Slow-playing and getting max value are different in poker

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I recently held an Acumen Poker group training session for some folks preparing to head to Vegas for the World Series of Poker. During the session a hand came up that illustrated some of the most key concepts to think about with a medium-sized stack (25-50 big blinds) late in a tournament. The hand is one I played in the Nightly Hundred Grand on PokerStars and we must’ve discussed and debated this hand for more than an hour.

It’s pretty late in the tournament and blinds were 500-1,000 with a 125 ante. My table was eight-handed and I had 44,718. Action folded to me in middle position with {k-Diamonds}{q-Clubs}. I raised to 2,350. Though my standard raise is usually around three times the big blind, late in tournaments you can often get away with raising less than 2.5 BBs as stacks are relatively shallow. We risk less when we’re stealing and play small pots when we get called.

The action folded to a very well-known, solid, aggressive online pro with 50,964 who raised 6,275. The big blind folded. Knowing this is a solid player, I know (at this stage of the tournament) his range for re-stealing here is very wide, but I also know he could have a good hand, so I didn’t want to get too crazy. I usually tell my students to always be the aggressor so they don’t face as many tough post-flop decisions. Re-reraising would commit about a third of my stack, thus committing me to the pot pre-flop. I had too many chips to commit 45 big blinds with K-Q pre-flop, but I also thought folding to his range would be too weak. I decided to call and play in position. If the flop comes king- or queen-high, or better, I’d be willing to go to the wire. That’s my plan for the hand.

There’s 14,550 in the pot and the flop came {5-Clubs}{k-Spades}{4-Spades}. My thought was, “How can I get all the chips in the pot?” This is a thought you should have when you flop a monster, or when you flop a hand that (based on your stack size) you must go with because it’s too strong to fold and the chips you gain at this stage are too valuable.

My opponent made a continuation bet of 7,654, which was only about half the pot. Usually with a smallish bet on a flop that has a big card and two to a suit, the bet is more of a probe bet and your opponent does not likely have the top card paired. Most players are just too scared of flush draws and I think my opponent would bet a little more with a set or a king better than mine.

Since my plan was to get all of the chips in the middle, should I have called or raised? Most usually think raise because you don’t want to slow-play and you want your opponents to “pay to draw.” With our stack sizes, if he had a flush draw, he would never fold, and if he had nothing, then he would have to fold if I raised. Therefore, the best way to get the money in the pot was to just call and give him a chance to bet on later streets.
I called the bet and with 29,858 in the pot, we saw the {9-Spades} on the turn. Despite the flush getting there, this didn’t change my plan. I can’t assume he had a flush draw. If he were to bet less than the pot, I would just move all-in. And if he put me all in, I would call. I had only about a pot-sized stack of 30,789 behind. But my opponent checked. One thing was clear to me: I’m way ahead or way behind. Several of my students wanted to shove, some wanted to bet half the pot, and some wanted to check. If I’m ahead I have to figure he probably had at most 12 outs. He might’ve had a pair lower than my kings with one spade, or he might’ve had the {a-Spades}. If this were the case, he’d be about 25 percent to hit his hand or 3-to-1. If I were to bet, I would have to move all-in as betting half my stack commits me anyway. Moving all-in for the size of the pot would lay him 2-to-1 odds.

Since I know he’s a good player, he likely would fold those. Also, if I shoved, he’d call with any better hand. So, always think, “Can I get a better hand to fold or a worse hand to call?” The answer is no, so there’s no value in a shove. So I checked.

The river was the {2-Hearts} and he shoved. At this point I felt like his hand was very polarized, meaning it was a bluff or the nuts. I didn’t think he had the nuts as this kind of shove with the nuts is usually most successful when you think your opponent is strong. Since I called on the flop and I checked the turn, there was no reason to think I had a very strong hand. I stuck to my plan and made the call. He showed {6-Hearts}{5-Hearts} and I scooped the 91,436 pot for a double-up.

Keep in mind that if stacks were deeper or if I wasn’t willing to get all of my chips in regardless of the action, I would certainly raise the flop for value, to price out draws, and to better define my opponent’s hand. Also if this were a multiway pot, I would play the hand much faster as well.

I will rarely advocate slow-playing a hand and my students who know this argued that was what I was doing here. I hope you can see the difference between slow-playing a big hand and figuring out the best way to get all of the money in the pot. Yes, I might get rivered or already be beat, but using the knowledge of my player, my position and stack, this hand became very clear to me how I must play it.

Decide To Win!

— Lee Childs is founder and lead instructor of Acumen Poker. He also is an instructor with the WPT Boot Camp. Go to www.acumenpoker.net.