Man. Talk about giving away the story in the title.
I didn’t know what to call this one. I could have called it “A Really Neat Hand, Seriously, I Mean It.” Or I could have called it “Now I’ve Seen Everything” which is how I felt when it happened. But instead I decided to go with a descriptive title, like they do in the world of research (such as “The Presence and Function of Cyclic Nucleotides in Rod Outer Segments,” one of my all time faves.) That way you’d already know the ending, in case you are reading this while playing a tournament and you bust out next hand.
I live at the center of my universe, halfway between Bay101 and Lucky Chances. Of the two, only Bay101 spreads Limit Hold’em at the limits I like, and only Lucky Chances spreads No-Limit Hold’em at all. What that means is that my casino selection on any given day is determined by my game selection. Many times I have left home without knowing where I was going. I’ll be driving along University Avenue, about to get on Highway 101 — the road that I take to either casino — and I’ll make my game selection decision right then, at the last second: North = No Limit Hold’em; South = Limit Hold’em. On this day, I went south.
I walked into Bay101 as if it were just another day of poker, unaware of what awaited within. There was one seat open in the $40/80 Limit Hold’em game and I took it. After a couple rounds, I determined that I was in an EASY (Expecting A Substantial Yield) game. Even though some of the players were TOUGH (They Often Utilize Good Hand-reading), there were also some SOFT (Secretly On Fatal Tilt) players.
On the hand I want to tell you about, I was in the big blind with J-2 offsuit. The player under the gun limped. Two players folded, and another player called. Everyone else folded, and I checked. Three of us went to the flop.
The flop came. I was first to act. My typical play here is to either check when I have something, check when I have nothing, bet when I have something, or bet when I have nothing. The flop was A-K-4 rainbow, giving me nothing. I decided to go with option four and bet out, thereby deploying upon my feeble foes the timelessly wise and sophisticated poker strategy I call “Maybe they’ll fold.”
They didn’t. They both called.
The turn was a ten. This card improved my hand infinitely. Let me put this into numbers for you math persons. In a classroom, two plus two equals four, and nothing is always nothing. At poker, two plus two equals whatever you tell people it equals — as long as you didn’t show your cards — and the value of nothing varies greatly. On the flop, I had deeply nothing. On the turn, I had nothing that was like molten mantle ready to burst through the earth’s crust with an explosion of heat and ash that would bury my opponents for centuries. Now that’s something — I mean, considering I had nothing.
What I did next was what any expert player would do. I checked the turn while at the same time casting a Jedi mind spell on my opponents that caused them to check. And they did. They both checked the turn behind me. Then I summoned a queen from within the deck as the river card so that I would have the stone cold nuts. The final board was A-K-4-10-Q.
And now I faced a familiar fork in the road. Should I bet? Or should I check?
I chose to check. On the surface, one could mistake this check as merely the unsheathing of the advanced strategy I call “Maybe they’ll bet.” But no. This was even more stupendous than that. Allow me to splain…
If one or both of them had a jackless hand that they would call with if I bet, and check with if I checked, then betting was better than checking.
If one or both of them had a jackless hand that they would value bet or bluff with if I checked, and fold with if I bet, then checking was better than betting.
It felt to me like a tie. I did not know which play was best, and I was not surprised or disappointed to not know, because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I often don’t know.
One thing I do know is that I like to base my decisions on something. When I view a situation up close — on times scales of one street or one hand — and I do not find a solid parameter upon which to hang my decision, then I simply back away, and I take a look from afar, using my meta-game spectacles, and from there, I can always find something weighty enough to tip the scales. Like so:
It seemed reasonable to assume that a fair amount of the time both my opponents would have no hand and no inclination to bluff — remember, there was no raise before the flop, or on the flop, and no betting on the turn — and if that was the case, it wouldn’t matter what I did. If I bet, they would fold, and if I checked, they would check. I would win the whole pot either way, and the amount I won would be unaffected by my choice.
Enter: the meta-game.
What did I want my opponents to see? Did I want them to see that I had checked the nuts on the river? Or (in the event that one or both of them had a jack) did I want them to see that I had bet the nuts on the river? I went with option one because it might buy me a free showdown or two in the future with hands like ace-high and king-high when my hand is the best hand and I would fold to a bet. Plus it might get me some free turn cards when I want them. Whereas option two came with almost no meta-game value. In short, a check might win future pots, whereas a bet would win squat.
I checked magnificently.
Okay. Here’s where the party starts. A perfectly played river with two triple back flips and a $3.0 landing.
After I checked, it looked to me like my Left Hand Opponent (LHO) was going to bet, and then he looked to his left and he saw that my Right Hand Opponent (RHO) was reaching for chips. So LHO checked. I interpreted all this to mean that LHO very likely had a jack and therefore the nuts. It was now RHO’s turn, as last to act after two checks, and he did in fact bet as telegraphed.
I called even more magnificently than I had checked. If I raised, then there’s no way LHO would put more chips in without the nuts. And if I called, he might. And if I raised, there’s no way RHO would call without the nuts. (Those statements, and subsequent hand-reading statements, I ask you to take on total faith, as absolutely knowable and true, because they are based on my deep understanding of the workings of the universe, and are, therefore, not surprisingly, irrefutable.)
So I called, and now LHO check-raised. This narrowed his hand range down to approximately the nuts and nothing less ever. Next was RHO, who smooth called LHO’s check-raise for precisely the same magnificent reason I had smooth called his initial bet. When RHO smooth called, the chances that he did not have a jack became the same as the chances that he had misread his hand. As choreographed, I now check-raised, and LHO was right in step with a perfect smooth call, done rightly so on the one in a bazillion chance that RHO had 1) misread his hand, and 2) might look back at his cards if he was facing two bets, but not if he was facing one bet.
RHO now capped the bidding at seven no-trump. I called, LHO called, and we three executed a splendidly synchronized triple tip.
2018 Coaching Update: I’m doing video coaching now on whatever ails you — from betting problems and tilt issues to bad quitting and no patience. For more details and to schedule a call, click here.