It’s not enough to know they are bluffing

After being in Central Illinois for over two years, I finally hosted my first poker game last week. It was a lot of fun. I got a group of relative newcomers together and taught them how to play a Texas hold’em tournament. We had an hour long class where I went over the basics, pretty much following the plan I previously blogged about. Then I had them each chip in a couple bucks and I dealt them their first tournament (I didn’t play).

One hand came up that reminded me of something that happened when I still lived in New York. The hand was pretty straightforward. A few people played the hand, two of them played until the end. There wasn’t much betting, but I remember one player made a small but significant bet on the end. Another player called him. He turned over his two cards to show that he had a pair of sevens, one in his hand, one on the board.

Since this was more or less a practice hand, the other player turned her hand over and said, “Oh damn, I thought you were bluffing.” Her hand consisted of an eight and a three. She did not have a pair. She should not have called. Her hand was too weak to call.

However, she was partially right. He didn’t have a strong hand. It was a pretty weak hand too. I probably wouldn’t have bet on the end with his hand, unless I was trying to bluff. Perhaps she picked up on the fact that his hand was weak and therefore called. But it’s not enough to know someone is bluffing. In order to call their bet, you have to be able to beat their bluff.

If she had a small pair, or even an ace or a king, she could have made that call, thinking that since he is bluffing, her pair or high card will beat his junk hand. Still, she could have done something to win the hand, if she thought he was bluffing. She could have rebluffed. If instead of calling, she had raised his bet by a significant amount, he might have thrown his pair away, certain that she had a bigger hand. A rebluff is a pretty sophisticated move for someone playing hold’em for the first time, however.

As a player, I rarely rebluff, especially at the end of a hand when the pot is large. It’s a play that can require a lot of guts, and I think I’ve only recently acquired the courage to do it at all. I have learned to do it a lot more frequently at the beginning of a hand. If you are playing against someone and realize that they raise quite often, a good reraise with any two cards can often make them fold and win you a small but profitable pot. In tournaments, a few well timed reraises can easily mean the difference between winning and losing.

Anyway, like I mentioned above, this hand reminded me of a hand that I played in New York. I used to be a part of a weekly tournament among friends. We each threw in $5 or $10 and played a tournament that might last a couple of hours. At it’s peak, we had 30+ people showing up each week, so when you won the tourney, you could go home with a nice pot.

One night I was playing a hand against a friend. He was playing to my left and new to our tournament, and to hold’em in general. Everyone folded to me. I was on the button and I had an interesting hand, something like an eight and nine of hearts. It wasn’t a great hand, but in order to be unpredictable, you have to sometimes raise with interesting hands, rather than just great hands.

Anyway, my friend called. The next three cards on the board helped me, I think I had a straight or a flush draw, but I still didn’t have a pair. He checked and I pushed the rest of my chips in the middle, hoping he would fold. He called quite quickly. He turned over his two cards, a jack and maybe a nine. He didn’t have a pair or much of a draw. He had called my bluff, without a hand that could beat a bluff.

The last two cards didn’t help me and his jack high, beat my nine high. The reason I remember the hand is not because of the unique play, but because I handled it so badly. Instead of smiling and saying, “Good call,” I harangued him. “How could you make that call?” I said, frustrated.

“I knew you didn’t have much,” he responded, clearly confused as to why I was upset.

“But you had jack high! You couldn’t beat a bluff.”

And yet, clearly he could. His junk hand was better than mine. I walked out of the room and sat in the office next door for a while. I had to hang out until the game was over and lock up the place. I hope that I apologized for my behavior that night. I know that I did at a later date. I don’t think it affected our friendship, but I don’t remember him coming back to play in our tournament again either.

Since then, I think I’ve gained a lot of perspective, at least when it comes to poker. I’ve lost hands against strangers that were far larger and more important than the one against my friend. I’m sure that given the right circumstances I could still lose my cool at a poker table, but now it’s much more rare. I think that makes me a better poker player, and I’m sure that it makes me a better friend.

And now when I’m playing in a friendly game for a few bucks and a know-it-all player exclaims in agony after a hand, “How could you call me with that?” I know enough to sit back calmly and smile and think to myself how glad I am that it’s not me saying that.

One thought on “It’s not enough to know they are bluffing”

  1. I was there the night of this external combustion. Though in my memory, he was sitting to chairs to your right, and I was to your left…and mad that I had folded a hand that would have dominated either of yours. It was a teaching moment for others as well as you.

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