Smart Bubble Play

John Juanda on bubble playThis item continues on from our previous posting “Waiting for the Bubble” where John Juanda discussed short stack and big stack bubble strategy.

This is where it gets tricky, because when you have a medium stack, you have a lot to lose. Let’s say you have 50,000 in chips. After starting the tournament with 10,000. And if you get into the money, they pay you $10,000, or close to that. Now, if you lose your whole 50,000 you end up with nothing, and that’s a lot of chips to lose for no payout. But here’s one way to play when you have a medium stack: Let’s say the big stack has already folded in front of you, and now it’s just you and players with fewer chips than you left to act – when this happens, YOU become the big stack. Now you can play very aggressively, knowing that the players with fewer chips are not going to defend their blind or call your raise unless they have a huge hand.

Also, it is possible when you have a medium stack to take advantage of players with big stacks. Remember, if an experienced player has the big stack, then you know he’s going to be playing aggressively. He doesn’t even need a hand. By knowing that, every time he raises, you can just come over the top of him and re-raise him, even though you don’t have a hand. This guy has a million in chips, he doesn’t need to have anything to raise, he’s going to raise with 7-2 offsuit. Knowing that, you can say to yourself “alright, I have nothing either, but if he makes it 10,000 just going to make it 50,000. I don’t think he can call, because he most likely doesn’t have anything.”  It’s kind of a risky play, but it works a lot of the time – especially when you have a good read on somebody. Sometimes people have tells, such as raising different amounts when they have a good hand as opposed to when they don’t have a hand. You can really take advantage of that.

Here’s another example of high-level strategy on the bubble:

In a tournament a few years back, there was this really good player, and we were down to hand-for-hand play. A short stacked player moved all-in, and this good guy, who had been doing well was now chip leader, he looked at his hand, and he had A-K in the big blind. And he just mucked the hand! And you know what? It was the right play!

Here’s why: At the time, at the table, it was easy for him to steal. He was the huge chip leader, everybody was afraid of him, so he must have been thinking “Why would I call with A-K? I might lose with A-K. I’m just going to throw it away, then the next hand, everybody’s going to fold, and I’m going to raise again”.

If he had called and busted this guy with his A-K, then hand-to-hand play would be all over. We’d reach the money, and his huge advantage would disappear. He wouldn’t be able to make these moves anymore. But by laying down A-K, he can raise nine out of the next ten hands and probably win eight of them. Which one is more profitable? Smart.

Sometimes it makes sense to throw away the best hand, because when you’re big stack, you’re in such a unique situation. This is something that a lot of mat guys don’t understand. They’ll think “Oh, I’m getting good pot odds here, I’m like 20 percent favourite.” But who cares about being a 20 percent favourite when you can rob people blind? Yes, the odds are in your favour here, genius, but just throw it away because if you do, you’ve got potential to win every pot with virtually no risk.

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Waiting for the Bubble

John Juanda poker professionalI’ve had tournaments in which I’ve gone from being the shortest stack at the table to the chip leader while waiting for the bubble to burst. Hand-for-hand play is a great time to build up chips, as long as you can handle the risk – in other words, be willing to go broke – to take advantage of the situation.

The key, regardless of whether you’re the big stack, a medium stack or the shortest stack at the table is to be the aggressor – the one doing the raising and re-raising, not the one calling other people’s raises (unless you have a big hand).

When the bubble is approaching, you have to remember that most players are going to get very tight. People might throw away a good hand, like a pair of jacks, or even a pair of queens or A-K.

They might think that they have the best hand, but they’re not sure, so they just throw it away because they want to make it into the money. They play very differently than they did the rest of the tournament. And because you know people are trying to play more conservatively you can play more aggressively against them.

When I have the short stack, I generally just try to find a hand that I like and go all in with it. But here’s the key point: I’ll be the one raising and re-raising all-in; I won’t be the one calling (unless I have a premium hand). If you think about it, the cost of calling is very high. Let’s say you’re short stacked, and someone makes a raise that would put you all-in. By calling, you have to beat this guy after all five cards to win the hand. But if you’re moving all-in first, a lot of the time you’re not going to get called, you still have a chance to win. So, by moving all-in, you have two chances to win: either nobody calls you or, if you’re called, you might win after five cards. When you call someone’s all-in raise, you have to have the best hand at the end; that’s the only way to win.

And remember, other people are thinking the same as you. They don’t want to be the caller, they want to be the raiser. So that makes it even more likely that people will fold when you go all-in. That’s the beauty of it. When the bubble is coming, it’s so much more likely for your all-in move to work.

When you have the big stack, it’s just plain easy. If you’ve been playing at that table for a while, and you’ve been doing your homework and paying attention, then you know which players are playing tight, and you can steal from them. You’re the big stack, and they’re not going to mess with you.

But one of the mistakes that I see amateurs make when they have the big stack is to call all-in raises with weak hands. Let’s say the small stack, somebody that has been playing conservatively, moves all-in. Good players would never call that guy without a premium hand. You know he’s not going to be playing bad hands. He’s one spot out of the money, so he’s going to be playing very conservatively. But I’ve seen bad players with big stacks just call with hands such as A-7 offsuit or K-8 suited. Good players just will never do this. Why get involved in those hands? You’re in such a unique position where you can keep stealing. You don’t even need a hand. You can just wait until nobody raises, then you raise, you become the first one in, and a good percentage of the time, everybody’s just going to fold because they don’t want to mess with you.

When you’re the big stack, you need to play smart and just take advantage of the situation. You want to raise somebody that’s easy picking instead of just calling and calling. Remember people will fold most of the time. When you’re on the bubble, about nine out of ten times, there will be no flop. By raising and being the aggressor, most of the time you’re just going to win it right there.

We’ll continue John Juanda’s poker strategy coaching on bubble play “ Medium Stack Strategy” in the next blog posting… (this is just getting crazy long).



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Do not Play a Big Pot Unless You Have a Big Hand

John is one of our favourites on the pro poker circuit

“All of a sudden, I don’t like my hand – so much.”

I’m at Foxwoods playing the $2,000 No Limit Hold ’em event. We all started with $3,000 and now I’ve got $15,000. At my table is Richard Tatalovitch, a player whom I’ve competed against many times.

I raise pre-flop from middle position with K-J offsuit and Richard calls from the big blind. The flop comes 9-6-4 with two diamonds on the board.

Richard hesitates for a moment before checking, and I put in a pot-sized bet. Richard thinks for a while and calls. All of a sudden, I don’t like my hand — so much.

Imagine my relief when a non-diamond J hits the turn. Now I have top pair and a pretty good kicker. Then Richard comes out betting. Uh-oh.

Now, let me back up a moment and mention that when someone hesitates before checking, it’s usually a huge tell. But Richard is the king of delayed action, so I ignored his tell and bet the flop anyway. And his bet on the turn just screams, “Raise me! I dare you!”

I go into the tank and my thoughts go something like this:

1. He flopped a set. That explains the smooth call on the flop – he’s trying to trap me into staying, hoping I’ll bet the turn, too.

2. No. If he had a set, he’d have checked the turn and waited for me to hang myself right then and there, or let me catch something on the river. He can’t have a set.

3. The jack helped him. I don’t have the jack of diamonds. Maybe he does, and he called the flop with a jack-high flush draw. If so, I like my kicker and my hand.

4. He’s betting on the come with a flush or straight draw and is hoping to buy the pot right there.

I run through these possibilities and reach no conclusion.

Normally, I would just call here. We both have a lot of chips, and I don’t want to put them all in with nothing but top pair. Then, I have the misfortune to remember a hand from a month earlier at Bellagio:

Richard had been running bad and was complaining about a string of horrific beats. I saw him check and call with top boat because he was afraid of quads! A guy that afraid of monsters under the bed isn’t going to check-call top set on the flop with a flush draw out there.

“All in!” I declared.

Oops. This is now a Big Pot. And rest assured, top pair doesn’t even resemble a Big Hand.

In the four years I’ve been playing with him, I’ve never seen him call so fast. I am drawing dead to his perfectly-played 9-9.

Sometimes, we all forget that big cards don’t always equal a big hand and that the smart move can be to play conservatively instead of going for the quick kill. As for Richard – he had the good sense to be in a Big Pot with a Big Hand, and the patience to make it pay off.

John Juanda

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