(Part two of my poker-tennis analogy)
Last time I explained how professional tennis is a game of “winners”: whoever hits the most will usually take down the match. But the tennis that the rest of us play is a game of “losers”: just aim to keep the ball in play and whoever hits the fewest losers will tend to win the match.
Well playing defensive tennis can be like playing defensive poker.
A professional tennis player can be pretty sure that if he does A, B, C and D with his feet, body, arms and racket the ball will do E just about every time. But in poker all sorts of dangers lurk. You can make the right moves but your best efforts go awry due to your opponents’ skill, your opponents’ stupidity, or just downright bad luck.
For instance you reraise with pocket kings on the button because you don’t want those five limpers to all stick around for the flop. You want to get one opponent and a flop with no ace. But then the small blind calls with Q8s because he is a bit dim, the next player calls with his small pair hoping to hit a set and then all the others call too because the odds are so good. You played it right but inevitably your kings get outdrawn due to circumstances…
Now it’s bad enough that we get this sort of unavoidable bad luck. But when we compound it with our own mistakes – well that’s just a killer. I’m talking about trying to hit too many “winners” here.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a hand where I completely stacked off with no pair, having 3-bet preflop, bluffed the flop and shoved the turn. (Yeah well done – my opponent had the nuts.)
There were a couple of old blokes at that game, boring old farts with no balls who haven’t bluffed in the last 30 years – you know the type – and I bet you they will have been tut tutting to each other as I walked away after that hand.
But the thing is – if they were, then they would have had a point. I mean, why did I go and do that? What’s wrong with just waiting for a real hand and have somebody pay me off when I bet for value? Do I really need to be hitting winners all the time?
See what I mean? Trying to hit winners, with all guns blazing from difficult angles around the court usually isn’t the best approach. (It certainly wasn’t in this game – and in this example, you can think of “keeping the ball in the court” as meaning “refraining from pissing away your whole stack for no reason”)
If everyone at the table is playing loosely and calling too liberally you should tighten up. Let them play their J7s for a big raise – just make sure you’re always in there with a hand. And there isn’t any need to start bluffing in this sort of game. At a ten handed table where lots of players are seeing the flop even when the raises are 7 or 8 big blinds, patience is the key. When five players go to the flop someone usually hits it hard and you can’t really go steaming in with a bluff.
Critics of this strategy will point out that you can’t beat good players by “playing defensively”. You need to get in there and mix it up – to be a little less predictable.
And I totally agree. Defensive play definitely won’t work in top level games. In a game full of good players, if you sit waiting for hands and then betting for value people will just fold. You can’t expect to beat a good set of players with this defensive approach in the long run.
However – and this is absolutely key – neither will you lose so heavily. (The other more obvious point from my perspective is that I’m not playing in top level games.)
This point is so important so it’s worth repeating – if you adopt a defensive strategy you will lose less in the bad times than if you play an aggressive game trying to hit winners. Keep the ball in the court!
Now I hate to advocate this approach. It is so basic, so uninspiring, so boring. But if the game demands it then that is what you should do. So yes, I suppose what I’m saying is, against all my instincts, is to get in there and nit it up – wait for a hand and bet for value.
Jesus I can’t believe I just said that. What a dull bastard I am. I think I’ll go and kill myself for a bit of excitement.