Last night was one of those nights. It felt like nothing was going right. My complaints will surely sound familiar, but hang in there, because this isn’t just a bad beat story. There’s a lesson at the end.
For one thing, I was at the table for nearly five hours, and in that time I was dealt exactly one premium hand.
Of course it takes more than good starting hands to win at no-limit hold ’em, and it’s entirely possible to win without them. Sometimes your opponents are willing to play all loose and weak and fit-or-fold, and if they are, you can show a nice profit by raising preflop with anything halfway decent and then scooping up all that preflop money with a continuation bet. This is a nice little low-risk strategy when it works.
No one was folding to me, though. It seemed like every time I raised, I got called in at least three spots, and my continuation bets never picked up the pot. Often, I didn’t even get the opportunity to double barrel or turn a pair because my continuation bets got not just called but raised.
A serious poker player should have more than one strategy in his bag of tricks. You can’t rely on your opponents playing the way you want them to. You have to adapt to them, figure out where their leaks are, then craft your own play to take advantage of those leaks. If my opponents were going to treat a $60 raise the same as a $10 call, then I’d make sure I had the best hand when I put in that $60 raise, and I wouldn’t bother betting the flop unless I connected with it.
As I said, there weren’t many premiums coming my way, but I got plenty of hands of the and variety. Most of them missed the flop, but even when they didn’t, I generally ended up folding. I twice released top pair before the river, and twice bet-folded middle pair on the flop.
It was frustrating. At times I felt like I was getting pushed around. Maybe I was. I didn’t generally see the hands I was folding to, so they could have been bluffs. I did once call a pot-sized river bet from one of my more aggressive opponents in a spot where I thought he could easily be bluffing and his value range would consist only of hands that improved on the innocuous river. He showed me a rivered two pair. Like I said, it was one of those nights.
Here’s the thing: at the end of the session, I was up nearly 150 big blinds, giving me a wildly unsustainable win-rate of roughly 100 big blinds per 100 hands played. (For comparison, anything in the double digits is a very good win-rate online, where games are admittedly a bit tougher.) The vast majority of my winnings came from just two of those 150 hands, and I honestly don’t think I won more than 10 pots all night.
Losing pots is no fun, especially when it feels like you’re getting bluffed. Ultimately, though, the number of pots you win or lose is far less important than the size of the pots you win and lose. Sometimes keeping your losses small means letting your opponents win the large majority of the pots, maybe even letting them bluff you repeatedly.
If your opponents seem to be constantly calling and raising you, one of three things is going on:
- They are getting hit with the deck. There are going to be nights when everyone else gets good cards and you don’t. There is generally nothing you can do to force a win in these situations, so your best option is to cut your losses. (See my earlier “How to Earn Money With the Worst Hands in Poker” for more on that topic.)
- They are playing recklessly. This might mean suicidal bluffing, or overplaying medium-strength hands, or some combination of the two.
- It’s all in your head. Remember, there are eight of them and one of you. Of course “they” are going to get more strong hands. You can’t reasonably compare your own share of good luck to the combined good fortunes of eight other seats at the table.
That last point may seem obvious, but in my experience it’s by far the most common of the three. On the Thinking Poker podcast, on my blog, and with the students I coach, I am constantly reassuring people that their opponents aren’t playing back at them as much as they think.
Your inclination is usually to remember your own bad luck much better than you remember anyone else’s and to believe that you “deserve” to win a pot every 10 minutes or so. Poker is frustrating, and live poker is slow, and sometimes there will be long stretches where you win little or nothing. This doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong. In fact the biggest mistake you can make in these situations is to assume that you need to start trying to make something happen.
This is why it’s important to have a strong baseline game. It’s not that I’m unwilling or unable to call down light or rebluff, it’s just that I know which hands are good for that purpose and which are not. I don’t often make these decisions based only on a hunch that someone might be messing with me. When I get raised on the flop and suspect that my opponent has a weak hand, I usually just fold and make a mental note.
If you can determine with certainty that one or more of your opponents is playing recklessly, then you certainly can improve your results by rebluffing with a high frequency or calling down extra light. The problem is that if your perception is wrong — if it really is just in your head or if your opponents are getting uncommonly many strong hands — then this change in strategy can lead to huge losses.
It’s also important to remember that you don’t have to make any changes to your baseline game to benefit from reckless opponents. Remember when I said I only got one premium hand all night? I had , and my raise to $120 from the small blind was called by four players. Because I’d been doing so much checking and giving up after missing flops in multiway pots, I checked the flop, and sure enough one of my opponents shoved $800 into the $600 pot with middle pair.
That one win more than made up for all of the small and medium pots I lost along the way. And made it a lot easier to endure another “one of those nights.”