I recently started playing in a tournament series that meets every 2 weeks for about half the year and plays eleven $50 tournaments. There are around 55 players in the group, and I had played with only about half a dozen of them. It is a long-standing group and the skill level is a bit higher than I am used to in live play.
I have read that the players in a poker ecosystem often play in a similar style as the good players learn from each other and start to mimic play and styles that work. I have definitely observed this happening in this group. One example is that the continuation bet is nearly automatic – regardless of number of players in the pot, board texture, stack sizes – the preflop raiser appears to make a continuation bet somewhere north of 80% of the time.
…the continuation bet is nearly automatic
Since continuation bets are so common, one of the counter strategies that has been developed has been the flop float – calling the continuation bet with all sorts of hand strengths, sometimes barely any hand strength at all, in an attempt to wait for the raiser to check and to take the pot away on the turn or river.
Many Hold’em articles and training videos will stress the importance of paying attention to the action at the table, even when you are not involved in the hand. Getting clues to your opponents’ playing styles can often help you maximize EV in future hands against them. Here is a concrete example of a hand I recently observed at my table, and how those observations suggested strategies to play against each of the two opponents involved.
The setting was a $1-$2 table at the Cleveland Horseshoe on a Friday night. As with most $1-2 live tables, the skill level didn’t appear to be very high – way too much limping with junky hands and trying to hit hidden monsters. In this particular hand, I folded my cards from under the gun, and action folded all the way around the table to the small blind. He completed by adding a white chip and the big blind rapped the table, and we were off to a heads up pot.
It’s been a frustrating $1/$2 session for our Hero today – few cards worth playing, few chances to get involved. Then, from the big blind, the dealer deals him a six, and then another six. A pocket pair – not great, but at least worth seeing a flop…for once.
The action goes around the table, a few folds, a limp, and then a raise to $15. Action then folds to Hero. He calls the raise, hoping to flop that elusive set, and the limper folds. He sees a flop heads up. The board is:
K♦ 8♠ 6♥
Hero flopped his set! Finally, a good hand. He checks out of the blind, and the original raiser announces “all in”. Hero is a bit shocked by this action, but then he looks over to the stack that villain has slid out to the center – it’s only $35. Villain started the hand with only $50, something Hero didn’t notice until now. He calls the all-in, of course, and his hand holds up vs. villain’s ace-king.
A good result for Hero, but he shouldn’t be happy how this hand was played, because he made a HUGE mistake preflop. A more observant player would have realized that he can’t profitably call a raise with a small pair against a 25 big blind stack. And good players take pride in playing well, not playing poorly and getting lucky. This winning hand actually increases Hero’s level of frustration instead of quelling it.
The whole point of observing other players at the poker table is to figure out their motivations for playing the way they do. Players often make incorrect poker plays, but they have reasons for doing so. If you can figure out the reasons, you can zero-in on their cards, and sometimes this allows you to win a pot or two that you couldn’t have won otherwise.
One example, I was not involved in a hand during a live $1-$2 game where I saw a player limp from early position. This guy was in too many pots to begin with, and was showing down the usual weak aces and sometimes-suited connectors that a more experienced player wouldn’t be playing. I folded in late position and 4 or 5 players saw a flop.
This flop came disconnected, rainbow, and Ace-high:
Poker is just like American real estate – both are all about location, location, location. In poker of course, your location at the table relative to the button is called position, and every poker book, article, and hand history conversation will bring up both your and your opponents position as part of the thought process on how to play the hand.
Every single person who looks for resources to improve their poker game hears about the importance of position over and over. You know position is important, but do you live it? Are you really positionally aware at the poker table? Let’s go through some scenarios and find out: Continue reading
There’s a very common mistake that I see beginner NL players make all the time, in my conversations with them, on the forums, and at the table. When asked why they made a bet or raise, their reasoning is along the lines of “I knew I had the best hand”.
Some of the time, this reasoning is perfectly valid – especially against bad players. Bad poker players find all kinds of reasons to call with inferior hands, therefore betting/raising with the best hand will have a high probability of success. But against good players, a raise with the best hand may not be the best play. Let’s look at an example in detail.
My example hand comes from a chat I had many years ago with a fellow poker forum member who was also a coach. We were going over some hands I had played online while trying to burn a William Hill Poker Bonus – he had agreed to go over one session with me and look for some obvious leaks in our game. In one hand, a tight, aggressive player made a button raise, and I 3-bet him holding K♣ Q♥. The villain folded and I won the pot.
The old joke is that everybody always assumes that we’re holding Ace-King, and I have found that there is some truth to the saying. While this tends to be a problem when we actually are holding Ace-King, we can use it to our advantage when we are not.
One of the ways we get better and better at poker is to find more and more where we can continue to be aggressive and get people to fold regardless of the cards in our hand. Most people have learned about continuation betting on the flop – simply firing out a normal bet after seeing a flop, whether we have hit it or not. But if we bet tons of flops and then give up on all the turns where our hand isn’t very strong, we will end up ceding many pots we could have won with a second bet.
One great example where we can keep up our aggression on the turn is when that turn card is an overcard to the board. A turn ace is the ultimate scare card, but a king or queen on the turn can work as well.
One of the first hands I can remember where I made use of a turn scare card was in a hand vs. a player who was a dealer in another casino. He was a thoughtful player, trying to play well. In this hand, I raised up KQo and he called me, with position. We saw a ten-high, very dry flop. I made my standard continuation bet, and he called without much thought. I was ready to give up on this hand, when an Ace rolled off on the turn. I made a healthy, solid turn bet and my opponent shook his head, flipped over pockets eights, and said “I think I was ahead until that damn ace. Nice hand”. Clearly, he put me on ace king.
T♠ 6♦ 3♥ – A♠
One interesting part about this hand is that the ace gave me a bit more equity in the hand. Note that against his pocket eights, I could still catch a king or queen on the river to take the lead, or a jack could roll off and give me a runner-runner straight. That’s 10 cards instead of only 6 that make me a winner. In this way, my turn bet is a kind of semibluff – I am clearly behind and getting my opponent to fold would be great, but if he doesn’t fold to my bet, I have some equity to bail me out and win me a few of those pots on the river.
Many turn “double barrel” bets when an overcard comes take the form of semibluffs, but they don’t have to. You can just as effectively do the same thing holding pocket fours, where you’re most certainly behind your opponent, and you have very little equity in the hand. But that turn overcard packs a powerful punch.
Makes some “Trouble Hands” easier to play
Another great benefit of using the turn overcard to your advantage is increasing your win rate with some hands that many refer to as “trouble hands”. Take a hand like queen-jack. This is a classic “trouble hand” that many bad poker players limp with, maybe call a raise from a tight player, and then put too much money into the pot with top pair, only to lose hand with a mediocre kicker.
We now have a plan of attack to play queen jack differently. If we deem it worth playing (depending on our position, table image, and other table conditions), we will bring it in for a raise. Say we raise with Q♥J♥ and get a caller. The board comes 7♠ 8♥ 2♣. We decide that we’ll get enough folds if we continuation bet here, which we do but our villain calls. As soon as he calls, we can start thinking about opportunities to double barrel. In this situation, we can double barrel any ace or any king on the turn, as always. A nine or ten gives us a gutshot to the nut straight, and any other heart gives us our backdoor flush draw. That’s 21 cards out of 47 that allow us to keep our foot on the gas while still holding queen high! (heck, we may even spike a pair on the turn too).
Kickers become less of a problem
I have found one more added benefit if players know you as “the scare card betting guy”, and it has to do with getting extra value from hands that don’t normally warrant it. Consider this hand – I made a button raise with A3o in my home game. One of the blinds defended – he is a pretty good, TAGgy player and we know each other’s game well. He’s not defending blinds with junk or even suited connector type stuff, so I put him on a decent ace, small/medium pairs, and some unpaired broadway type hands where he thinks he’s ahead of my button stealing range.
The two of us see a jack high, dry flop. He checks and calls my continuation bet. In my estimation, he’s got a jack now, or a pocket pair under the jack, which he has to check-call because he knows I will continuation bet this flop roughly 100% of the time.
J♦ 7♠ 2♦ = CBET
Then, wonder of wonders, I actually spike my ace on the turn. My opponent checks. One standard way of playing here would be to take a pot-control line and check behind, and then call a reasonable river bet, or make one if checked to. This is a perfectly acceptable way to play the hand, and would even be my preferred line against most players. But against a player who knows my game really well, I’m going to make a solid turn bet after spiking top pair. Because my opponent knows I’ll bet this turn scare card often, I put him in a real bind. He almost has to check-call again, or he’s giving up the pot every time an overcard comes to his pair. So he shakes his head a bit and calls the solid turn bet. On the river, I make a smaller, callable river bet that he can call with the hope of catching my bluffs. I have now gotten three streets of value with a top pair/crappy kicker type of hand – something that usually pretty difficult to do against a good player.
Using turn overcards to your advantage takes you from thinking as a “level 1” poker player (“what are my cards”?) all the way up to “level 3” (“what cards does my opponent think I have”?). Your default play when you see an ace or king on the turn is to consider betting a second time, whether you have that card or not.
So, you’ve decided to host a home game, now you need a table to play on. Playing at the kitchen table is fine for a family game night, but a serious home game needs a real poker table. Fortunately, there are many options in many price ranges to take your game to the next level.
Option 1: Buy New
The company ProCaliber Poker has 4 different poker table options, all of which allow for a great deal of customization. You can get a smaller, round table for 6 players, or several different styles of oval tables, with or without an area for a dealer. Colors, racetracks, cup holders, leg styles, and extras like an automatic shuffler are all customizable. These tables start at $525 and range upward to around $2000 if you add every bell and whistle, so the price range is pretty wide.
For a less expensive option, you can always type “poker tables” into Amazon.com and see a number of options, usually around the $200 mark. These tables are usually felted but not padded. We have a table like this as our second table in my home game, for the occasions where enough people show up to warrant a second table. (My primary table is big – we squeeze up to 10 on it, and then the 11th person forces the game into two short-handed 5-max and a 6-max games. This fortunately doesn’t happen very often in my game). Before our home game, we used this table for the neighborhood Friday night game, which features .25 cent antes and more wild-card style games than anything else. That game transformed into the home game when a few of us decided to get more serious about Texas Holdem and other “real” poker games.
You can also go the “table top” option as a less-expensive way to get a decent poker experience. These folding tops usually fit over a round or oval kitchen or dining room table. This is one of the cheapest ways available to get your players “on the felt”.
Option 2: Buy Used
If you don’t mind a used table, make sure to search all the Craigslist and Ebay type sites. A poker table is a common thing that gets used for a while and then discarded when interest in the game wanes. You can find high end tables for a tiny price if you’re not in a great hurry and keep your eyes open.
Option 3: Build
Building a nice poker table is surprisingly easy. As someone with ZERO handyman/woodworking ability, you should believe that if I can successfully build a poker table (with a friend’s help), then anybody can.
The online original plans for building a poker table are found here. This incredibly detailed site contains technical drawings, materials lists, and step-by-step instructions with photos.
Someone named Scott Keen took the instructions from the site above and used them to build his own table. He also documented the process and included instructions and photos on his web site, found here. His site also contains a forums section that allowed many would-be builders to ask questions and share tips on some of the finer points of construction. From these two links, you should be able to find several more people who also completed the same project.
For me, the hardest part of building the table was the saw-cutting – a skill in which I have very little experience. The project calls for cutting out several oval shapes out of 4×8 foot pieces of plywood. I enlisted a neighbor and fellow poker player to help with this part of the project (ok, he did all the cutting). He also assisted in some of the tasks that were much better done with two people – including pulling the vinyl railing tight around the wood and padding base and stapling it down (probably the most time-intensive part of the project). I handled most of the sanding and applying the polyurethane coat to the racetrack portion of the table. My advice on this step is to take your time – my instructions called for waiting several hours between coats. I chose to apply two coats per day, one in the morning and one at night. I also applied a few more coats than recommended, just in case. The wood racetrack is the part of the table I like the best – to me, it really makes the table feel more like a piece of real furniture:
Here are a few photos of my table, both in construction and the near final product. We did go back and add a money box with a bill slot a few weeks after these pictures were taken – another “final touch” that’s also practical and helps me keep the bank without having to move off my spot.
As you can see, there are numerous options to acquire poker table for your home game – at a variety of costs and levels of quality. You should have no trouble finding an option that gives your home game that more authentic feeling.
Good poker players are always paying attention, even if they’re not in a hand. Players are always giving off clues as to their playing style, their thought process, and therefore their holdings. Things learned while not in a hand will often be useful when you find yourself up against these same villains later.
In the first example, I was up against a villain who seemed like he fairly decent player. He knew how to fold, and he seemed to be positionally aware. Finally, he looked like he understood continuation betting. My observation of him was that he usually came into a pot with a raise, and he almost always followed up that raise with a bet on the flop. In the span of three hours, I saw him make a $12 preflop raise (we were at a $1-$2 table), and then follow with a $15 continuation bet. I never got to see a showdown in these three hands.
Here’s one important tip when observing opponents – if you see someone do something several times in a session, then that something is more likely associated with him holding weak cards than it is likely that he has a strong hand. Why do I say this? Because (as we all can attest), it’s hard to have a strong hand in Texas Holdem. Most of the time, our hand isn’t much to be very proud of. So in any random sample of a player’s hands – it is way more likely that he is holding weak hands than strong ones in the majority of that sample.
…it’s hard to have a strong hand in Texas Holdem
So, when I see a player take the same line two or three times, I start to think that this is the line they take when they’re weak. Seems reasonable.
Continuing on with my observations, I also noticed this same player would follow up his $15 flop bet with a $20 turn bet. The size of this bet got my attention. In a heads up hand, the size of the pot on the turn is roughly $56, give or take a few bucks depending on the blinds. His $20 bet is pretty small for any type of value hand – he’s betting around 1/3 pot. This gave more evidence to the fact that his holdings were weak.
Remember, I wasn’t in any of these hands – I was just trying to read my opponent’s lines and tendencies. But a few hours later, this same opponent open limped into a pot, and I was on the button holding A♠ 2♠. My suited ace was well worth attempting an isolation raise, so I bumped it up to $15, thinking that my combination of position and show of strength might get this opponent to fold preflop. However, he decided to call this time.
I was pretty happy when he decided to call, too – because the flop came out all spades – K♠ 9♠ 4♠. I had flopped the immortal nuts. My work wasn’t done, however, I had to figure out how to extract the most money from my opponent as was possible.
Most players will check their super-strong hands on the flop – I am personally against slowplaying for a ton of reasons. The most important reason is that I want to win a big pot with my big hands. I understand that this won’t always be possible – sometimes my opponents won’t have a hand they want to go to the wall with, but I’m inclined to try and build a pot most times I have a monster hand. But of course I don’t want to scare away my opponent if possible.
In recalling his previous action, I decided to try and mimic his $15/$20 continuation betting line. If he associates this line with a weak hand, maybe he will recognize that I’m taking that same line and incorrectly conclude that I have a weak hand this time. After he checked the flop to me, I made the $15 flop bet, and followed up with a $20 bet on a low, red turn card. He fell perfectly for the trap and checkraised me all in on that turn bet. Of course, I beat his chips into the pot and flipped my hand over.
I never got to see what he had – my guess is that he had some type of king with a decent spade, maybe K♠Q♠ or K♠J♠. A flopped set probably plays a monotone flop faster, so I’m thinking he had top pair with a flush draw, and decided to try and push me off my hand once he got the (fake) all-clear that I was weak.
In the second example, I once again mimic a player’s “bluff line” when I want a call. This hand is much different than the other one, though – because the opponent’s “bluff line” was much different. This villain was a much more fishy player – he was involved in way too many pots, he was not positionally aware, and his favorite line was pretty obviously not a real hand. He liked to make tiny little bets (say $6-$8) on the flop and turn, and then bomb the river with a $45 bet.
Most of the time, he got his opponent to fold with this silly-big river bet, so I wasn’t able to see his cards. But like before, I was able to deduce that his line represented a weak hand, just from the basis that people have bad hands more often than good. For this opponent, though – I got a little better proof in a hand where he used a much more standard river bet size, got a call, and showed down a clear value hand (a straight, I believe). This was more evidence that the big river bets were bluffs, since he changed his action greatly when he held a good hand and wanted a call.
Once again, I was able to use this information against my opponent later in the session. I raised holding Ace-Ten offsuit, and my opponent called from the blinds. I flopped middle pair with a QT4 rainbow flop and made a continuation bet. My opponent check-called this bet.
The turn card was a nine, and my opponent checked again. This wasn’t a great card for my holding, and I felt like it improved many more his hands than mine, so I checked back. I also wasn’t afraid of him bombing the river – this was a line he reserved when he was the aggressor in the hand. When he did not have the initiative in the hand, he was more of a standard calling-station type player.
I got a nice surprise on the river when an ace fell, giving my two pair. My opponent checked. I felt like I had the best hand here most of the time. I now beat any two pair hands he could hold. King-Jack was the nuts, so I would have to strongly consider folding to a river check-raise, but that’s not enough reason to not bet. There was still value to be had, especially against this player.
I was contemplating my bet size, and originally settled on a $25 bet into the roughly $54 pot, but then I recalled that this player’s bluff line was a bigger bet. Could I make him think I was bluffing with a similar bet? I moved 4 more $5 chips into my little pile and slid $45 out there. My opponent looked at me warily, then made the call. I flipped my cards over and watched him muck his hand.
Players always have a reason for every action they take. If you can decipher that reasoning, you can often copy their lines and get them to think you have a different hand then you do. My two examples here were getting calls with strong hands by trying to copy my opponents’ bluff line, but you can also zero in on a bet size that looks like a “value” size to your opponent and get folds. The trick is to pay attention constantly and pick up as much as you can.
Starting a home poker game is a great way to squeeze another night of poker into your week. I was attending a Thursday night game a few years ago, but it felt like it was falling apart, so I ended up splitting the hosting duties for a short time, and soon I was the sole host. I’ve hosted the game for 5 years. We meet on most Friday nights in my basement for some .50/$1 Holdem and Pot Limit Omaha action. Here are several things that I’ve learned are important when hosting a home game:
Do you have enough players?
Having 5 or 6 guys that you think will play isn’t enough, not by a long shot. I have 40 people on my email list and I’m always open to adding more. People’s schedules vary, no matter how much they want to play- family and work and other stuff gets in the way. Always be on the lookout for ways to grow your group. Encourage your regulars to bring friends, and then get their emails when they come. Be friendly at other games and find out if people want to play on your night as well.
Keeping the game alive becomes a prime consideration. People won’t play in a game they’re not comfortable playing. If you’re spreading games people don’t know, or stakes that are too high, you can easily scare off players from trying your game or coming back a second time. Although it’s impossible to please everyone, you need to be willing to set up your game to keep the most players coming the most often.
Tourney or cash? (or both?)
Here is one way to be flexible – if your time limits allow it, consider starting the night off with a quick tournament is often a great way to attract newer players. Non-poker players are willing to shoot off $20 or $30 for a night of entertainment, and a low stakes tourney is a nice fixed way for them to do so. Also, I would recommend coming up with a structure that makes the game last only 2 or 3 hours. This faster structure starts to favor luck over skill, and lets the newer players luck into some money occasionally, which might keep them coming back.
The other reason that starting the night with a tournament is that it tends to get people to your house at a more reasonable hour. When the only game is a cash game, people tend to put off coming until later, and sometimes they don’t get out of the house at all. If cards get in the air promptly at 7 or 8pm, people have a motivation for getting out of the house on time.
The stakes you play are one of the biggest considerations in your home game. You don’t want to give off the impression that you’re trying to win the mortgage payment off of people. Keep the poker money required to play low to keep the once-every-two-months players involved. I happen to play with .50/$1 blinds, and then host a “double stakes night” at $1/$2 a couple times per year.
One other reason that I like to keep the stakes low is that it allows me to work on specific aspects of my game, almost like a practice session. Maybe I want to try out some semi-bluffing or check/raising with air (in the right situations against the right opponent) – playing at a lower than normal stake makes these plays a little less dangerous.
The games you host are critical to attracting your group of players. A big part of my group prefers Texas Holdem only – but a few enjoy Pot Limit Omaha, as well. Our default game is to play 2 rounds of Holdem and 1 of PLO, with the game changing on my dealer button. This gives the PLO guys a chance to play, but doesn’t scare off the Holdem only guys too much. I don’t think this particular group will branch out into any other games any time soon.
I don’t personally believe in taking a rake at a home poker game, but I have played in a few that do. The first home game I ever played in took $1 out of the pot for the purposes of a bad beat jackpot, which I never saw hit one time. I feel like introducing a rake to a home game ups the “seriousness” factor a few notches, and that’s not what I’m striving for when hosting. (I’m also striving to keep the police out of my basement).
Work hard to keep it friendly
This can be a tough one to enforce, especially if some of your regulars have history with each other, and consider berating each other’s poker skills one of the fun parts of the game. You have to make sure this behavior doesn’t scare away your newer players. You might find it beneficial to reach out to the regulars away from the game and let them know that you’re going to keep a handle on this for the sake of the game. Once in awhile you might end up with a night where only your regulars show up, and then the demeanor of the table will just naturally loosen up and the regulars can break into their old habits, and this is fine – but when newer players are in place, keeping the action friendly is better for the long term health of the game.
Enforce the rules
Remember, players aren’t going to play in a place where they’re uncomfortable. If somebody gets out of line, you’re going to have to be the bad guy, even if that someone is a friend. We all know that poker can be an immensely irritating game – emotions can run high, and lines might be crossed. If they are, you need to act quickly and decisively. I personally issue a warning when I think things are getting out of hand – and that warning includes “I won’t say it again, sorry. If this continues, I have no choice but to ask you to leave”. Most players are reasonable and this is enough to calm down the emotions, but if it doesn’t, then you have to follow through and ask them to leave.
Hosting a home game can be a rewarding experience – providing you and friends a nearby, safe location to get a card game rolling. My best advice is to keep the integrity of the game as the most important thing, and let everyone know that this is your motivation. This should keep people coming back.