shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

A while back I posted about abusive use of the semibluff. As I mentioned, using it too often simply makes your opponents realize that when you raise on a draw-centric board, you usually have the draw and not a strong made hand.

The semibluff is however a powerful poker weapon when used with restraint. One place where it can be very useful is live game situations where players have many tells and varied stack sizes and you have a tight table image.

What follows is an example from a hand I played last summer at the old R Club here in NYC. It was interesting situation, since, as was often the case at the R Club, there were people who had very different stack sizes. The players in question for this particular hand were Mike and Pappy.

By this point in the summer, I had logged about 40 hours of play with Mike and had a very good read on his game. He was absolutely incapable of folding any flush draw, and any top pair with an overcard kicker. He usually put in good sized raises with top pair on the flop (i.e., he knew it needed to be protected), but often raised a bit too much, and couldn't fold to a reraise. (By way of example, I once got an entire $400 stack from him on the flop, in a limped pot with the flop T43, where he held QT and I had 44. He just kept reraising!) With draws, Mike played a classic loose-passive style willing to call huge bets to see the next card and try to get there. The one type of draw, however, that he really loved and played aggressively was “a pair and a flush draw”, with which he'd often back with his whole stack on the flop.

I knew Pappy less; I'd only logged about 5 hours of play with him. However, I'd listened carefully to chit-chat about him, and that chat was extensive. Pappy was primarily a tight-aggressive player, although he occasionally was known to put a lot of pressure (i.e., hyperaggressive) preflop and on the flop. He wouldn't commit his whole stack with one pair, and he was even capable of folding two pair when deep enough. He assumed other people played as he did, and he always played his sets cagey. If you made a cagey play, he'd put you on a set and throw away two pair. The joke about him was that he often raised with two random cards, flopped two pair, and then would lay it down to a raise on the turn.

Now, to make a successful semibluff, I needed all this information as the hand progressed. The hand started with Pappy raising from early position to $10, a standard preflop raise in this $1/$2 NL HE game. Usually, a $10 raise here yielded four callers. I was the first to call from middle position with Ac 8c, and Mike called behind me on the button. The blinds folded and we saw the flop three-handed with $33 in the pot. Mike had about $180 behind; I and Pappy each had around $300.

The flop came Tc 3c 7h. Pappy bet out strongly for $25. I knew he wouldn't bet here without a pair, but he didn't seem to have an overpair. I figured he probably had AT, but, as he sometimes raised with random cards, he might have T7. I felt my best bet, with Mike still to act behind me, was to call. I didn't have direct odds to draw, but I felt that I should stay and had some minimal implied odds. (Pappy would still bet once more if the flush card came, for example, and Mike would pay off with a variety of hands should he see the turn.) I felt that I might be able to make a move on the turn if I ended up heads-up with Pappy. However, semibluffing on the flop was a bad idea, because Pappy might reraise with two pair here and I'd have to put in the third raise as a semibluff to get him off it. (Usually, Pappy made his “big laydowns” on the turn.)

Mike called instantly behind me, and I was approaching certainty that he had a mere flush draw, obviously weaker than mine. He didn't usually play straight draws on two-tone boards, and since he didn't raise, I didn't think he had a pair at all. His call swelled the pot to $108.

The turn came 2d. I felt this was a good card for me. It didn't change much about the hand, and when Pappy bet out $50, I felt that he was getting concerned with two callers. Pappy assumed that others played like he did, and with two callers, he probably was worried that only one had the flush draw while the other might be beating him. I saw the $50 as a defensive bet. I knew Pappy could lay down two pair sometimes, and would certainly lay down just one pair, even if I had under-read him and he'd started with KK or something like that.

I decided to “put myself” on a set of threes for Pappy's sake. I figured that he wouldn't be suspicious of the “just call” on the flop, because that's how he'd play a set of threes. Pappy would think, that since Mike acted after me, that on the flop I thought that Mike would fold. And, since I knew Pappy didn't have a draw, calling with my “set” would be — in Pappy's view — a safe play. The pot was $158, and I had just enough for about a pot-sized raise. Since I knew that Mike had a flush draw and no pair on the flop, I figured it was unlikely Mike had me beat at the moment. If I raised here, Mike would certainly commit the rest of his $145 stack on a flush draw; he always called with flush draws if he had less than $200 in front of him.

So, I saw this great opportunity. Pappy would get terrified, even with two pair, that someone who had a stack as big as his had bet all-in, and that someone else called. He wouldn't commit his whole stack on an all-in overcall with two pair or less. I moved all-in with my best “set face”. Mike instantly called. Pappy sighed loudly, shook his head, and tossed his hand to the muck.

His eyes got huge when I turned over my hand. I looked at Mike and said: I'm drawing better than you, I think. He tabled Jc 6c. He had more outs than he might expect — thanks to Pappy's fold the three jacks and three sixes were good. Sadly, the river came 6s. I was sad to see the money shipped the wrong way, but I was very happy with the play! I had gotten the best hand to fold, and gotten a call by a hand with only six outs with one card to come!

Someone whose attention had waned momentarily right after I'd gone all in looked down as the chips shipped to Mike and said: a pair of sixes won that huge hand!?! and Pappy looked ready to fall out of his chair. I had protected the pot for Mike, of course, but it was well worth it to semibluff, get called by the player I was beating, and have the best of it with one card to come!

Plus, if I had to pick between Pappy and Mike getting the chips, I'd pick Mike since he was such a weaker player. If I'm going to protect a pot for someone, I want it to be for the weakest player at the table, and Mike was surely in the running for that at the old R Club.

shipitfish: (poker-strategy-books)

I remember the excitement that I felt when I turned to that page in my copy of Sklansky's thin introductory volume on limit HE. The chapter was entitled "Semibluff". "What's that", I thought, "sounds interesting and technical". A semibluff, I learned, was a bet made with what is likely to be the worst hand, but has the potential of becoming the best hand if certain cards fall on later streets of play. I had probably done this before before I became a student of the game, but having a technical term for it intrigued me.

All poker players, when first starting out, are in love with the idea of bluffing. The concept that you can win without actually holding the best hand is what sets poker apart from other games -- so much so that the idea of a "bluff" is a deep analogy used throughout the cultures of the industrialized West.

Hopes are dashed, though, when we learn that at the low limit games we all started with, that bluffing just isn't all that profitable. Those games are what I often call "best hand poker" -- games that go to showdown almost every hand and require that you play the best hand profitably to win. I learned this in my early college home games; there were few people I could bluff. I would wait all night for my one, single opportunity to be heads-up with my good friend and fellow poker philosopher, Mike, or with my tight-aggressive cousin, Dan. There were the only two guys I could bluff off a hand. I used to keep two dollars back apart from stack (most pots in our game were about $2 each), that I could use to make a big pot-sized bet on sixth street and push them off that big pair when I had a four-straight or four-flush showing. Drawing to bluff-outs -- boy, that was fun, even if I didn't know that was the term for it at the time.

When I started playing $2/$4 at Foxwoods, I learned quickly that bluffing was a waste of those good yellow chips. Was I really going to make someone fold for one or two $2 fox-faced chip? Usually, I'd have to make a field of five people fold for that one measly chip. It wasn't going to happen. I eradicated all bluffs from my game.

But, the semibluff! I could bluff, and still make the best hand anyway. Like anyone with a shiny new hammer, I saw every poker situation as a nail. Do I have outs if called? Yes? Well, then I bet. It's a semibluff! I get to bet a lot. Isn't this great! Well, it was great, when I got lucky and my outs came. But they rarely folded to my semibluffs. Chagrin overwhelmed me; my new toy was busted.

Then, I started playing NL HE. Here, I could semibluff big! People don't usually call big pot-sized raises on the flop, especially when that bet is all-in. My semibluffs started working. I won huge pots with suited connectors on two-tone flops. I started playing any connecting cards hoping to flop a straight draw so I could get all my chips in.

The hey-day of my semibluffs was short-lived. I was, in fact, insulted the day that [livejournal.com profile] nick_marden said "you are always pulling the same tired semibluffs". But, I took his comment to heart, more than he likely realized at the time. I looked at my play, and discovered that I had huge swings at Greg's game (the only place I was playing NL HE at the time). I was getting called on most of my semi-bluffs, and I was only profitable when I got lucky and hit those outs. I had little or no fold equity.

That's the danger of abusing the semibluff. Too often, especially in loose games, you get called by a better hand and you need to catch to win. When you do catch, your tendency is to think the play was correct when all you did was manufacturer pot odds that weren't there when you started throwing chips in with the worst of it.

Half of the word "semibluff" is "bluff"! When you make the bet, you rarely have the best hand, and you opponent must fold somewhere around half the time (depending on the situation and your number of outs, of course) for the play to be a long-term winner. Eventually, I had to make the word "semibluff" one I never actually thought about. I couldn't consider the root word itself ("bluff"), because I had become willing to think of bets with the worst hand, where my opponents were unlikely to fold, as would-be "semibluffs". Heck, I was even willing to consider bets with two outs or less as "semibluffs", even though I knew almost for sure I'd get at least one caller. That's not semibluffing; that's betting with the worst of it and hoping to get lucky!

So I quit semibluffing, and my game got better. Recently, though, I've ventured into the realm of semibluffing again. This time, though, I actually make sure I have a strong amount of fold equity against the best hand when I make the bet. I've found that, for me, the only way to safely semibluff is to ask myself, before making the bet, "What are the likely hands my opponent holds, and how many of those will he fold if I bet?" I don't make the semibluff unless he folds around 70% or more of his possible holdings.

In the next few posts I make, I'll post at least three specific hand discussions from recent NL HE games where I have attempted to truly semibluff, and talk about why I think the semibluff was a good or bad move.

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November 2016

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