Monday, January 07, 2008

Johnny Hughes Poker 

That's right, Johnny Hughes is back, sparing me from having to write of my poker battles the past few days. Hopefully tonight I'll get back on the horse and pound out a solid post for ya'll.

For now, enjoy:


My Favorite Poker Plays

by Johnny Hughes, author of the poker novel, Texas Poker Wisdom.

Life for a gambler on the road is sweet. I play no-limit and pot limit Texas Hold 'em in Las Vegas, Indian casinos in New Mexico and Oklahoma, and backroom a.k.a. illegal games in Texas. For the last few years, I have kept a journal, recording the big pots and hands. I find that I win a significant number of All-in or big pots with a narrow range of hands: AA, KK, AK, and flopped sets. These hands, played like a fine violin, put me in the most favorable mathematical situations with all my chips in the center where they long to be.

When I went to the World Poker Blogger's Winter Classic in Las Vegas, I hoped to write some poker strategy for the Blogfather, Iggy. However, as you saw if you read my trip report, there was not much poker to write about for me.

Because of television, the Internet, and poker books, the flow and speed of the game of Texas Hold 'em has changed. Noted poker historian, Crandell Addington, has said that Hold 'em was designed to be played in the later stages by building a hand. Now there are more pre-flop raises and re-raises. People are more likely to move all in on the flop because they mimic the play they have seen in tournaments. One of the earliest poker laws is to play tight when they are playing loose and loose when they are playing tight. Over half a century of Texas Hold 'em, I have gone from very tight play against the top early players, to loose, aggressive play against a lighter field, to tight play strategy based on a narrow list of starting hands based on position.

In casinos, I find the usual Texas Hold em game that I am looking for is most common. Before sitting down, I calculate the frequency of the raises and the number taking the flop. I spot the most frequent raiser. If I get a chance, I would like to get a seat with a solid rock on my right, very predictable. He's an older man, with his chips stacked for neatness, and his arms folded across his chest, waiting like a vulture for road kill. You can "play his button", opening up your game with more raises in the cut-off seat because he is not going to get fancy without a hand as big as a foot.

I also like to get about neutral position on the frequent raiser, whether he is a maniac or a skilled deceptive thief, stealing any pot not defended with vigor.

So, here's my favorite most workable play. I never, or very rarely, raise with any hand in the first two seats behind the big blind and in a wilder game three seats behind the big blind. If I have AA, KK, or AK, I am looking for what we call in Texas the back-lash play. A limp re-raise. I smooth call the big blind with my fingers crossed under the table. There is nearly always a raise and a few callers back around to me. I raise the size of the pot hoping to get one caller or win the pot right there. These hands play best with fewer players. Look at what happens if I raise in early position with this hand and get three, four, even five callers. Now you are first to act into half a mile of them. If you smooth call with these hands in the early seats and no one raises, watch out. But isn't it about the same as raising and getting callers behind you? The back-lash takes away the disadvantage of early position. You get the money in there when you have the greatest advantage. You may even get a raise and a re-raise before it gets back to you. You could lay down AK or move in with the other hands. Sometimes, I ponder at length and then move in with two Aces and say, "I'm not smart enough for two bets."

In no-limit Hold 'em, cash games with lots of action, I decide in advance to never raise in the two seats behind the big blind!

A favorite tell of mine is to watch the people to your left as they look at their hole cards. You can tell if some are folding. In Las Vegas, there were two chatty,expert women players behind me. I caught AA in mid-position and was going to raise but they shut up and one began to dance her ass around in her chair. She was like the poker playing dog. She had a good hand. She was wagging her tail. I smooth called and there was a raise and a re-raise when it came back to me. I busted two players. T.J. Cloutier has written that when there is a raise and a re-raise, someone has Aces or Kings. People know that but call anyway.

These new, young aggressive players learned their chops on the Internet. They play ten tables while watching TV, eating unhealthy food, and having the sexual adventure of their choice. They are way too impatient for casino cash games. They want it raised. If you check to them, it is like waving a red flag at a bull. Here they come. You can play your patience and their aggressiveness to win only a few, large pots a day at less risk. In casinos, the rake and the dealer tips dictate that we play tight. If you box back and forth for the small pots, the rake will chew up your bankroll.

At the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, there was this obnoxious frat boy raising every pot and following each pot with a speech about his absolute brilliance. The guy could talk forty days and forty nights. I wear soft foam ear plugs in a casino. You don't need to hear anything to play Hold 'em. It makes my already incredible people reading skills so much sharper. His wife was also in the game and losing $200 at a pop. He'd hand her a couple of coarse notes, roll his eyes, and make a little speech. Even with ear plugs, I was willing to finance their divorce.

Finally, I caught K,K four seats behind the big blind. However, I could see that he was getting his posture in order and moving up some to the table in anticipation. We were playing no-limit Texas 'em. A guy had a ten dollar straddle on it and I smooth called that,most certain the abominable husband would raise her on up. He made it $40 to go and three called. He had about $500 in front of him. I removed the ear plugs which you might argue is a tell. Yeah, it tells you that you are in trouble. I moved in on him and he called. Then he asked, "Do you have Aces or Kings?" He had two Queens. My Kings stood up. I could tell his wife was pulling for me. Later, in New Mexico, I had an identical situation and the exact same question. If people want to make bad calls, enable that.

One might say you lose deceptive power when you make a big bet with the two largest pairs. Part of that is true. However, I throw AK in there. You catch AA or KK every 111 hands. You catch AK much more often. If you take AK and run it on an odds calculator against all the other starting hands, it makes you willing to bet it all before the flop. Now if you were sitting there with a mid-size pair, say tens, and I hit the back-lash on you, raising you $200. If you knew I made that play in a full game with AA, KK, or AK, you could not call with the mid-size pair because you are either a slight favorite or a big dog.

In Albuquerque, I was fortunate enough to make that back-lash and double up when I was playing tighter than Dick's hat band. Later, I made the back-lash play three times with AK and won nice pots without showing my hole cards. Even with my wily West Texas home boys who know my early limp calls have an odor about them can't do a whole lot about this.

Part of this strategy and the strategy for playing all the other pairs has to do with the fact the blinds at $2 and $5 or $5 and $10 are low in relation to the raises that are six times the big blind. The blinds are not worth defending or stealing if there is any risk involved. Pots escalate rapidly.

In his books, Phil Hellmuth advocates raising and even re-raising with small pairs. He plays them much faster than I do. That is right for a tournament but not a loose, casino cash game. In general, you want to take the flop as cheap as you can on pairs. The implied odds for the payoff for flopped sets says you are eager to call a standard single raise against two or more players. However, you are not in shape to call a healthy re-raise and must quietly lay them aside unless there are some big stacks involved.

If you flop a set with AA in the hole, always lead out with a bet. The next card can make someone a straight. You cannot give a free card, especially if there is a ten or above on the board. You can check with KK, QQ, and JJ when you flop a set depending on the drawing danger on the board. An over card on fourth may help you get some action.

Usually with a flopped set, I make a soft lead, betting half the pot. A check raise gives your hand away. Here again, I am playing the behavior of the field. A little bitty bet that wakes up the aggressive semi-bluffers seems to beat a check raise. When they do come after you on the flop, you end up with some of the strongest gambling positions you will find. If I am in the pot alone with a very aggressive player, I might check it on the flop. Call a bet and check it again based on the board's ability to make a straight or a flush.

If you are waiting for the big situations, you should be folding all those trash hands. If you call $10 and then can't see the flop, there is no telling what that $10 cost you. You can't double it with one of these big hands.

I often play pot limit and start the first two rounds with $200 which puts me on a very short stack at $2 or $5 blinds. On a short stack, I may make this back-lash play when an ideal situation comes up with AQ, QQ, or JJ. My decision is based on a hand that is better than the original raiser. If he is loose and a very frequent raiser, I'll move my little stack in.

When you play the hands that AA, KK, AK, or flopped sets bring you fast and early, you eliminate most of those bad beat laments we all hate to hear. The old saying is that all two Aces can do are "win a little pot or lose a big one." I have to wait a long time for the situation to come up but it feels so good to bet all your money before the flop and watch another player's brain working on the wrong answer. If it looks like they are about to fold or they pick up their cards, I start talking to sell a call. "Let me have this one, you can have the next one." seems to work. If they study a long time, say, "I have a pair and you don't." Money is so much sweeter if you use some tired old road tricks to con some stranger out of it. That's poker at it's finest.

Johnny Hughes, author of the poker novel, Texas Poker Wisdom.

Will you please go on Amazon and tag my book with the same tags it already has? You have to scroll way down looking for the tags. These are the key words, (Poker, Poker Book, Gambling, etc.) It ups my tag count and gets me higher on search lists.


Johnny Hughes

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