By George, I think he’s got it!

Sunday, December 28th, 2003, 11:28 pm

You know how hard it was to learn how to ride a bike? You fell down over and over again, endured skinned knees and skinned elbows and skinned chins (well, skinned chin, you only have one chin. Though after all the fried turkey I ate over the holidays I now have two chins). You thought you’d never learn. And then one day, it comes to you, all at once, you get your balance and you pedal away and you’re doing it, you’re actually riding a bike. And it feels so natural that you can’t believe it took so long to figure it out.

That’s what happened to me this past weekend. Yes, I learned how to ride a bike! No, just kidding. My mom taught me to ride a bike last Christmas. No, I finally figured out a little bit of this poker thing. I’m no expert, I still have a ways to go before I get that WSOP bracelet, but I think this past weekend I took that first step toward better play. And I LIKED IT.

My play had become dull, passive, predictable, so I got out my copy of Low-Limit Hold-Em by Lee Jones and brushed up on a few things. My major fault, I saw, was that I was far too tight pre-flop. I wasn’t playing enough hands, and I wasn’t raising pre-flop with good hands to limit the field. I was paying attention to position, but mostly after the flop, when I had a good idea as to how my hand was shaping up.

The key change I made was raising more pre-flop and playing more hands in late position, when I knew I could see a flop on the cheap and also have position on everyone else. I always understood the theoretical importance of position, but until this weekend I didn’t truly understand it’s power. I think now I do, and the fish I mounted this weekend understand this–beware when Mean Gene sits down at the table.

OK, perhaps I’m a bit too full of bravado. But I made almost $80 this weekend playing $.50-1, and I have to say that it wasn’t just a big run of cards (though I had quite a few nice hands). I still got sucked out on the river a few times (once on a $23 pot when I had the nut flush only to have the board pair on the river and have TWO different players turn over full houses) but I actually put the cosh to my foes on a number of occasions–not with bad beats, but with vicious check-raises on the turn or river.

That was where I made quite a bit of money, and where my confidence really got a boost. In a previous post I mentioned how important aggression is at the table, and how I felt I lack that crucial ingredient. I decided to cut myself some slack and allow that I can be a merciless predator when I want to be, and took to the table with that attitude. These people were sheep–I was the lone wolf.

I won a few small hands, and I was up about five bucks when I had J-10 offsuit in early position. The three players in front of me all folded, so I called and ended up in the pot with four other players. The flop was, for me, garbage– 7-4-2. The betting was checked around, and the turn came up a queen. Again the betting was checked around. The river was a nine, giving me an open-end straight draw with, uh, no cards left to fill it. I had queen high. I checked, as did the three others directly after me. The guy in last position paused a bit, paused a bit, and then made what was to my mind a very tenative bet.

Now, this looked like a total steal. He didn’t bet the flop or the queen on the turn, but suddenly this nine makes him feel strong? I didn’t like it. I didn’t like this guy thinking he could steal what was an admittedly piddling pot from me with a weak bet like that. I instantly raised him. And I mean instantly–to my mind it was important to show that I’d been waiting for a bet and was thrilled that he threw his buck in.

The first three players instantly folded. And the guy who bet paused a second, then another, and then…folded. I raked in my measly pot, having put a buck at risk in order to win about three. Poor pot odds, to be sure, but only if I thought there was a good chance I’d be called. And I didn’t.

This was a move I returned to time and time again. If no one made a strong play at a pot after the flop and the board didn’t look especially ominous for anyone I’d check, wait for some smart-guy to make a feeble attempt at a steal, and raise him. Recently I read (I wish I remember where) that a check-raise on the turn is a powerful play, and I definitely learned the truth in it. I won a half-dozen pots this way, easy, check-raising when I held nothing or near-nothing and winning the hand right then and there. I kept waiting to be called and never was. And I wouldn’t have minded getting caught, really, because it would have been good advertising, making everyone think that I was a loose cannon.

The one time I DID get caught I had pocket kings and made trips on the turn. There were two diamonds on the board and I’m allergic to flushes, so when I bet and was raised I happily re-raised, not caring if he called or folded, just so I could win what was already a tidy pot. This was a guy I’d skunked once before and he wasn’t buying what I was selling. He re-raised me, capping the betting. The river was junk, I had the nuts, and when I bet he raised me again. When I re-raised he just called, and I showed the Three Amigos and he melted away.

I had a stretch of four hands where I had pocket pairs and won with three of them. I had pocket 4s, made trips, and won a pretty nice pot. I had pocket 3s, the flop came garbage, and when an ace hit the turn I check-raised and chased everyone out. I had pocket 8s, the flop came 7-9-10, but I although I didn’t catch my straight it didn’t cost me anything to find out because everyone checked after the flop and the turn, possibly because they feared me check-raising again. A king and a queen came on the turn and river and I was quite content to lay my small pair down this time. Next hand I had pocket 6s. No one bet out after the flop, and my free card was my third six. I bet this time, wanting to get more money in the pot, and three of my fellow players aquiesed. The board paired fours on the river, and I was raised and then re-raised by one poor soul who no doubt had a four. I never found out, because my boat outranked his trips.

I finished my Saturday-afternoon session up about $35. On Sunday I played a bit during the Steeler-Raven game and started out slow, going down about $12 the first hour, thanks mostly to my trip aces going down to a flush on the river. I was mostly getting junk cards but I didn’t play goofy just because I made a nice pile the day before. The table I was at was very loose but quite passive, with a lot of people calling meekly to the river. So when I got a decent hand (A-9h) on the button I decided to bully things a bit after the flop gave me no help. A king fell on the turn, no one had bet the garbage on the flop, and when the guy before me bet I raised him. Everyone folded to me and I gobbled up another pot.

And it went on like that. This, I think, is what Iggy means when he talks about the fish schooling at PartyPoker. The quality of play isn’t always very good, and a player with even a tiny bit of sophistication can make some serious hay just by outplaying most of the other players. When I read Lee Jones’ book the first time he said you want to be the kind of player others hate playing against–tough, smart, patient, and aggressive. You want the other players wondering and worrying about what you’re going to do.

I didn’t just bluff and rob all night. I had some good hands and made them pay. The one had I remember best was when I had pocket 10s in middle position. I raised and, of course, didn’t chase anyone out. The flop came a 3-6-9 rainbow. I still had top pair and bet out. I think I had five callers. The turn was a 7. I bet and still had 3 callers. Now, sure, there could be a weird straight brewing out there, but come on. The river was a deuce. I bet and the same two guys called. I showed my pair and won like a $12 pot. Nothing fancy, I didn’t make any moves, I just played the hand I was dealt and got paid off. If only there were all that easy.

Made about $30 Sunday. I actually cashed out $50, my original bankroll, and put it back in my checking account. My wife isn’t thrilled that I’m playing for money, so this way I know that I haven’t lost any of “my” money. I have to admit, it’s rather satisfying to know that I’m now playing with other people’s money. I’m not pauperizing anyone, but I’m now up $140 after three weeks on PartyPoker. This after clearing only $2.75 after six weeks at PokerStars. Thank you, Iggy, a case of Guinness is in the mail!

It wasn’t all victory and laurels for Mean Gene, alas. I played two SNGs late Saturday night, and while I won money in both, the second was very disappointing. I played a $5 pot-limit tourney and placed 3rd. Not too disappointed with that, one guy got up to $4K in chips and he was directly to my left and kept re-raising me at the drop of a hat. I caught him once, but I had to really tighten up because I wanted to finish in the money. When we got down to 3 I only had $1000 in chips and when the guy in second place bet the pot I re-raised him with KQd. He went all in and I called. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like the fact that at PartyPoker the cards aren’t flipped over when two players go all-in. The flop had a king and I rejoiced, thinking I had top pair. I did–but it turned out I didn’t have the best kicker. He had AK, and I was out. Oh well.

It was about 1AM and I should’ve gone to bed, but I got the Looney Toons DVD for Christmas and I wanted to see the third disk, so I played in a $5 no-limit SNG. I was tired and I made some stupidly aggressive plays. I got to thinking that I was some poker savant because I learned to check-raise, and when I made a $300 re-raise with J-5h in early position (I know, I know) I was put all-in by a guy with only $350 to his name. It was only $50 to call and I almost folded it from embarassment, but I put in my fifty and, as I deserved, I got no help. When I turned my cards up one player, who was just biding his time before a $100 satellite, typed, “God, I love $5 games”.

That pissed me off, mostly because his insult was, for this hand at least, perfectly justified. “I’m no fish!” I wanted to shout. I made a fishy play, but I’m not an idiot. I girded my loins and went to war. First I knocked out the guy who had just beaten my garbage. I had K-10, made top two pair on the flop, and made a $100 bet. He went all in with his lone king and I took him out. Then, when I had about $1100 in chips, I went all in with pocket queens when a player with about $1000 made a $400 bet. He called, and my ladies held up when no overcard appeared.

Then I knocked out the guy who insulted me. He was directly to my left and one two occasions I knocked him out of pots when I made medium-sized raises and he probably had zilch. But when I got pocket kings I made the same stealing raise and he went all-in. I caught trips on the river and sent him to wait for his big-boy satellite.

When it got down to three players I was in a position I’d never been in before–the big stack. I had about $4800, the other two had $3200 split evenly between them. I remember something Howard Lederer said during the “Showdown at the Sands”, that it is the responsibility of the big stack to attack the smaller ones, to put them to the test, to raise and re-raise and keep them backing up.

And I did it to a tee. The player to my right was, to my mind, the weaker of the two. When he called I raised, no matter what I had. Not big raises, but enough to strip him of half his stack if he called. The first two times I did this he folded. The third time I did he’d had enough and went all-in. Mistake. I had AK and I hit an ace on the flop. Don’t know what he held abd I didn’t care. Because, for the first time, I was going heads up.

I had $5.5K, he had $2.5K. The blinds were 200-400, so if you meekly folded in the small blind it stung a bit. So the first 3 or 4 times I was in the small blind I raised about 600. Twice he folded, but once he went all-in when I held junk. I folded. The next time I raised 600 he went all-in again, and I folded again. I had junk, I couldn’t call, but he had my attention.

We went back and forth for a good while, my chip position slipping until the split was 4.5 to 3.5, but then I won a nice hand and got back up to 5-3. Then, in the small blind, I was dealt pocket aces. How to play them…I’d only flat-called once, and then I’d had KQ, and taken the pot after betting the flop, so I decided to make my usual 600 raise and hope he’d go all-in again. He didn’t. He just called, and when an ace showed on the flop I tried to keep from twitching all over. There were no straight or flush possibilities, so I checked and prayed he’d try to steal what was a very nice pot. Nope. The turn was no threat and this time I paused a bit before I checked, giving the impression of deep thought. He didn’t buy it. The river too was junk and this time I decided I had to make a little bit of a move. I made a tentative $400 bet, hoping he’d think I was trying to buy the pot. Well, he let me buy it, and my monster hand slipped away.

Still, I made 600 with it, and soon I had him on the ropes, 6.5 to 1.5. I finally got him to go all in when I had at least the semblance of a hand, 7-8d. Straight and flush draw possibilities…I called. I got zero help and he paired his queen on the turn. But even after that tactical mistake I kept clobbering him with raises and got back to a 6-2 advantage. But I couldn’t get the hand to finish him. He kept going all-in when I had absolute garbage, once pushing in all his chips two times in a row in the small blind when I held 2-7 offsuit. The blinds were now 300-600 and his steals had our differential down to 4.5 to 3.5.

And then the hand that hurt. I was dealt pocket 9s, and before I could even think he went all-in. I called, thinking that this time, at least, I was going in with a hand. The flop came 2-4-7–I still had top pair. A king on the turn and I winced. Had I known what he held I would’ve done more than that. Junk on the river and he showed K-6. Preflop I’d been a 64% favorite, after the flop an 83% pick. He had three outs and he hit it.

He now held the huge advantage, and I tried to beat him at his own game. I went all-in two hands in a row and won the blinds, getting me on my feet again. But when I tried it a 3rd time he called me. I held A-7, not terrible, probably the best hand going in. The flop came J-9-4, the turn a deuce, the river a king. He turned over Q-10s. He made his straight on the river, and that was that. I was a 53% favorite preflop, a 64% favorite after the flop, but when he needed help the kings rode to his rescue, twice. I was done.

A big disappointment, but to reference Howard Lederer again, you can’t complain when you get your money in the pot with the best hand. I got unlucky on that hand, but the other guy played pretty well. I played well. I played my advantage as I should and he was extra-aggressive when he needed to be. Cleared $13 from my two SNG and I’ve placed in the money the last 4 I’ve played. I’m getting better, I’m having some success. I’m having fun. What more could I ask for?

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