How I became a superhero

30 May
Me at the UKIPT with my superhero costume: the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome badge. Pic by Mickey May

Me at the UKIPT, wearing my new superhero costume: the PokerStars Live at the Hippodrome badge. Pic by Mickey May

Yesterday I became a superhero. Yes, with a superhero costume and a superpower and everything.

Let me explain how.

They say poker is all about probabilities and odds, and they are right, it is; but only up to a point. Live poker at least is more about masks and secret identities. In real life you might be a banker or a lawyer, a gangster or a millionaire, a cab driver or a student; but at the poker table you are whoever you choose to represent yourself as. It’s your job as a live player to see behind your opponents’ masks: to decide this person’s raise means AQ or better; that person’s raise includes low-to-medium pairs; that person’s includes any suited cards. The wider your own range, and the harder it is to read, the more formidable you are as a player.

That’s why nicknames in poker are so common: they are your opponents’ way of categorising what sort of a superhero (or super-villain) you are. I’ve had several given to me. Devilfish himself named me “No-Tells Wells” many years back. Since then I have been called the Professor, the Dom-inator, the Silent Assassin and Paul Smith (because of my sharp jackets), all facets of my different playing styles, my own inner superhero team of the poker felt.

And yesterday I was finally given an actual superhero costume to wear: the black, white and red arm-badge of a sponsored player for PokerStars LIVE at the Hippodrome Casino, with a buy-in to the £275 two-day UKIPT tournament. It’s in that tournament that I discovered my superpower:

I can dodge bullets.

I had several unlucky hands early on that took me down from a 20k starting stack to just 4k, before I built it back up. Any one of them might have knocked out another player. Here’s how to survive in order to fight a better spot when the hand turns against you:

I flop a flush! But I don’t blow my stack.

I call a raise to 300 (BB is 100) with 6-8 of clubs. The blinds are tiny, I can afford a speculative hand I could chip up with. Baseball cap makes it 800, initial raiser calls with his pocket pair or high cards, I call too.

And the flop is all clubs, up to the 9.

Even better, baseball cap leads out 2k with his probable pocket over-pair. Initial raiser calls, either with a lower pocket pair, or a high club. I don’t want to slow-play and let one catch up with a high club if another club comes; so I play safe by raising to 6k, expecting folds. Baseball cap folds, the other guy calls. Hm. Strange. A high club, then?

The turn is a second 9. And the guy shoves all-in. Oh sh**. In a previous hand that was checked to the river, he’d been open-ended on the turn and didn’t raise. There is no way he is shoving all-in without the nuts. 100% he has a house. I don’t even dwell: I insta-fold, showing my flush. He shows pocket 2s for a set on the flop and a house on the turn.

7k down the drain already, but I could easily have been knocked out. Dodged a bullet there.

Finally a real hand! AK suited.

The flop is no help, sadly – 78Q – but there’s hardly any betting till the river so I stay in. Brilliant! The river brings an Ace: baseball cap shakes his head at it sadly.

My spider-senses tingle. He’s surely too experienced a player to let negative emotion show. Now I’m worried. The turn was a 4: could he have 56 for a straight? If I check, and he bets, I’ll feel I have to call even a pot-sized bet (now over 3k). Whereas if he checks, and really does have a lower pair as he’s pretending, I’ve lost money.

My best option therefore is to bet, but really small. I put in 1.5, less than half the pot. He sighs and shakes his head again. Then pushes in 7k. Ha! His blatant Hollywooding just made it easier for me. I fold, showing my AK to induce him to show in return, which he does: he did have a straight. Dodged another bullet there.

Pocket 10s

An easy bullet to dodge. Pocket 10s, A on flop, he bets, I fold. He shows the Ace, too.

Pocket 9s

A tricky one. I get pocket 9s. Despite winning or stealing a few small pots, including by repping a flush I don’t have when a fourth club comes, I’m down to 7k by this stage. There’s a raise to 600, but I’m in too early a position to go all-in, so I call to set-mine. Tight pro in glasses raises to 2k. Damn. That’s bad. AK perhaps, more probably a high pair. Initial raiser calls, though, so now I stand to triple up if I hit. It’s a big dent in my stack, but 1.4k to have an eighth chance of winning up to 21k is a good bet. I call.

The flop is as good as it could be, short of giving me a 9: 568, so I have an overpair and a gutshot. BUT glasses leads out 3k. I am certain now he has a high overpair, not AK. Even though the other guy calls, and I’m down to just 5k, I’m so sure of my read I fold. Glasses bets the turn of a 3, and the river of a 5, at which the other guy bows out, saying: “You got Kings?”

This makes him show: he does indeed have pocket Kings. Dodged another bullet there.

Double up!

Down to 5k. I’ve seen many players shove in desperation in those situations, but I’m still 20x BB. Doubling up is easy, I just need the right hand. I want a cigarette, but can’t afford to miss a single hand now, so I stay put. Good thing, too: I get pocket Qs. It’s an insta-all-in, hoping for one caller – which I get from BB with pocket 8s. Brilliant. I double up.

All-in

On this hand I do finally go all-in, inducing someone to fold the better hand:

I have AJ of spades in the BB. Three limps; I’m sure I have the highest hand, so I raise big, 1.5k on BB 300; big enough that I can rep an overpair if need be. One caller – it’s the guy who had a house on me before, the guy I folded a made flush to. That’s important for what follows:

The flop comes 9 high, with two spades. I don’t have to think too hard about my course of action. I’ve been cautious when need be: now is not the time for caution. I can’t check and call, or I may leak chips to the river. I can’t check-raise, as if I let him bet he’ll be committed to call at my stack size. I have to shove all-in to gain fold equity.

But first, I lay the groundwork for this particular superhero identity: the identity of a guy with a big over-pair. I look at him. He looks back at me quizzically. I can tell he’s got a little something – he’s either hit a pair on the board, or has a pocket pair. “Just trying to work out if you’ve hit a set again,” I say to him, as I look into his eyes. This reminds him that I’m the guy who was tight enough to lay down a flush. It also suggests that I have an overpair to the board.

Now I nod as though satisfied, and shove all-in. I’m pretty sure he’ll now fold any pair. And if he finds the balls to call, I still have my one-third chance of doubling up with the nut flush. He dwells, then folds, showing the 9 for top pair on the board. “Good fold,” I say, without showing. Dodged another bullet there, and now I’m back to a playable 12k.

Back in the game

I gradually build it back to 35k – average stack now it’s late in the day; not bad when I was down to 4k. Along the way, there’s a graphic reminder of what happens when you don’t even try to dodge bullets. A short-stack somehow ends up all-in with pocket deuces against a guy with AQ on a Q-high flop. As he leaves the table, he shrugs and says rhetorically, “What can you do?”

I have an answer for that. DON’T GO ALL-IN WITH DEUCES, YOU INCREDIBLE IDIOT. Another short-stack check-raises all-in when I hit my top pair on the flop. I have to put him on a flush draw, not two pair, or he’d have bet first, so I call. He had bottom pair, and goes out. Again, he just lost the will the find the right spot to fight.

A tight spot with AK

I have a strange hand with AK. I raise in the SB, and am called by the BB, a woman who’s recently been moved to my left. Flop is A-6-10, with two spades. Couldn’t be better. I bet 3k, and she shoves all-in for 11k. That’s bad. Very bad. Any other player I could put on a flush draw, or AJ or AQ. But I remember her from the last tournament. I think she’s stronger than that.

I dwell for ages. This is my one hand written up on the PokerStars blog, and it must seem strange that I dwelt so long after flopping an Ace with AK: surely an insta-call, when 8k stands to win me twice that, and it doesn’t even cripple my stack. But I know her enough to put her on A10 for two pair… maybe even a set. Finally, I make the call, and I’m relieved rather than disappointed when she has AK as well for a chop.

Going out fighting

In the end, I do go out after losing some key hands. It’s not because I stop being able to dodge bullets through my reads, but because I still lack the best super-power of all: the ability to hit.

For instance, I call an all-in button shove with A7 on the BB, knowing he has air: he has J5 – but somehow still gets a straight. Later I re-raise to 6k in late position with pocket 8s, but glasses re-re-raises to 16k: definitely a bigger pair, so I fold. I end up short-stacked again, and have to button-shove with K7 suited; called by pocket 8s; I don’t hit.

So I go out, nearly at the end of the day, in 45th place out of 119 runners. Disappointing, but not a bad result when at one stage I was down to just 4k within the first two hours. And I outlast another PokerStars LIVE at the Hippodrome Casino pro at my table, who weirdly sat with his starting stack of 20k intact, not playing a single hand for two hours, then suddenly shoved all-in against a 1k raise. I say to myself, no one will possibly call him with anything less than Kings here, when this is the first hand he’s played since sitting down, and so it proves: the initial raiser calls him with Aces, he mournfully shows AK, and he’s out.

As a poker superhero, I’d rather die fighting.

I then take myself off upstairs to the PokerStars LIVE balcony, and positively crush the cash table until 3am.

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