Learning from TV: Part I

I was watching an episode of the World Poker Tour: Alpha8 recently, when I realized that it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the complexities of a poker hand. When I first became interested in poker, a televised World Poker Tour event was the catalyst that sparked my love for the game. I remember getting ready to meet up with some friends in the city, casually flipping through the television channels to find something to watch while I got dressed. I stumbled upon the WPT broadcast and thought to myself, «What the hell is this? Why would anyone watch other people gamble on television?» I left it on, and an hour later, when I absolutely had to leave my apartment, I found myself looking for a VCR tape (yes, this was pre-DVR) to tape the rest of the episode. It took me an hour to be converted from a non-believer to a true believer. I was hooked and never looked back.

As with many poker aficionados, after a while, I was more interested in playing than watching, and the amount of televised poker I watched dropped significantly. Lately, though, I am rediscovering the joy I found in watching and analyzing other players. Watching poker on TV is not only interesting, but potentially educational. Some of the best players in the world are willing to expose themselves (and their hole cards) to the viewing audience, providing a glimpse into high level poker without having to fork over the high buy-in.

A quick caveat. I recognize that there is the potential for editing during televised tournaments. A long stall by a player may be cut to a short one, lest the show devote 5 minutes to a player contemplating an all-in call. Also, while I cannot confirm whether or not this actually occurs, there is always the possibility that reaction shots of players from other hands are spliced into the action of a different hand in order to build drama, excitement or just to tell the story a bit more effectively. Even so, I took this hand at face value, assuming that all the action displayed was more or less accurate to what actually happened. Let’s go through the hand, picking out particular learning points as we go.

The Show

The event I watched was from the World Poker Tour: Alpha8 in London, airing on FS1 in the United States. I believe it was Day 2 of action, but since it was a high buy-in, the field was still open to new entrants. The featured table had only five players by the time the subject hand played out.

The Players

The hand involved Max Altergott, a German poker pro, who, for some reason, was listed as a German pro on the program. To be frank, I am not particularly familiar with Altergott, but based on what I could see, he was a young guy with a clean look. Some brief research shows that he has over $2,000,000 in casino winnings, not including his online winnings. As a brief example of his recent successes, he won the $25,000 event at the 2014 Aussie Millions for a payday of almost $250,000.

I was much more familiar with his opponent, Tony G. Tony G is a 40-ish Lithuanian-Australian poker pro who has made a name for himself over the years. Perhaps one of his greatest contributions is PokerNews, a website that provides some of the best poker news coverage around. His reputation, though, is one of flash. He is willing to talk a big game, popularizing the phrase, «On your bike," as a clever way of telling someone to leave after they have lost. It’s arguably mean, but usually funny. I suppose it’s all about perspective.

The Hand

To appreciate the hand, you first need some background. Tony G had been accumulating chips by being aggressive and causing others to fold. It seemed to me that Altergott and the two other young German players at the table were annoyed at Tony G’s run, particularly since Tony G was gloating in his success. He wasn’t being outwardly mean, but rather just basking in his own greatness, a move that can get other players off of their usual game. I am confident that played a part in this hand.

The blinds were 1,000/2,000 with an ante of 300. Prior to any action, the pot was 4,500.

The action folded to Altergott on the button. He held 8h 6d, a terrible hand, but decided to bet 4,600. The size of the bet is notable, as it is just slightly more than 2x the B. B. That meant that the BB only had to call another 2,600 in order to call. If Altergott’s goal was to steal the blinds, this was a pretty weak bet… unless he was using some reverse psychology. If he was using reverse psychology, perhaps he hoped a small bet would appear as strength, as though he wanted a call, thus inducing a fold. More likely, though, he was just betting to sweeten the pot, which he hoped to take in a later betting round, since he was in position.

The player in the SB folded his A9.

Tony G, in the BB, defends by calling 2,600 with his 5c 4h.

To recap:

Tony G (BB) — 5c 4h

Altergott (Button) — 8h 6d

Pot: 11,700

The flop comes down as 5s 2h Jh. Tony G is in the lead with second pair (5s). Altergott missed the board entirely.

Tony G checks and Altergott continuation bets 5,000. Tony G calls.

This is some interesting action, and something you will typically see in poker. The flop is not scary for Tony G, but he checks anyway.

If I were Tony, I would be considering my opponent’s range. In the end, there are two possibilities: either Altergott missed the flop and Tony G is ahead, or Altergott had a Jack or a pocket pair better than 5s and Tony G is behind. Rather than bet here and potentially face a large re-raise, Tony G checks, thereby controlling the size of the pot.

From Altergott’s perspective, once Tony G checks, a continuation bet is standard. The 5,000 amount is actually quite intelligent. It is low enough (less than ½ of the pot) to appear like he wants a call, which may induce the fold that he really wants. It’s also low enough that he is not risking an unnecessary portion of his stack with an outright bluff. One caveat is that Tony G is a loose cannon, so he may be willing to call with overcards, like K. Q. Even so, Altergott can watch the action on the next card and maybe fire his second bluff bullet.

From Tony G’s perspective, the call is somewhat standard as well. The pot is 16,700 after the 5,000 raise, and Tony only needs to call 5,000 to win 16,700. The flop is not scary, the cost is relatively cheap, and Altergott is playing from the button, so Tony likely expected Altergott to continuation bet no matter what. After the call, the pot is 21,700.

The turn is Js, making the board:

5s 2h Jh Js

Tony G checks, as does Altergott. This is likely where Altergott made his biggest mistake. Tony G’s check is reasonable. From his perspective, its hard to tell whether he is ahead or behind. The turn did not change much, although arguably the second Jack may mean that it is less likely Altergott has a Jack in his hand. Even so, pocket 6s beats Tony, so to control the pot, he checks.

Here, Altergott needed to fire the second bullet. With the pot at 21,700, a bet of 12,000 may have been enough to win it outright. If I were Tony G facing that bet, I’d be worried that Altergott hit his Jack on the flop (Altergott might hold AJ, KJ, QJ, JT), got stronger on the turn and wants to make sure that he gains as many chips as possible into the pot. Altergott, however, is gun shy, likely because Tony G has been winning so much. There is nothing scarier than a lucky or winning player.

The river was a 3h, making the board:

5s 2h Jh Js 3h

Tony G bets 5,000. Altergott folds.

By now, Tony should be confident that Altergott does not have a Jack. If so, Altergott would have bet the turn. Even so, he makes a small bet. This is key. Tony wants Altergott to fold, since his pair of 5s is not a particularly strong hand. He could bet large to do this, but for all he knows, Altergott has 77 and will call him. By betting small, he once again controls the pot. Borderline hands might call, but if so, Tony G only loses another 5,000. Losing hands fold, which prevents Altergott from trying to bluff from position if Tony G simply checks.

Tony G wins the pot and the German players get more frustrated.

What Have We Learned?

I have another hand worthy of commentary, but that’s all the time we have for today. I think there are few lessons from this hand:

1) Be willing to fire that second bullet. Altergott could have won the pot on the turn by an intelligently sized bet. Instead, by checking, he is basically signaling to his opponent that he has given up on the pot.

2) You can call small bets preflop with weak cards, as long as you can play them intelligently post-flop. If Tony G misses the flop entirely, he can easily fold and lose only an additional 2,600 (his preflop call). If he hits, he can play cautiously and attempt to take the pot away from his opponent. A lesser opponent may call on the flop and fold to the continuation bet. That is the worse possible scenario. Only call with weak cards if you are confident you can outplay your opponent post-flop. If you are not confident in your post-flop play, focus on your preflop play, i. e., stick with premium cards.

3) Keeping pots small will decrease risk. Here, Tony or Altergott could have gotten aggressive and raised big, but they didn’t because they could not get a clear read on their opponent’s hand. A large bet by either may have won the pot, but it also could have been met with a large re-raise, to which they would have to fold. By keeping the pot small, they both minimized their risk. That’s not weak poker; that’s smart poker.

4) There are few things scarier at the poker table than a winning player. Tony was on a roll, so perhaps he felt emboldened when he played this hand. Likewise, Altergott was aware of this, which may have been why he checked the turn. He feared losing to Tony G «once again.» Fear can be a hell of a motivation, and Tony knows how to exploit that. Play more hands when you are on a rush; the perception of your rush or luck will carry you a long way.

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