Running Without the Ball

Making Hands in Poker Tournaments

Poker Tournament Skill"The man who knows how will always have a job.
The man who also knows why will always be his boss."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

A weakness in many people's play is an inability to focus on the real point of what they are doing. Poker is not video poker, where you get paid more the better hand you make. In poker games, particularly tournaments, it is often the case that huge sums are won when neither player has so much as a pair at the showdown. In No Limit Holdem tournaments it is common for a player to make an all-in move with two unpaired cards and get called by an AK, and then for neither player to improve. At the same time, sometimes huge hands win small pots. If you have KK, and the flop is KK2 of three different suits, you will often only win a tiny pot.

You don't play poker to make hands. You play poker to get the best of it on your money. And to do that, you often have to "run without the ball". Often times you won't have much of anything, including times when your opponents also don't have much of anything. Key pots are flashier, but a meat and potatoes aspect of poker is in playing well in situations where value is laying out there on the table waiting to be taken by one of the weakling hands in play.

There are two parts to this. The first is that when you have a weak hand that happens to be the best hand (like ace high will often be on the flop in Texas Holdem), you need to protect your superior value, which will mean often betting this weak hand. The second part is much more complicated and can simply be called "playing poker", something lots of players genuinely HATE to do. They hate reading opponents, running people off hands, discerning when nobody has much of anything, etc. On a flop of KQ2, a player with 54 who bets is bluffing an opponent with 87, but to bet the 54 here, if you recognize the approximate value of your opponent's hand, is not so much a bluff but playing analytical, proper poker.

You aren't at the poker table to make hands. You are there to win money. Sometimes you win in straightforward ways, sometimes in sneaky ones. Below is a description of a hand originally posted by Daniel Negreanu where he describes a hand we played in a Commerce Casino Omaha High-Low tournament:

Badger was the first raiser from middle position and was called by a fairly weak Omaha8 player. I called from the big blind with Ah-Qh-2c-10c. (I could have re-raised with this hand, but decided to just call for deceptive purposes.)

The flop came Kh-Qc-3h, giving me middle pair, a gut shot, the nut flush draw and a back door low draw. A pretty big hand so I lead right out. Badger raised it and the button called. I re-raised and it went call-call.

The turn came: 5c. So now my hand just got bigger. I now picked up another flush draw, another gutshot, and the nut low draw. I bet and got called in two spots.

The river came: 9s. A complete brick for my hand, but I've been representing the whole way. If no one had 10-J for the nuts straight, I may be able to move someone off a King or even two pair. With the pot being so big at this point I fired away.

To my dismay Badger raised it and the button hesitated then folded. Now I've seen Badger make excellent plays like this before with very little, and thought there was a decent chance he was also bluffing the 10-J and my queens were good. My 'read' was that he was uncomfortable/weak and making a move. I thought Badger could of had a similar hand to mine, possibly the nut club draw, nut low draw, maybe even a wrap on the wheel. In any case, if he was bluffing my queens should be good. So I called.

As it turned out, Badger may have been suspecting the same things about my hand, that I missed everything and was trying to salvage the pot with a desperation bet. He decided he was going to call anyway, but probably couldn't win if the button over-called. So he raised to move that player out, at the same time investing one more bet, and representing the nuts straight.

Badger, looking disgusted with my call said, "Two aces." I nodded, and he looked like he just found money on the street. :-) [...] I'm pretty certain that Badger got the best hand out, while at the same time winning an additional two bets on the river with the second best hand! Not bad. [...] Nice hand Badger, you #$%#$%.... :-)

Daniel and I both recognized that we probably didn't have much, and that the other player in the pot probably had us beat. There was no way I was laying my hand down against Daniel here, and he wasn't laying down against me. It just so happens that my pathetic hand was better than his pathetic hand. I did not "outplay" Daniel here. If the hands were reversed, he probably would have won the pot. There was nothing he could do once it got to the showdown, but we both tried to win the pot as best we could. You don't get millions of hands in tournaments where you can say "flush" or "full house" at will. You got to play with what you are dealt.

Quite often, tournament poker isn't about making hands... it is about making do.

See also Aggressive Short-Stack Play and Tournament End Games