Zak Sees the Light

Really, you must be some kind of idiot. First, to think that I am some kind of poker player – that I might really have some great insight about the game. And second, that if your first assumption was true, that I might actually share that knowledge with the people I am competing against. Let me smarten you up a bit: I’m not a great poker player, and if I was I sure wouldn’t reveal any of my genius to you.


Well, you are obviously much dumber than I first gave you credit for. So read on and prepare to have your game fall apart if you give any heed.

Now I have won twice and I don’t mean to make those who have not won feel badly, but I don’t think this is much of an accomplishment. If I attributed these two wins to skill, then maybe… Maybe since I think it more related to luck, that makes the feat much more amazing. In tournament poker the best player CANNOT win. If you want a game where the best player CAN win every time, try chess. Vaughn was (maybe still is) a great chess player. I think some of the skills that made him a great chess player make him a great poker player. I remember the first time I played chess against Vaughn; I didn’t win, but I remember doing very well. Fortunately there are many more skill sets required for poker, which is why I think it’s a great game. At the final table this week Vaughn made a comment that I could not fill a page with information about poker that I didn’t get from him. And I don’t think he’s wrong. Vaughn has been playing for a little while and at one point in the early days he predicted that poker would soon be taught at the college level. I don’t think he’s far off. Among other things there is a lot about poker strategy that can be applied to things like business negotiations.

Back to luck. In his poker corner Vaughn wrote a little about strategy and different styles of play. One particular style which he felt was hard to play against, maybe even impossible, was someone getting lucky. Be clear here: over the course of a pro player’s lifetime luck may hardly exist. In fact, if you recall I’m talking only about tournament poker. In his lifetime Vaughn will play in many tournaments and he will win some and he will lose some. He will also play in ring games and some sessions he will be up and some he will be down. But in the long run he will make money because he is a great player. In tournament play you can improve your chances of winning by being a great player but that is not enough. If you are lucky enough to catch AA in a tournament and get someone to call your all-in with just 72 (very likely on the 4SPT) your tournament “life” hangs in the balance. And one out of 10 times you’re gonna die. I’m not sure there is a case where I’m looking to double up and with AA I’m not going to try to be all-in preflop. Yes it’s only my tournament “life” but I’m not sure when else I would be thrilled to put my life at stake with a 13% chance of death. And let’s say I make that move twice in one tournament. Then, I’ll be out one quarter of the time. Would you be happy to bet your tournament “life” on flipping heads twice in a row with a quarter? How about tails?

We all know this. This is not new info. And yet I would love to have Susan call my AA with her 72 all-in preflop. Or even better call my AA with her 77 after the flop with two outs. Can you ask for a better spot to be called? She’s probably going to win 8% of the time there. And she did. Bad beats happen to everyone all the time; it’s part of the game and why the best player cannot always win. Even if by playing well the best player could reduce the odds of his getting a bad beat in just one hand to say 1 in 20,000, he still may not win even that hand, not to mention the whole tournament. Watching Vaughn in a tournament we witnessed a hand he said was bad luck just to see. AA vs. 88 all-in preflop. An A flops just to cinch the deal for the rockets. Then an 8 on the turn and, you guessed it, and 8 on the river. Bad luck just to witness? I think so. Vaughn mentioned that’s a jackpot hand. Yes, at low limits at Commerce. I said it must happen every 10 minutes on but I was wrong. A quick look on the site puts poker stars doing about 20,000 hands every 2 ½ minutes. You would think they see jackpot hands at least that often.

If you play premium starting hands, good for you. And since most hands are not premium starting hands, most of the time in a tournament you don’t have to know what to do because you have already folded. Premium cards are not hard to play. You can bet out with them, trap with them, or lay them down if you think someone got lucky on you. That’s good poker. But I just said that’s not enough to win. You have to get lucky too. I don’t think 72 is a very lucky starting hand. But Q3 or Q4 is for Susan. And T2 seemed to work for me this week like it worked for Brunson. But I don’t think you can count on that. You have to put yourself in a position to get lucky. Suited J9, QT off, suited 34 or 45 or T7. Once in 11 times my small pair flops a set. I’ve got to put myself in a position to get lucky if I want to win. I think of myself as a good, tight, solid player. And that will not get me the wins. It may allow me to eek out a positive average over time. But really I don’t play enough to enjoy that. I have to get lucky to win. I think everyone does. But do you give yourself the chance during a tournament? I was bluffing the whole way with my T2 against Drop It’s AK when he flopped two pair. Man was I an idiot! I even went all-in on the river WITHOUT noticing that I had hit the gutshot wheel. I almost mucked my hand, so I wouldn’t have to show the whole table my bullshit. Thank you, Jenn, for pointing it out to me. I paid you back by pointing out Grimace’s straight to hang your boyfriend. Sorry about that. I was also sorry to Drop It, because I really didn’t notice the straight I made on the river being so caught up in my own debacle. Sorry not because I got lucky, but because I didn’t realize it.

This week I liked my chances heads up against Rabbit Eater. However he proved difficult. I laid down what I thought were premium hands like KQ spades to preflop all-ins. Showing me 82 after another all-in was effective. And truth be known, I was not happy catching a 3 outer to win. I would have felt better winning with my skill and strategy. Yeah right! What did I just get finished saying? I can’t win with just skill and strategy. In our cat and mouse, nearly even, heads up bout someone was finally going to go all-in and someone was going to call. Someone would have been ahead and someone would have been behind. If I had called Oliver’s 82 with J9 and he had won, would I have felt better calling with the better hand? No. Someone was going to get lucky and that person was me. Even after playing what I thought was good poker and getting lucky more than once in the course of the evening, I still put my chances at 50/50 to win when we were down do it. Vaughn spent the later part of the evening beating Slew heads up and losing to The Factor. Is Vaughn better than Slew and Max better than Vaughn?

For you complete and utter fools who ignored my advice at the top of this post and actually want more, here you go:

I refuse to believe it’s all really just luck. Even over the course of one tournament. What then, you ask, if not skill, if not luck? Something I may have gotten from Vaughn, but solidified by watching the pros on TV. Phil Helmuth Jr. is truly one amazing player. Not because he plays premium hands or because he gets lucky. He can see through his opponents’ cards. And that, my friend, is the secret to playing this game. Phil makes the most astounding reads. Not just calling a bluff or deciphering a good hand, but actually knowing the two cards in the hands’ of his opponents. It’s uncanny. And it is THE skill you need to win at this game. I will say the cards are meaningless. At the start of a hand any two cards are almost as good as any other two. This game is about playing your opponents and not about what cards you hold or what cards they hold. When you can read your opponent’s body language and know if he is strong or weak you are truly playing the game. And when you know WHY your opponent is strong or weak you are playing the game well. And when you can do both of those things and use your own body to confuse your opponent into thinking you are weak when your hand is strong and strong when your hand is weak, you are approaching mastery.

There was just one hand last night when I approached Nirvana. I made a 2X raise on the button and Grimace in the BB called. The flop came KK3. He checked, I checked behind. The turn brought a useless 6. Grimace bet out half his stack. And I went into the tank. That 6 didn’t help him. Maybe if he is holding a K he’s got me dead to rights. Not likely with that size bet. He could have a 3, but he would have to be really scared of my own pocket pair. He may have his own pocket pair, in which case his bet would be suicide to my K. After all, he only had to call an extra BB to see the flop. I all but convinced Grimace that I was holding JJ. He was a great statue, but there was a moment where he truly looked like he didn’t want a call. Just a moment in his eyes when I thought he looked a little scared, and then it was gone. I was tempted to move in on him. If I was successful in convincing him I was holding JJ then he is only beating me with AA, QQ or with a third K. The K was the only possibility in my mind, already unlikely. Now, when I move in will he lay it down? Thinking I’m holding JJ will he gamble? Is he pot committed? My hand doesn’t matter. I played hard. I got lucky. Did I want to risk it all on a perceived split-second read? Sometimes we see want we want to see. Did I just read what I wanted to read, or do I have some skill in this? I’m trying to listen to Vaughn’s advice, “You have good instincts. Trust them.” I decided to lay my hand down. I didn’t trust my instincts. I was wrong. I should have moved in on him. Had I trusted my instincts there, had I moved in on him I would have been a golden god, transcending this earthly reality, in a constant state of Om.Instead, just a peek and back to the constant cycle of karma that is this reality. But beware! I have seen the light, and it is good. And once I can bring my game to this level on a permanent basis no one will be able to beat me. Unless you get lucky.