Win the War, Not All the Border Skirmishes
I’ll tell the story the way I always tell it. At one memorable World Series of Poker tournament in 2003, Freddy Deeb and Marcel Luske bluffed me a combined total of 17 times. They laughed at me, then they laughed some more, but I gave them credit. They truly had outplayed me many times that day. But those were all border skirmishes (small pots). My plan was to win the war, not all the battles. When I hit the final table that day, I was the chip leader. I know what you’re thinking: How could Phil let Deeb and Luske bluff him 17 times and still be holding the chip lead? Since I let them win so many of the small pots, they were confident they could outplay me all day long. Finally, when I did have the goods, I picked off a Luske bluff to double up. In one stroke, I won back all the money he had bluffed from me.
Though the rest of the world hates to be outplayed and bluffed, I don’t much mind, for two reasons. First, I’m looking to put my chips into the pot when I’m super-strong, and because this doesn’t happen very often, I’m forced to fold a lot of hands while waiting for the strong ones. Second, by folding a number of hands, I give the other players the illusion that I’m a “weak player,” someone who folds a lot, someone who can be bluffed. Then, when I do have the hand I’ve been waiting for, I check to my now empowered opponents, who take their usual “I can bluff Phil out of the pot” stance and make their big bluffs. But this time I called them down and hauled in a huge pot.
In essence, this strategy allows me to wait for strong hands without losing too many chips, and then double up when I do have a strong hand. Very few players want to go home wondering if they had folded their best chance, or they feel it is an insult to their manhood if someone bluffs them out of a pot. So they make calls with marginal hands and put their whole tournament at risk.
Having offered this dazzling strategy tip, I’ll now tell you of a time when I employed exactly the opposite ploy. On Thursday, Dec. 13, I entered the Bellagio’s World Poker Tour $15,000 buy-in Doyle Brunson Classic, along with 700 other players (first place was $2.5 million). I found Deeb to my right, and I wasn’t in the mood to let him bluff me this time. I told him, “Don’t try to bluff me today. I’m calling you, baby.” Deeb had heard that from me before, only to find that he could bluff me at will.
With the blinds at $100 to $200, two players — including Deeb — called $200, and I made it $1,200 to go with K-J. The big blind called, as did the first player, and then Deeb announced that he was going to raise it up $4,000 more. I quickly counted my chips and saw that I had $12,450. If I moved all-in, Deeb would certainly call me, since it would be only $8,450 more for him to make the call. So folding was the obvious and easy choice to make. Why put in $14,000 with K-J when the blinds were only $100 to $200? But my instincts were screaming at me — Deeb was bluffing again! In fact, I kept imagining that I was going to fold and that Deeb was going to show me another bluff and laugh about it. Finally, I decided to trust my instincts, and I moved all-in. The other two players folded, but Deeb called me with K-9. I was right, and I won the pot when the board showed all low cards.
A few hours later, with the blinds at $300 to $600 and an ante of $75 a man, Deeb opened for $1,800, and I called on the button with 10s-9s. The flop was Js-7s-2c, and Deeb bet $4,000. At this point, I had two options. I could call the bet, or I could move all-in for $35,000. Even though most of the world would raise here at least 80 percent of the time, I prefer just calling in this circumstance 90 percent of the time. Why risk my whole tournament on a draw, even if it is a straight-flush draw? Once again, however, I felt that Deeb could be holding a super-weak hand and that I could win this pot more often than not by moving all-in. So I pulled the trigger. Deeb folded, showing the 6d-4d, and I took down the pot. I did make it past day one, but I continued to play this more reckless game, and eventually, on day two, the 10-9’s and the K-J’s caught up with me and I was eliminated. This time, I won the battles, but lost the war.
Poker tournaments are all about:
A) Winning the war.
B) Going deep.
C) Patience, patience, patience.
D) All of the above.