third set, without which I would have had a much harder road to survive long enough to profit in the sng and to finish up ahead in the cash game as well. As I said, I think I played those good hands I made almost to perfection, along with most of the read-dependent plays I made all through the night, but ultimately I think my performance was more based on the cards I flopped and turned than it was on some kind of poker mojo that comes from being a blogger, or being awesome at the game. If I played with these guys ten more times, I bet I would come out winner in the end, but I'd get beat down plenty of times, in particular in a tournament structure where anything can happen and the blinds force you to make moves or perish.

OK so there's my writeup of my last live homegame of 2009. Tomorrow hopefully I will get up a post recapping my run to the final table of the nightly 20k guaranteed knockout tournament on Tuesday night on everyone's favorite poker site,

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