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What’s the difference between a beginner and a professional poker player? High stakes expert Simon Hemsworth explains how to think like a pro at the table
On the surface it can seem that the plays made in poker by beginners and professionals are very similar. After all, there are only a few different options in any given situation; to check or bet, to raise or fold. However, the thought process behind each individual play is radically different between these two sets of players. Beginners are typically playing much more on feel and emotion as they have less knowledge to fall back on. Professionals, in contrast, will often have millions of hands of experience to use as a tool for making the best possible decisions.
The key difference is that the number of variables analysed by a professional in any given situation will be significantly higher than a beginner. Amateurs will often look at the strength of their hand and how it connects with the board and not much further. Pros will be considering player reads, recent game dynamics, how each street in a hand affects ranges and countless other factors.
Beginners tend to see bluffing as betting when they consider that their hand is probably not the winning hand. The amount of equity their hand has up until the river is not seen as very significant. What sort of hands their opponent might have is not really considered at all and, as a result, the bet sizing will often be wrong. Beginners view it as a bad move not to bluff when they have a hand that is never going to be ahead.
A bad beginner’s bluff might go something like this. They bet the flop with 7♥-5♥ on a board of A♥-K♠-J♥ into one opponent and get called. The turn is the 3♣ and it goes check/check. The river is the 4♣. The beginner bets 3/4 pot and gets called by A-9.
In this situation the beginner has played his semi-bluff too passively on the turn, meaning by the river there are few value hands he can represent. Also, the large bet size on the river does not represent more strength and simply makes the bluff more expensive. The opponent is likely to call with all A-x hands or better and fold most hands worse than this. A bet size of half pot actually looks stronger because it can represent hands trying to get thin value, while also making it much less expensive when you get called.
For the professional, the starting point when considering a bluff will be the reads on the opponent(s) in question. If the player is an unknown then bluffing is generally a bad idea, but with more detailed knowledge on a villain the pro will have a much better idea of the success rate of a bluff. The pro will also have a much better idea of how much equity their bluff will have throughout the hand and will rarely be bluffing until the river without any chance of improving.
Although betting with a flush draw and a gutshot on the flop is technically ‘bluffing’, the pro realises that this is a very strong hand and one with good equity against all holdings, and is therefore best played aggressively. Using any reads the professional has on his opponents, he will then make sure that the bluff is consistent with some hands that the villain thinks he will play for value.
The key is to sell the right story to the villain you are playing, something that beginners often get wrong.
Generally the beginner struggles to clearly identify when they have the best hand, which often leads to over-valuing or under-valuing hands. When a beginner thinks they have the best hand they will bet an amount of chips that they hope to get called by. The sort of hands the opponent might have, and therefore how much should be bet, are not given much thought.
If the beginner is value betting on the flop or turn there is rarely much consideration given to further streets, which can lead to problems with awkward stack sizes further down the road. Also, when the beginner does not have the nuts they fail to recognise that getting raised is possible and do not account for this happening.
Beginners often see scare cards that aren’t really there and then fail to get full value. For example, they bet A♠-T♠ on A♣-T♣-7♥ and get called. The turn is the 4♥ and the opponent check/calls a healthy sized bet. The river is the J♥, the opponent checks and the beginner checks behind. Although the J♥ is a scary card it is certainly still worth value betting. Your opponent could have backdoored a flush, but there’s a good chance he leads on the river if he does, so his check makes that less likely. There are also all sorts of two pair combos or even A-x hands that will call your river bet. If you bet and get raised you will be in a tough spot, but this shouldn’t stop you betting.
The success rate of a value bet will depend on reads. The better the reads are, the better the pro can judge the bet sizing. When making a value bet the pro will be betting the absolute maximum they can to get value from the range of worse hands the villain can have. When the pro bets the flop or turn they will have a good idea of how their hand equity fares against the villain’s range. They also have contingencies for what they will do if they get raised. Depending on the situation this can be folding, calling or raising.
Folding is an especially frustrating thing to do for beginners as it’s the most boring of all the choices available and obviously means losing the hand.
Beginners concentrate too much on the value of their hand at a particular moment when contemplating a fold. If their hand is likely the worst at a particular time then folding must be the best option. The equity of the hand on the flop or turn, and chances of improving, are not given much thought.
Beginners typically see folding as conceding to another opponent, therefore making it very unappealing. They would often much rather call and be wrong than fold and be shown a better hand, despite the former being a much more expensive mistake. What they don’t see is that making good folds is an essential skill in poker.
Pros know that folding is an essential part of being a good player and see their ‘value’. The ability to get away from a good hand that is beaten is just as important as making chips when you’re ahead!
Pros can also make good folds early in the hand before they create dangerous situations that could make them lose more chips. They know that often it is worth pitching hands with ‘reverse implied odds’, like K-T offsuit, which can make dominated weak top pairs.
Pros can also fold weak draws when they do not have the correct pot odds to make the call. They get as much satisfaction from a great fold as they do from a great hero call. Moreover, they will not be fazed if they make a good fold only to be shown an obscure part of the villain’s range, knowing this will happen sometimes (see Benefield v Doyle below).
Benefield v Doyle
In this hand from the Poker After Dark: Nets vs. Vets cash game David Benefield makes a good fold, despite it being the best hand in this situation.
On the river Doyle Brunson decides to make a thin, unexpected value raise with two pair and gets Benefield to fold his trips. Many people, particularly beginners, will look at this hand and think Benefield makes a mistake by folding – but most pros would disagree. Benefield recognised that it was very unlikely Doyle would be bluffing here based on how the hand had gone down, and that there shouldn’t be any hands worse than trips/weak kicker that should be value raising. Raising with two pair here is unconventional.
Although Benefield will not be entirely happy about folding the best hand in this situation (especially on TV!) he will be happy with his decision process and how he came to the conclusion that he did. Professionals know that in the long run this is the most important thing, not the results from a single hand.
Beginners frequently fail to recognise why they are three-betting. They know it is a good idea to three-bet with premium hands like pocket Aces or Kings to get value but struggle with lesser holdings. They will often three-bet hands like 9-9 with no plan for how to proceed if the flop is unkind, such as Q-J-2, or if they get four-bet.
Beginners, whether consciously or not, like the ‘see where you are’ three-betting approach, where the intention is to find out how good their hand is based on what their opponent does. The problem is that they do not get the answer they want a lot of the time and then struggle when the villain puts in another bet.
Beginner four-bets are also regularly attached to emotion. They do them because they are fed up of a player being in every pot at the table or because they don’t want to get pushed around. Another common reasoning for three-betting is simply boredom, which can happen a lot, especially in live poker, but is certainly not a good reason to do it. The beginner’s decision to three-bet bluff is not thought through, but rather done because they feel like doing it.
The pro has a good idea why they are three-betting and what they hope to achieve by doing so. A three-bet with a premium hand is done because they think it is the best way of extracting value from the hand. A three-bet with a medium strength hand might be because they want to get it all-in preflop against a weak range, because they feel their opponent will call with much weaker holdings, or because they feel only very strong hands will four-bet. At that point the pro will be happy to fold.
A three-bet bluff will be done for a number of specific reasons. These might be because the stack sizes dictate it will work a lot, their hand might have blockers, the opponent is capable of folding a lot and countless other possible reasons. The bottom line is that the pro is very rarely three-betting without a plan for what to do next.
History and unique game flow between pro players can make three-betting ranges much wider. If there is a lot of battling between certain players who know a lot about each other’s games it can increase the amount of three-bet bluffing as well as widen three-bet value ranges. For example in a tournament the pro has T-T and 40BBs on the button and the cutoff, a fellow pro who has been very active in the tournament so far, raises with a stack that covers you. This is a situation where the pro with T-T will three-bet for pure value knowing the cutoff player can peel out of position with lots of hands worse than T-T, four-bet bluff plenty, and even four-bet worse for value. The pro in the cutoff will expect the button pro to three-bet a very wide range of hands so will not be inclined to fold too often. This is a situation where the player with T-T does not exactly have the most premium preflop hand, but the circumstances have set up a situation to play T-T like the nuts.
As you can see the differences in thought process between the beginner and professional on key poker concepts are vast. However, it is important to recognise that generalisations about types of poker players are always dangerous. Some recreational poker players are very smart and can grasp complex poker strategy early and therefore the thought processes I have assigned to them here do not apply. Also, all poker pros make mistakes at times and have weaknesses in their game that include failing in areas described here. Lots of good players make plays without thinking, or let emotion cloud their judgment when they shouldn’t.
The way you transition from beginner to pro is largely down to experience. All professionals will have played lots of hands to fine-tune their thought processes over time. However, improvement in your game can be speeded up by always trying to ask yourself why you are doing something and what you hope to achieve.
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