The Unexpected

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“This is incorrect. You turned your hand into a bluff! That’s terrible!”

Surprised woman with chipsI know I should be more mature, but when I hear the unproven MTTer idioms, I still roll my eyes. In previous articles, I have discussed the importance of keeping an open mind when learning about tournament poker. Pronouncing certain plays “incorrect” because it wasn’t how you were taught to play is a guaranteed recipe for failure. Proclaiming the player who is doing them is terrible is a great way to offend someone who could educate you to make more money. In this article, we’re going to discuss a certain play most MTTers routinely declare is terrible, but is actually one of the best ways you could play a hand.

Imagine this: A friend of yours shows you a recorded video of him playing live. A player opens under the gun. Your friend, with A-Qs, reraises in middle position. Fifty big blinds deep effectively, everybody folds back to the UTG player, who four-bets. Your friend, with little deliberation, folds.

If you were like me for most of my career, you’d be aghast at the play. “Why would you reraise here and then fold? What were you expecting to happen? You might as well have had A-2 offsuit! You turned your hand into a complete bluff.”

Many of you reading this are probably nodding. That line of reasoning does sound familiar. I admit, I too had a very closed mind in this situation for many years. There was a real consensus among the MTTer community that “turning your hand into a bluff” was bad, and this certainly looked like it.

A few years ago, to expand my consulting service for professional tournament grinders, I began studying poker players that online MTTers regularly ignored. It seemed unprofessional for the Pessagnos and Phil Hellmuths of the world to go unanalyzed, especially when I was contacted by different backing houses to bring them new ideas.

Several live players with eight figures in earnings do plays like this all the time. Many of us have probably scoffed at their debating on TV after they’ve been four-bet. “Well, why did you three-bet then? Pssshhhh. He turned his hand into a bluff! What a luckbox. I am so unlucky.”

Now let’s inject some statistics into the hand we just described. UTG opens again from his 50 big blind stack. Our friend, in the live recording, checks his Raise First UTG. It’s 31 percent. We know that easily goes down to any suited one-gapper, every pair, every suited connector, every suited ace, and A-10o+. In other words, that’s a wide range. Our friend then checks UTG’s reaction to a three-bet. He folds 16 percent of the time, calls 79 percent of the time, and four-bets 5 percent of the time over a large sample size.

Well, now our friend’s three-bet/fold makes perfect sense. His opponent never folds to a three-bet. In position with a hand that dominates 90 percent+ of UTG’s opening range he has decided to up the ante. He wants this pot to be larger when he is in position with a superior hand. He knows UTG is calling with all weaker aces. He also knows that a four-bet of 7 percent here indicates his opponent is four-betting only JJ+ A-K+. While it is irritating, he should fold to this range.

So, in reality, our friend maximized his probability of taking his opponent’s entire stack, and at the first sign of trouble he smoothly ejected.

One can make all sorts of functional three-bet semibluffs if they are paying attention to their opponent’s four-bet statistic. If it is 8 percent or lower that is an exceedingly careful opponent. This guy is not likely to be four-betting light ever. If you three-bet them, and if their flat three-bet percentage is also high, they will throw in a call and let you take the lead habitually.

If their four-bet is 14 percent or higher, that means some bluffs are coming into play. Twenty percent or higher and you generally have a guy who either hates flatting three-bets or four-bets too much.

If you see this person has a fold to three-bet of 60 percent or higher and a four-bet of 20 percent+ that means this guy does not like to flat three-bets. He is more likely to put the pedal to the metal with A-9o. Hands like 6-4s go down in value versus him, because you’re so rarely going to see a flop. Conversely, an ace blocker becomes much more valuable, because you are not going to be going postflop often with a hand that is easily dominated.

If you see someone with a low fold to three-bet and a high four-bet this is not a great person to three-bet semibluff. This guy is likely to put the pressure back on you. Versus this player you will want to open up your five-bet bluff and value ranges.

Recurrently, you will see players with four-bets of 30 percent+. These are guys who cannot let a big blind or button three-bet their cutoff open. Three-bet/call more versus them with 8-8 and A-Jo, and do not three-bet bluff them at all.

Now, if you’re going to be three-bet semibluffing that means you’re going to be taking more flops. The types of hands you want to do this with are just below your calling range. While you could feasibly three-bet semibluff with a J-10 suited I don’t recommend it to start with. Why? J-10 suited has considerable equity versus an opponent’s four-betting range. It is tempting to flat after being caught in a three-bet semibluff, which can open the door to all sorts of horseplay and chip detonation.

Also, if you begin to three-bet whenever the statistics are right, you’ll find you’re three-betting an obscene amount. People will start to catch on to how often you are bluffing. Three-betting with certain hands is a good way to randomize your three-bet semibluffs. You will three-bet four times in one orbit, then do nothing for half an hour. Your opponents won’t know how to anticipate the timing of your plays, because you yourself will not know when they are coming. They cannot pick up a read based on your mood or how you’re running, because your predilections play no part in your process.

So, if 8-7 suited was your minimum flatting hand in a particular spot, your optimal three-bet semibluffing hand would be 8-6 suited. It doesn’t work as a flat, so you won’t be wasting the opportunity to blend your range with a call, but it still has a great deal of postflop equity.

Now, let’s say your minimum flatting hand is K-Qo. A K-Jo is a little more dangerous to play than the 8-6 suited, as it can make a number of dominated second-best hands. If you’re going to semibluff the K-Jo you want to make sure you’re in position. If you do flop to your hand, it’s not a crime either if you check behind to keep the pot small.

When you take a semibluffing hand postflop you want to make sure you already have a good read on what your opponent likes to do on flops and turns. You should be checking on your opponents fold to flop and fold to turn continuation bets before you get involved. If the person never folds and you don’t have much of a value hand, then you shouldn’t get into the pot. If their fold to continuation bet is 30 percent, but on the turn it’s 60 percent+, then it’s on the turn where they become honest. Versus this player, you want to make sure you have enough chips in your stack for the double barrel.

Mostly, what you want to see is someone who flats three-bets and then folds on the flop. You can identify these players by their fold to continuation bet statistic of 55 percent+.

Three-bet semibluffing has become much more important these days now that most MTTers have learned that flatting from shorter stacks and from the big blind is not, as it was once portrayed, tournament suicide. When you’re in multiway pots, you’re left with few options but to hit the board. Heads-up versus one opponent you have the tools to take their chips away from them.

I hope this article has illuminated how you could do just that. Good luck to all of you.

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September 2014