Close decisions

Beyond the beginner stage, the difference between poker winners and losers is how they handle close decisions. For a lot of hands, the decisions are very easy. If you have the best possible hand, it doesn't take a lot of skill to bet or raise and take down the pot. Likewise, if you have absolutely nothing it's an easy call to fold. Money is made by making good decisions when the chances are close to even.

In a No Limit Hold 'Em tournament tonight, I built a nice stack pretty early on and was one of the chip leaders heading into the later rounds. But the blinds were going up quickly and before too long my stack was dwindling in size and I needed to make a move. When I was in the small blind, someone made a minimum raise early on in the action and it was folded around to me. I looked down and saw 99. So what to do?

First, the hand is clearly too good to fold, so the question is whether to call or raise. By calling, you minimize the amount of money you commit to the pot before seeing the flop. By raising, you have a fair chance of scaring out the one other player to act between you and the raiser (the big blind). This is good because a hand like this is better off with fewer opponents chasing after it. Also, there's the possibility that the original raiser may fold as well. If he doesn't fold, then he either has the pair of nines dominated by a larger pair (less likely) or has two cards larger than nines, which means he's a small underdog. There is also the non-trivial possibility that he's a maniac or an idiot and is raising as a bluff.

So here I decided that a raise is the better move. The next question is how much to raise? My stack was about six times as large as the raise and the raiser's stack was about 10 times the size of the raise. So neither one of us is committed at this point.

Considering all these factors, I decided that an all-in reraise was the best move. It maximizes the chances that I would win the pot immediately. It eliminates the need for more close decisions on the flop, where I have to guess whether or not my opponent made a pair larger than my nines. The pot is too large to fold on the flop and the blinds are increasing way beyond my stack's ability to cope, so I may as well get it all in the middle here.

I'm still not sure if this was the right decision or not. Perhaps it is a bit too much of a gamble, given that I can survive for at least another round or two and hope for a better situation. Early position raisers should be feared, but I put him on a wider range of hands that he would raise with than is correct. A good player wouldn't make that move with too many hands that a pair of nines could beat. I think putting him on this wide range was a mistake in my reasoning that was based on the fact that in general the players in the tournament were of pretty poor quality. But I didn't have a specific read on this specific player, so that general observation is just a shadow of an insight. Even changing this small factor might have been enough to tip the decision the other way.

The result of the hand was that I shoved it all in and the big blind folded (as expected). The original raiser insta-called with his pocket Aces and I finished in 84th place. That's poker!