Vegas trip report, October 2009

Though I live near card rooms in the Bay area, I like to go to Vegas occasionally as a sort of personal poker camp.  The time purely devoted to poker allows me to experiment with my game in a way that leads to deep analysis for a prolonged period of time.  Also with someone along whose poker experience I trust, like Katie, I go over different hands and situations with the benefit of an additional point of view.

It was Katie’s birthday this last week so we both headed to Vegas to celebrate.  I got four full days of cards in.

The poker strategy book for this trip

I’ve been reading Gary Carson’s excellent poker book, The Complete Book of Hold’em Poker.  Prock suggested I get it.  When I asked what this book had in it that the 10 other poker books I own didn’t, he said something along the lines of, “Other poker books have some empirically-derived wisdom about poker.  Carson does an excellent job at laying out theories of how the game of poker works and then which strategies are appropriate to which situations.”

In short, Carson’s book teaches you how to understand the situational nature of poker, and that is invaluable.

Have you ever asked someone a poker question like, “How do I play this hand in this situation?” and had them respond with “It depends”?  Carson’s book lays out the different ways of getting a better answer than “It depends” by evaluating the context of the game being played and why what may seem like the very same two cards requires different actions in different environments.

(And yes, those links to the book are Amazon affiliate links with credit to me.)

I won’t review the whole book here, but a couple of concepts were in full effect as instructional lessons during this trip.

First, the poker results

Total hours played: 29.91 hrs (all Limit Hold’em)

Net result: -$20

Hourly rate: -$0.67 / hr (don’t quit your day job, you need it to pay for  this hobby)

    * $2/$4 Hold’em: 8.75 hrs, +$80
    * $3/$6 Hold’em: 3.66 hrs, -$108
    * $4/$8 Hold’em: 17.5 hrs, +$8

Here’s the session by session breakdown.

A crash course in game selection

I will never, ever dismiss loose no-fold-em $2/$4 tables again.  People often complain about how they can’t win at $2/$4 because nobody ever folds.  Carson’s book explains that such a game is a best-draw-wins style of game.  You are suddenly armed with the tools to play $2/$4 Hold’em where 9 people see the flop and 4 of them call everything down to the river.

Once I had learned this lesson, and that in such a game Ace-King-suited was the ideal starting hand, instead of Ace-Ace, I was in heaven.  I adjusted my strategy, playing hands that were likely to flop enormous draws (unless the table started playing tight) and playing them very fast and hard.

Carson concisely explains the fallacy of starting hand charts is that they don’t take into account these game conditions and become frustrated when their Aces don’t hold up against eight opponents.  There is a hand chart, probably put in at the behest of his publishers, but it serves mostly to explain how to group different kinds of hands.  The first thing you do when you see it is re-arrange it depending on the style of table you’re at.

In addition, because I understood how the power of different types of hands goes up or down depending on game conditions, I was able to view hands like King-King entirely differently at the tight $4/$8 game versus the very loose $2/$4 game and behave appropriately to minimize my losses.

All of this leads to my conclusion that I have never been happier to play $2/$4 Hold’em with a bunch of clueless people at Planet Hollywood.  When they all decided to see the flop, my big drawing hands got enormous overlays to draw, and when my opponents started getting frisky on the flop I had a pretty easy time of punishing them by extracting maximum value for my hand/draw.

Though not all three of my $2/$4 sessions were enormous money catchers, in every one of them I was able to run my stack up pretty high during them.  From now on I’m going to look for games with these ideal loose conditions, as I now have an excellent sense of how to extract the maximum value from them.

Even clueless players will react to your play

This was a lesson I learned at the Venetian, when I bought in for $200 and then ran my stack up to about $700 at $4/$8 when a couple of poor players started calling everything and making the table a 7-people-see-the-flop sort of table.  At the height of my run of good cards and favorable table conditions, Katie noticed my opponents starting to call less.  This let me start bluffing people out of pots without cards, but their psychology went through a number of phases.

  1. Anyone can win, I’ll call this down.
  2. Wait, this guy wins a lot, he can’t possibly have hit a flush again, could he?
  3. This guy always had good cards, and he always raises on the river, I’m going to fold.
  4. I’ve lost a lot of money to this guy, I’m only going to play good hands.

Katie said that when I started raising a lot pre-flop, and after my stack grew big enough that it got in the way of me seeing my cards, people stopped playing against me.  They stopped calling 7 people to the flop, and they folded to me a lot more.  In essence, they started playing better although mostly unintentionally.  The game had changed, and I also stopped getting cards.  I was able to steal a few pots, but I was slowly leaking money away. 

I even remember the moment when it happened.  A older local man, who was known to call every raise, play most of his hands, and show down Ace-high hands without a pair, suddenly became tight aggressive.  He preflop hand selection became downright good, and he only showed strong hands on the river.  It was like I could see a switch flip on his head.  When I asked Katie if she thought his table-neighbor had told him to change his play, she said “No, I think he just lost $300 in an hour.”  I had motivated him to become a much better player.

Not even when another player went on a rush of winning hands did people return to their loose-calling-station style.  The table conditions were broken, and I did not know how to fix them.

As I look back on it now, raising a lot pre-flop probably made people want to shun pots with me, as I’d established the image that I couldn’t be beat.  Also the river value raises hurt when you’re on the receiving end of them, and probably taught people to fold more.

While it’s possible to make money when people behave this way, it requires bluffing, and that strategy carries a lot more risk than playing big, pot-odds-correct draws.  Reading individual players becomes important so you know when to bluff, and I’m not particularly good at that yet.  I missed several opportunities to bluff in late position and lost pots I could have had.  I also bluffed at pots I shouldn’t have in late position and just cost myself unnecessarily.

In the future I’m going to have to figure out how to recognize when the table conditions change so radically, and if I’m up, just get up and leave.

The difference between $4/$8, $3,$6 and $2/$4

While every table goes through different conditions, I generally found that the typical $2/$4 table has 5-8 people calling to see the flop, and 2-4 people seeing the river.  At $3/$6 3-5 people see the flop and 2-3 see the river, at $4/$8 2-3 people see the flop and usually just 2 people see the river.

Although I tried everything, my preference was to play $2/$4 (at Planet Hollywood).  It was an easy game, with little trickiness and an incredible overlay for any good hand I played.  I hope I can find something equivalent in the Bay area.