I recently played a session of $2/3/5 NLHE at one of my old San Jose haunts – Bay 101. It’s a longer drive from my house than a couple of other places, but I had the time and it’s always fun to see different faces around the table.
I played four hours and won 40 big blinds – ten big blinds per hour. A perfectly normal poker session in every respect. It was only as I was walking out that something struck me. I was thinking about the hands I had showndown, and realized that there was exactly one hand that the other players saw.
There was a single limper in front of me. I raised to $25 in late position with Q♥J♥ and got called by the fellow in the big blind. He takes it as rather a personal affront when you “raise his big blind.” It’s not your big blind, sir. It’s in the pot now, and I care not a fig from whose stack it came. I just want it in mine. The limper called too, so with $75 in the pot, the flop was a delectable K♥J♣9♥. If I flopped a pair plus a straight flush draw with all my suited connectors, poker would be easy. They checked to me, and I bet $50 – I was getting ready to fire three barrels if necessary. Only the big blind called.
With $175 in the pot, the turn was a meaningless 5♦. He checked again, and I continued with my plan. I overbet the pot – $200 – with the intention of aiming for the rest of his stack, about $350, if he called. On the flop, he had beat me into the pot with his chips. This required deeper consideration, and it wasn’t an act – he had a tough decision. This delighted me and reinforced my plan to bomb the river whether I got there or not. Eventually, he called, with a motion that suggested he wanted his hands to get the chips out there before his brain could stop them.
Now there was $575 in the pot, and the river bailed me out. The ten of spades, making the board K♥J♣9♥5♦10♠ and giving me the second-nut straight. He checked a third time. I paused an appropriate beat and then announced that I was all-in. He was not happy, so I was. “Do you have ace-queen of hearts?” he wondered aloud. I waited. Pretty quickly, he slid calling chips in, and I turned up my hand, sure that I was the winner.
I was half right. He turned up K♣Q♦ for the same straight and said, in an offended tone, “I had you beat until the river.”
Poker players – we’re a perceptive lot.
And that was it. At no other point during that session, before or after that hand, did they see my cards. This is instructive.
I raised preflop, flopped the best hand, bet it, and they folded. Or they didn’t. If I got called, my bet on the turn won. Or I raised preflop, bet the flop, got raised, and folded. Or, my most typical riff in a poker jam – I folded before the flop, never put a nickel in the pot, and sipped coffee.
The key point here is that to have a session where you don’t show down hands; you have to do things that cause hands not to be shown. Folding, and forcing folds, does that. Conversely, checking and calling can lead to showdowns.
When you go to a showdown, your hand has to beat the villain’s hand if you want to win the pot. And truth be told, on average, your hands aren’t any better than theirs. So the magic in the game is winning pots when you don’t have the best hand yet, and getting away from pots when you probably never will have the best hand.
The single largest pot I won ended before we saw a flop. I opened A♣5♣ to $20 in the lojack position, and the button made it $75. This woman was an active player – she was in a lot of pots and doing more 3-betting than anybody at the table who wasn’t me.
Normally, I’d just fold and check to see if I had any coffee left. That’s Plan C (Plan A is to win the blinds, Plan B is to get called and play a flop). But there is, in fact, a Plan D. Consistent with its name, it doesn’t get used a lot. But if it’s a waxing moon, and there’s a low tide in the San Francisco Bay, I put in a 4-bet. Turns out the meteorological conditions were right.
“$210 please,” I said, sliding out two white $100 chips. I was reaching back for the two nickels when her cards hit the muck.
“Not even giving him a courtesy tank?” said the guy in the cutoff.
This was well into my session, and after my showing down the straight. It was my first 4-bet – I don’t know that we had had a 4-bet at the table in the prior two hours. What was she supposed to think? By the way, note that calling the 3-bet wasn’t even on the list of plans – it was fold or 4-bet.
I don’t know that you should go into a poker session with the goal of avoiding showdowns. But it would be a fascinating experiment – my hypothesis is that you’ll get better than normal results. It means you’ll be applying uncomfortable pressure to villains with likely marginal hands. Getting out of hands when you’re the one with marginal values. And, crucially, “losing the call button on the river,” as a pro friend of mine puts it.
In the immortal words of Sammy Farha, “The person who bets the most wins the pot – we only use the cards to settle ties.” Look for ways to avoid those tie-settling scenarios.