Wide Eyes – Lessons from Busting

The flop just came out, without looking at it I’m watching the small blind put out a bet that is roughly 1/2 of the pot. I now will say various things to myself like, “…of course he has to continuation bet the flop after 3 betting me pre-flop; he knows I’m stealing and so he has to represent.” I, of course, just made bottom pair, with a live over, and he is never going to see this coming. I cannot wait to get money in middle…

But wait…aren’t there other factors to consider? Yes, a lot of them. To be fair it is valid to question our very existence each time a new card comes off the deck in terms of changing timelines and alternate realities, but let’s keep this simple: Playing out of position, playing from behind, and calling 3-bets light are a part of many of our playbooks.

I also think that it is fair to say that when any of us, who attempt to play this game on a higher level, are actually on our game – we can be tough to beat. The piece of advice that I hear the most from my greatest poker influence and mentor is, “Be yourself,” or “just be you.” His confidence in me is derived from seeing me play where I am completely in tune with my surroundings and in those moments I am trying to win every hand regardless of whether or not I drag the pot. However, I know from experience that all too often I can also be my own worst enemy.

The opening hand example should have been a prelude to me ruining another competitor with bottom pair, tilting them, and getting the rest of the table excited to play against me and my “poor pre-flop decisions.” What happened was that I got it in really bad against top and second set, and I was so disconnected that I actually was surprised to see their holdings. On the way home (<-drive of shame) I kept asking myself how I could have possibly made such a bad read – still oblivious to the fact that in that moment I had much bigger problems than my reading skills.

Poker is not something that one can necessarily warm up for. The moment one sits down, tournament or cash, it begins. It would make sense then that one has to already be prepared, in tune, and ready before the first hand comes. As I painfully replayed the hand in my head and recounted it for friends (much to their amusement), a truth slowly emerged: I was never mentally ready to play on that day, let alone think that I was coherent enough to get “creative.” I was distracted before I got there, I was having a hard time focusing, and I was having confidence problems related to a couple of strong players at my table. Instead of recognizing my weaknesses in the moment, I moved forward with a scenario that I am familiar with.

Let’s take a closer look:

(Tournament – Blinds 150/300 with antes at 50) Action folds to me in the cutoff, I’m probably raising so I look down to see what I will be raising with and see Q2 spades. Wow, better than I thought. I put in a standard 2 ½-ish X to $725, the Button insta-calls (no surprise), the Small Blind pauses and makes it 2,150-ish. I know the button is going to call and I insta-call. I’m dreaming of a low flop and it comes 9h 10h 2d. I haven’t looked yet and the Small Blind leads out for just over 3K. I look at the flop seeing that I made bottom pair and ship knowing that I am a huge favorite over AQ and I am beating AK. Button insta-ships (I start getting queasy) Small blind insta-calls (I can feel my food coming up) and the button snaps a tendon attempting to turn his hand over faster than his body will allow. The button shows 9 9 and the small blind shows 10 10. For the first time in a long time, I am embarrassed to show my hand.

For many years I rode BMX at a high level, I ski jumped competitively, and I rode moto-cross. Something that I learned from those sports was a technique that I referred to as “wide eyes.” It really just means looking at everything, even if focused on one thing. In regards to those sports, focusing too narrowly can actually lead to problems like disorientation. Not a great situation when flying through the air.

It is actually a concept that I had attempted to apply to my poker game years ago. It doesn’t just help me in the moment, it helps me prepare. I used to wait for my turn at the top of ski jumps and continue to open my eyes as wide as I could until I felt that I had a full perspective on what I was about to do. In a way, it helps me find that special place where I am in the moment, aware of my timeline, focused, but also looking ahead to where I am going.

None of this was present at the onset of this hand. To be honest, none of this was present before I started playing. I had not taken any time prior to the start of the tournament to honestly assess how I was feeling or thinking. I was there, but essentially I was trying to imitate another version of myself.

It’s easy to point out my mistakes in this hand. Even so I could have won the hand by folding pre-flop to the 3-bet. Instead, I used all of the familiar markings of the hand to sell myself the dream of dragging a massive pot while exploding brains around me. I had lied to myself and then while still believing the lie; I became surprised at how far off I really was.

My point is this: Poker is hard. (<-Obvious) I recently watched a guy on America’s Got Talent ride a unicycle on a tightrope, covered in gasoline, while juggling flaming bowling pins. What a great metaphor for poker. How many times do you suppose he fell down just learning to ride a unicycle? How many times do you suppose he dropped bowling pins just learning to juggle? How much pain did this man endure until he could ride a unicycle on a tightrope while juggling flaming bowling pins? Did he ever set himself on fire?

I think better questions are: Did he ever take a day off when he knew that he was not mentally ready? Was he still a productive part of the circus while preserving his body or even his life? Did he have a process before attempting hazardous stunts that allowed him to be in a better state of mind? Was he honest about his self-assessment? Did he have a pregame ritual?

I am going to have to make honest evaluations about myself before sitting down to play, and continue to do so while I play. I also know that if I cannot find my “wide eyes” I will have to make adjustments and act accordingly. I fully accept the carnival side of my poker game, but in moving forward, I must learn to keep the unicycle on the tightrope.

Running bad or playing bad?

My local card room, Running Aces, just held their annual fall tournament series, the Midwest Poker Classic. I had high hopes for myself with this series. I have had a pretty solid year, and was hoping to add some really great hardware to my trophy case. I played in 7 events, firing several bullets at each one, and only cashed 1 event, taking 2nd place. I was extremely disappointed with my results, which then prompted me to ask myself: “Self” cause that’s what I call myself “am I playing bad, or just running bad”?

 

It is an important question, but I think for different reasons than most. Many people talk about running bad like it is an inevitability. I am not going to argue that “running bad” doesn’t happen, but I do believe that how we are playing our own particular style of poker, can influence just how badly we run. For example:

 

I have a friend that is a very tight passive player. He is very good at playing that style, and has enjoyed a lot of success in playing that way. We all know that is counter intuitive to how I play, and so does he. Recently we were playing a spread limit cash game together where I took a significant amount of chips off of him, and afterwards he was asking why I played the way I did against him. You see, every time we would get involved in large pots together, he always had premium starting hands, and I had my normal any two. Often the bulk of the money would go in when I was behind, and he just couldn’t get his head around the fact that I was willing to put so much money in against him when I probably knew that I was behind. What I explained to him is that because I know his range is so small, I will never be able to win large pots against him with premium holdings of my own. The only way I was going to win big pots was to force him to define his hand pre-flop, hope to flop decent against him, then catch up on the turn and river.  By 3 betting him pre-flop, I could almost determine every time if he had a big pair, or just a big ace pre-flop. If I 3 bet him, and he just flatted, big ace. If he 4 bet, most likely I’m up against a big pair. So, when I 3 bet and the flop comes Q76 with two spades and he opens, my 75 with a spade doesn’t look all that horrible. Yes he probably has AQ, but I have tons of ways to win the hand. I can represent an over pair or set because of the 3 bet pre-flop. I can represent two pair because he knows I’ll play any two. I can represent straight and/or flush draws. Those are just the hands I can represent to try and get him to fold. Not to mention the trip outs, the two pair outs, and the back door flush & straight outs. He just shakes his head when I explain to him that this is the type of hand I am hoping for against him, in addition to him only holding AJ and having to fold on the flop to my continuation bet. He asks me if I can teach him how to play like me, and I tell him I could, but he wouldn’t like it. Just as a cheetah cannot change their spots, a poker player has to be comfortable with their own style of play, and he definitely would not be comfortable playing the way I do.

 

I apologize, I kind of went on a tangent there, but the point is, part of playing well, and avoiding “running bad” is to make sure you are comfortable with your style of play. What was happening in the above example is that he would start to get outside his comfort zone of play, because he knew he was playing against me. He would go ahead and get all his money in with just top pair top kicker against me because he always felt I had air, or some other drawing hand. While that is correct, he wasn’t limiting his losses against me like he normally would against other opponents. That my friends is the key…

 

I’m here to tell you, bad beats ARE the inevitability of poker. They happen. They have always happened, they will always happen. You don’t need me to break down the math for you, we’ve all seen the numbers. Until your hand is at 100% win, there is always a chance that it will lose. AND IT WILL LOSE. The numbers are infallible. There is a reason why AA loses to 22, because it can and does. The most important thing to realize is how to manage these losses, both through bankroll management and psychologically. I’ll probably talk about how to do those things in the future, but for now…

 

What does this have to do with running bad, or with being comfortable with your play? The above example shows how my friend could have limited his losses by playing his normal game. Instead, he comes away from that session talking about how he ran bad against me.

 

Let’s go back to the beginning when I was talking about my MPC results. It was really an awkward time for me as whenever I busted, I was actually getting my money in ahead, then losing. I was extremely tempted to chalk it up to running bad, but that answer did not sit right with me, so I decided to analyze further.

 

An interesting phenomenon has been occurring to me at the poker tables lately. I am getting respect, not really something I am used to. Additionally, “the book” is out on me, meaning that people know that I have no qualms about 3 and 4 betting pre-flop with very light holdings. This is causing me to see more flops multi-way than I really want to. The whole purpose of raising pre-flop, for the most part, is to isolate your opponent. The more callers you have, the more difficult it becomes to have good hands hold, or to take down the pot with air. Because of this, I felt that I needed to alter my game slightly. I am sometimes opening and raising pots even more than I had in the past, to feed into the belief that I never hold strong cards. Sometimes I am not opening for long stretches of time at all. The interesting thing to note here is that I altered my game based on what I perceived other people’s conceptions of me are. I would be wild, or I would be really tight. Well, I didn’t need to be really wild and advertise, because everyone already saw the commercials. And when I went into super nit mode, people just waited for the right spots to do to me, exactly what I had been doing to my friend.

 

So on those occasions that I was playing overly aggressive, I was busting early because I did it too much, then had to ship with short stacks. While I waited until I had the best of it, you cannot consistently cash by always playing the short stack. When I was playing super tight, I was getting beat by lesser holdings. Is this running bad, or playing bad?

 

I submit that I was playing bad. I further submit that playing bad leads to running bad. If I hadn’t altered my style of play to something I wasn’t comfortable with, then maybe an argument can be made that I was just running bad. But I had changed my style. I didn’t need to be more “wild” than I already am because I already have that reputation. Becoming a super tight player is not something I enjoy either, and it makes me an easy target to pick off. So, if I was playing bad, how can I turn it around?

 

Well my friends, I can’t tell you ALL my secrets, but I do feel pretty confident right now because I have discovered my flaw. It may take some time for me to iron out exactly how to find the balance I once had a hold of, but just knowing that it is there means I’m already on the path to plugging this leak. I think that there will soon be an avalanche of BOOM tweets coming, and when it does, please don’t tell me it’s just because I’m running good.

 

Notes

There are a number of people in the poker world that I respect, and I also feel that they have some interesting views on how to play poker. Because of this, I have invited some of them to write for the site. You will see some of their posts in the near future, and I know you will enjoy them. Some of these people have requested to stay anonymous, so when they post under a nickname, please respect their desire for anonymity.

 

The hand history page has not been updated with a new hand for a while, but it will be soon. I have had some requests from people to analyze their hands, and will be posting them soon. Also, there will be a hand from me coming soon titled: The Anatomy of a BOOM Tweet, so stay tuned…