I just got back from a wonderful four days at Foxwoods Resort casino - which held FARGO, a convention of sorts of we poker playing fanatics who know each other primarily from the Internet. There is a lot of poker play and even more poker conversation. A few stray bits of a remark prompted me to write this article. Here's what I overheard.
We were in the middle of a multi-event tournament - H.O. S.E. (Hold Em, Omaha8, Stud, and Stud8). We played 25 minutes of each game in rotation, with blinds or antes going up each round. The trajectory of the stakes was pretty steep - meaning the blinds and antes went up fast as the tournament progressed. $25/50, $50/100 and $100/200. If you didn't want to get anted off you'd have to be willing to gamble quite a bit with less than premium hands. That was the nature of the game.
I was walking out of the men's room and heard a couple of the tournament players talking about the structure of this event. One was whining about what a "luckfest" the game was - due to the rapidly escalating forced bets. But the other guy was chiding him. He opined, "Look, this tournament is different from most. But you just have to adjust. That's part of the challenge - to adjust to the different structure."
I didn't hear what else he had to say - eager as I was to get back to my seat before the brief break was over. But as I played for the next hour I thought about these wise words. Obvious though they may sound, how many players actually do make the necessary adjustments to fit a change in structure - or even a change in opposition? How many players play the same way regardless of their circumstances?
Here's an example of that - something that happened to me shortly after I overheard the remarks above. We had just completed the Omaha8 round and were back playing my favorite game, 7-Card Stud. The players all knew me as the author of Winning 7-Card Stud. Though they might not have respected my flop game play very much, they showed great deference to me when we played stud. The antes were $25, the forced bet $50 and the betting limits were $100/200. The average stack was still pretty close to the starting stack of $1,000 - with a couple of the players having doubled that; and some having as little as a few hundred dollars in tournament chips.
The play, in general, was very, very tight. People really wanted to survive. The bet size was quite large as a percentage of nearly everyone's stack. Losing one hand played to the river could really cripple an otherwise healthy stack. And if you were already relatively short on chips, one lost hand could be your last.
That being said, the ante and forced bet structure made the pot disproportionately large relative to the bet size. Our eight-handed table produced a pot of $250 on Third Street before any voluntary bet was made. A steal attempt in this $100/200 round was paying 2.5:1 if it succeeded. Just to put that into some context, ante stealing in the typical $10/20 game, has a $1.00 ante and a $3.00 forced bet, and pays off at only 1.1:1.
At this stage in the tournament, my stack was about equal to the average one - at $1,600 or so. Typically, I would play my standard tight/aggressive game - hoping that I'd hit some cards and that less conservative players would be willing to mix it up with me when I was the heavy favorite. But in this event, that typical strategy made no sense. I had the enormously high ante to bet ratio pushing me toward a more aggressive strategy. And I also had my reputation as a tight/aggressive player dictating a vastly different method of play.
Simply put, I needed to steal. And I needed to defend against steals. In a phrase, I had to push my luck more than I normally would - hoping that I could win pots with the combination of the scariness of my board cards and the power of my serious reputation. Similarly, I had to defend myself against stealing - since it would be just as attractive for my good opponents to try to push me out of hands based on their scare cards.
Here are some examples of how this affected my play of actual hands. The bring-in 3d was to my left. He brought it in for $25. Everyone folded around to the player to my right, who showed a King. I had an Ace, with a pair of 7s in the hole. One 7 and one Ace had already been folded. The King, on my immediate right, raised - two to the right of the forced bet. Normally I would have folded - guarding my stack and not wanting to risk any money on the possibility that my opponent was bluffing. (In a live game, on the contrary, I might well have raised - knowing that I could always buy back in if my guess was incorrect).
But in this tournament, with the rapidly escalating structure and with the huge ante, I knew that I couldn't fail to take advantage of this opportunity to re-steal a large pot. So I re-raised him. Not as a complete bluff - but as a semi-bluff - one with only three cards (an ace and a 7 were already dead) as a back-up plan. Had the antes been lower, my image looser or had the actual stack sizes been considerably larger, I would probably have just folded. As it was, both of my opponents folded according to plan.
I had another situation come up a couple of hands later.. I was dealt pocket 9s with a Jack as my door card. A King from early position completed the bet to $200. His was the highest door card. Though his raise from early position normally would indicate strength - and not an ante-steal, given the structure, I was more suspicious than normal that he was on a steal. When everyone folded to me, I re-raised him. He called. On Fourth Street, I caught a Queen, he a blank. He did not bet. This confirmed my suspicion that he did not have the Kings. So I bet. He called all the way to the River. I did not improve. But I bet the River anyway, figuring that the pot was enormous, and my chances of winning were large enough to warrant a bet.
To my surprise and immediate dismay, he called me. A sheepishly turned over my pair of 9s - but even more sheepishly, he announced that he just had a pair of 2s (obviously realizing that I might have bet with any hand) and I won another enormous hand.
As it turned out, my strategy adjustments - combined with useful hands at the right time - allowed me to last until the final table. The game had turned to no limit hold em by then. I finished in seventh place, with a small profit for my efforts. As I collected my money from the cashier I heard the voice of the other player in my ear. "You have to adjust. That's part of the challenge." And so you do.
Ed note: Play Stud with WSOP bracelet holder Perry Friedman (!!!) at Full Tilt