Until about five years ago if I sat down at a table with someone I did not know, the chance of them being an okay to good player was less than one percent. Now, however, at almost every tournament I enter I get a table where I don't know more than one other player...and usually about four of them are okay to good players with an occasional very good player mixed in--one that I have never seen or heard of, in fact. Why? Well that is pretty obvious, because of easily available information on how to play, because of televised play, with intelligent commentary in many cases, and most of all, the internet, where one can see tens of thousands of hands in a few years and furthermore look up hand histories and see how better players act in certain situations without even having to embarrass yourself by asking them what they had.
It does still amaze me when someone bothers to be upset when someone else wants to see their hand--even though the 'I want to see that hand' rule is silly and exists to catch poor cheaters. This is never done amongst players that respect each other unless it is a deliberate effort to unsettle someone by insulting them. In my opinion it marks the asking person as a weak player more than it testifies to his status as a jerk--although some online players don't realize this at first. At the tuesday no-limit tournament in the LA Poker Classic this hand came up; a small raise with multiple callers, including Max Pescatori in the big blind. The flop was 986 rainbow with all four players checking, with the turn bringing a seven whereupon all players checked yet again, and the river was a Q with no possible flushes in the hand. Max now bet 200 into a pot of 325, and a woman raised him the minimum to 400 with him calling. She held QT off in the field for a straight and before Max could muck the player next to him asked to see his hand. "Why?" he asked the player as he pitched his cards in face down. I could not hear the mumbled reply but the dealer dutifully turned up 7s6s.
I would not ask 'why?' but I would surely burn an image of that person into my memory cells and it would be filed under 'donkey'. For future reference when you come to my table and I do not know you, just ask to see my hand--you won't make me upset but you will get a quick entry into my donkey dossier.
Another thing that seems very common these days is someone celebrating an early round victory with screams and knocking chairs over and shouting to their friends at adjacent or faraway tables. Did they not get enough attention as a child? Don't they realize that they still have to beat a thousand or so opponents before they even get to the money? This seems to be a behavior that has been learned whilst watching television, but perhaps it is more basic, more primitive, than that. If standing over your prey and screaming in victory appeals to you it is possible that you chose the wrong sport. One thing that seems to be overlooked here is that every time there is a winner there is a loser. Hmmm. Well I suppose that one can be so self-centered that this escapes ones attention. In olden times this would never happen of course because one would get bullet holes for decorations, but now that we are a civilized people it is okay to be a public jerk? You have to wonder, methinks. Michio Kaku may call us a zero civilization on his zero to five scale but I think he rates us too highly, I would have to give humanoids a minus two based on what I commonly see.
It often takes only about ten hands to have an idea of who is likely to have real hands and real decisions at any poker table, even one full of strangers. The clues will be everywhere, it is not just a matter of looking at the hands that are shown, although that makes it very, very easy. Other clues are the way the chips are stacked, the way the chips are handled, the way bets are made, the way the player acts, the way the player is dressed, what the player is drinking, the way the player looks at their cards, the way a player protects their cards, what the player says, how the player folds, how the player reacts to being raised, how the player acts when he is re-raised, how the player acts when someone calls them, how the player acts when someone limps in front of them, how many hands the player plays, how many hands the player raises with, how many hands the player re-raises with, and how long does it take the player to make each of these actions. So even without seeing the cards or having a heart monitor visible one often can draw many conclusions—they might be premature mappings of likely behavior, but they will be useful to you in making your decisions. I will give out a caution here, don't be too fast to put someone in the donkey category because they behave like one, or play one hand like one—there might be a reason—including outright deception!
Another rule of thumb that I have is that I often will raise or re-raise someone that I regard as "professional" because the information I can gather will be of real value, whereas I am looking to play more small pots versus the amateur—because I am not sure what their actions will be and often have been burned by the mistake of thinking they are thinking!
What do I mean by this? A great example is a television show that I recently played in where we started with six players and only one gets $25,000 dollars and a chance to advance to a bigger payday. Player one has just lost a big hand and puts in his last 3,000 from the button into blinds of 2,000 and 4,000. The little blind calls the 4,000 and I check with T7 off-suit in the big blind. The flop brings A76 and the little blind moves all-in into an almost "dry" side-pot. "Why?" I ask him, as right away this smells suspicious to me, although I have a flood of evidence to consider. Would he limp with an ace? Would he move all-in with a really big hand? He has about 30,000 and I have about 75,000 and am the chip leader. On the other side of the ledger this play is not as bad in a one-winner event as it would be in a conventional tournament where each spot moves up the pay scale. He could hold Ace little and not wish to give a card in case his hand is the best and he does not wish to call off his last chips if I move all-in but is not willing to lay it down and knows that he would call. He could easily have a hand like K7 or Q7 and might risk all his chips with it and accidentally have me out-kicked…hmmm. I had 15 seconds to consider all this and perhaps I should have used my one 30 second extension as I tend to think that amateurs play straight up, but maybe this one is being devious? I passed as I could not imagine him betting a draw in this spot with one player being all-in. He now tried to muck his hand! Honestly indicating that he had managed to forget the all-in player! He had to turn up Q3 off-suit, a stone cold bluff, and I came out of my chair, shocked and surprised. The all-in player held J9 and the turn came a 7, with a blank on the river giving the pot to the Q3. So was he really smart or really lucky in this spot? My perspective might be warped but we began this part of the column by mentioning that I often do not know what the amateur is thinking and that gives me problems.
Until next time...play good and don't forget to get lucky, real lucky!