In the world of poker, everybody starts somewhere. If it isn’t in the “free chip” games on Zynga or the different online poker sites, it is in low buy-in games online ($.01/$.02 cash games or cheap tournaments) or cheaper live events ($1/$2 live cash games, up to $100 tournaments). Wherever you might go, you will always hear a certain refrain from players that are sitting on the rail.
“I had pocket Aces and jammed it up to five times the blinds,” it often goes. “The blinds both called and we saw a flop of 4-5-7 rainbow. The blinds both checked and I put out a big bet. Guess what? They both called! A Queen came on the turn and once again the blinds checked it to me, so I fired even bigger. This time, though, the small blind check-raised me and the big blind called! I called too and, once the river came with a 10, I thought I was good. After they checked again, I put the remainder of my stack in the center and they both called! The small blind had 5-4 off suit and the big blind an A-6 off suit…what the hell are they doing?” Usually the recounting of the story ends with, “How the hell do I get RID of these idiots in the low stakes games?”
The answer? You really can’t and you really don’t want to. Yes, it is quite maddening to sit around and wait for that big pocket pair – Kings, Queens, Aces, it doesn’t matter – play it aggressively and get snapped off in the manner explained above. But let’s first look at some of the action and perhaps see if there were some warning signs that might have led you down another path of action.
Raising pre-flop normally is an indicator that you have a good starting hand and, in this circumstance, there isn’t one better than pocket Aces. If you’re in middle position (as the above player was), then if another player before and/or on the button calls you, you can pretty much give them credence for another pair or a nice big Ace (A-K, A-Q, sometimes A-J). The blinds are where the situation gets a bit hairy, however.
In the past, players in the blinds would have normally laid their hands down, deeming it not a wise investment to call off so much money and then play the hand out of position. In today’s game, though, defense of the blinds is at a premium even in the low stakes games. The reason for this is threefold.
If a blind player only has to call a small amount to see the flop, then it is worthwhile for them to take a look and see what happens. The second reason is that, by defending the blinds, the blind player puts the nugget in their opponent’s brain (for future thought) that they aren’t just going to roll over and let them steal their blinds. Finally, there are the cases that, by calling out of the blinds, the player is looking for just the right flop to be able to make off with a big pot and, if it doesn’t come, then they can get away with no more expenditure.
Now let’s look at it from the numbers perspective. For the small blind, they’re facing a $9 call (five times the big blind of $2) if they want to continue with the hand. Even in a heads-up situation, they don’t have to be right all the time to make it a potentially profitable move, especially with the implied value down the road. In our above case, the player flopped two pair and, if they’re confident the player who raised has a big pair, now the small blind is in position to take a massive pot. A simple call on the flop sets them up for making a move should everything work right on the turn and river and the corresponding bet sizes will bring a big chunk of chips to their stack.
Even for the big blind, it is an $8 call (into what will be a $30 pre-flop pot after his call) and, by coming along, they too can make that same big score. In our example, the big blind flopped an open ended straight draw to go along with his one over card (a “false out” with the pocket Aces in play, but he doesn’t know that). It isn’t out of the question for that player to look to hit a sneaky straight and, in the right circumstance, make out like a bandit when the straight comes home.
Finally, there is the perception of money. For many playing poker, a $1/$2 live game (or a penny game online) isn’t going to break their bank. They’re not playing for rent or to make groceries for the night, they are there to have some fun and splash some chips around (you’ll find grinders playing the $1/$2, but it is problematic eking out a profit). Thus, when they see someone raising a pot and they’ve got anything that’s halfway playable, they might just stick around to “see what happens.”
The reality is that poker players want these types of players in their games. As maddening as it is to have those Aces cracked, most of the time (77%, to be exact, in our above example) the Aces are going to win the hand against the meager holdings of the blinds. That is nearly the same rate as pocket Aces going against any other pocket pair heads up (81% to 19%) and, with an additional player putting in cash, can be more lucrative when the Aces hold.
The thing that players must do is be wary of those callers. Anyone can call pre-flop with anything, but if they continue after that with simple calls or raises, it is time to start putting together (along with what the board is saying) a roster of hands your opponents could be holding. There is also that point where, if a board is very coordinated, that those Aces or Kings might have to hit the muck on the turn rather than continuing to chase a beaten hand.
Rather than bemoan the actions of players in the smaller games, why not embrace them? Encourage them to stay in the game and subconsciously encourage them to make those same moves against you. As you can see from the statistics above, a sizeable majority of the time you’re going to come out a winner…and then it is for your opponents to tell the tale of woe.