Slow Playing

Slow-playing is just the opposite of bluffing. You have a strong hand, but you want to represent a weak hand, to lure more money into the pot. Slow-playing is a powerful weapon that can either win a big pot or even knock an opponent out of the tournament. The great danger of slow-playing is that you may lose a big pot by allowing someone to catch free cards that eventually make a hand stronger than yours. It also has the problem that it sometimes results in winning a smaller pot than a non-slowplay would.

I'll look at specific examples of slow-playing in the following sections. Meanwhile here are some guidelines to slow-playing in general.

Who should you slow-play? The loose aggressive player is the best target because he will often actually make a bet. He likes to take pots away from players who seem weak, so checking to him is likely to induce the bet you need. Slow-playing the weak-tight player is likely to be both a waste of time and dangerous. By giving him free cards, you're allowing him a chance to make money from you, but you have no chance to make money from him, since he won't bet with a weak hand. (If you're slow-playing a real monster, of course, this reasoning doesn't apply since he has no outs.)

What kind of stack should you slow-play? Big and small stacks are the best targets, while medium stacks are the worst.

Note that these criteria are the exact opposite of our bluffing criteria. The best situations for bluffing are the worst for slow-playing, and vice-versa.

glow-Playing Before the Flop

Very few hands are legitimate candidates for slow-playing before the flop. You might, for instance, choose to call rather than raise with a hand like ace-queen suited, but what you're doing is varying your play so your opponents can't detect your betting pattern. The same holds true with a hand like a pair of tens in early position when you're first in the pot. You could raise five times the big blind, or three times the big blind, or you could just call, but the point of calling is not to draw more players into the pot but just to disguise your hand so you can't be read so easily.

The only hands that are really candidates for a legitimate slow-play are aces, kings, and sometimes queens. Even with hands this strong, I need several preconditions in place before I'm tempted to slow-play the hand.

  1. I'm at a full or nearly-full table — 9 or 10 players.
  2. I'm in early position, and no one has entered the pot before me.
  3. The table has been generally loose and aggressive, with lots of raising and reraising pre-flop. The loose and aggressive players are on my left.

What I'm seeking is a situation where I can call with a strong likelihood that someone behind me will raise. I need a full table and early position so that as many people as possible arc eligible to raise. Obviously I want loose and aggressive players to be doing the raising. Less obvious but equally important is that I be first to act- If someone has raised or called in front of me, a call on my part will tend to dampen action (even at a loose table) since two Players have already shown strength. The right play after a raise 0r call is just to raise with my high pair. Remember that a series °f limpers is a disastrous result for the high pair. As always in this case, your eventual goal is to get heads-up against one opponent with as big a pot as possible.

Note that David Sklansky advocates an unusual play which is worth mentioning here. He sometimes likes to limp with aces in middle position after a limper has entered the pot, the players are somewhat loose, and the stacks are large. A series of limpers may cause a late player to put in a big raise, or it may enable you to play a completely disguised set of aces when an ace falls on the flop. The occasional massive wins from these situations more than compensate for the loss of equity when you're forced to play an unraised pot against several limpers. In order to make this play, however, you must be skilled at letting your aces go when the post-flop betting shows you're in trouble.

After the Flop: General Considerations

Slow-playing after the flop is much more common. In fact, I think it's too common. Many good players, perhaps trying to live up to their tricky, trappy image, overuse the slow-play concept. My natural move is to bet good hands for value. When I do slow-play, I'm careful about picking my spots and I'm looking for very specific criteria.

An aggressive opponent. When I check my strong hand, I want my opponent to bet out. A loose, aggressive player is most likely to do just that. A tight player, obviously, is a poorer candidate for slow-playing.

A single opponent. Slow-playing works best against a single opponent. With a very strong hand, you can consider slow-playing two opponents. I would only slow-play three or more opponents with a real monster, something close to the nuts. The problem with multiple opponents is twofold: there are more chances that someone is drawing to a hand that can beat you, and it's more likely that someone has a hand that could actually call (or raise)

value bet. Remember that there's no need to slow-play if a ' straight value bet is likely to be called.

Always bear in mind that the immediate goal of slow-playing is to win an extra bet. Instead of the sequence "bet, fold," you're hoping for the sequence "check, bet, raise, fold." Some beginners get carried away by the idea of setting an elaborate trap which slowly causes the opponent to lose all his chips. That certainly can happen, but only when your opponent has a strong hand of his own which he's inclined to keep pushing. If he has a weak hand and thinks, from your check, that you have a weak hand too, then it's only his first bet that you'll win. Once he realizes that you actually have a hand, he's not going to put more money in the pot.

After the Flop: Candidate Hands

What hands are strong enough to slow-play after the flop?

Full house or four of a kind. Not only are these obviously good enough to slow-play, you must slow-play them. When you flop a full house, for example, there are very few cards left in the deck that can fit with the board. If you hold

and the flop comes there are only two aces and one queen remaining. You've gobbled up all the oxygen in the room, and now you have to wait and hope that someone bluffs or hits a card on the turn or the river and can play with you.

Flushes and straights. These are also strong slow-play situations, although you have to be careful when you flop a flush which is not the nut flush. The danger here is that a player with a high card which matches the board will stick around and draw to a flush that beats you. Slow-playing a flush when the ace of the suit is on the board is the safest situation; good players will often play ace-x suited but are much less likely to play two lower suited cards. If the ace is on the board, your chances of facing a draw to a better flush go down. (Online, weak players love to play two suited cards pre-flop, so this logic doesn't apply there.) Straights are excellent slow-playing hands since the danger is not as obvious to your opponents.

Trips. These are good slow-playing hands, and are much more common than the stronger hands. Some authors tell you to be careful when you flop middle or bottom trips, because you might lose to higher trips. Nonsense. If you get knocked out of the tournament because you lost in a set-over-set confrontation, then it just wasn't your tournament. When your set gets outflopped, you're supposed to lose a lot of money. When I hear someone telling a story about how he shrewdly laid down middle set after some intricate chain of reasoning convinced him he was beaten, my quick (but silent) reaction is "Idiot."

Two pair. Top two pair are a candidate for slow-playing. The other two pair combinations are weak. The bottom pair, especially if it's a very low pair, is too often counterfeited when high cards appear on the board. I prefer to just bet out for value and win the pot.

Top pair. Even a lowly top pair can be slow-played under certain very specific conditions. Here's what I like to see.

The best situation is to hold ace-king and flop king-x-x, with three different suits and no connecting straights. You're not afraid of an ace flopping since you have one, and you're not afraid of the pair being outdrawn since you have top pair. Your only fear is that one of the two low cards on the board has paired someone, and they might now hit trips or pair their other hole card. But those are small risks, worth taking to pick up an extra bet.

  1. The second-best situation is to flop queen-x-x when you hold ace-queen or king-queen. Again you hold top pair and a higher kicker, but now there is one overcard that can appear and beat you.
  2. The final situation is to flop jack-x-x when you hold a jack with an ace, king, or queen. This is a very marginal slow-playing situation at best, but against the right opponent and under perfect circumstances I might try it.

For the top categories of hands, the straights, flushes, and full houses, a more interesting question is "When don't you slow-play the hand?" If you believe from his betting before the flop that your opponent may have started with a high pair, or made one on the flop, then just bet. There's a good chance you will be raised. Remember, your primary goal is not to trick him, but to get his money in the pot. Many players lose sight of that simple fact in the heat of battle.

A betting sequence I particularly like when I have a monster hand is one where I make my continuation-sized bet and get called. Then I check on the turn and he checks behind me. Now I ve created the impression that I had nothing, I made my one stab at the pot, and gave up after I got called, but now just maybe I can steal the pot on the river. When I make one final good-sized bet, it's almost impossible for my opponent not to pay me off if he has anything at all!

After the Flop: The Check-Raise and The Check-Call

The check-raise can be a very powerful move. Good players usually employ it after the flop, or in some cases, after the turn. You make a big hand, but instead of betting you just check, indicating that you've missed the flop. Your opponent bets. Now you raise, revealing the strength of your hand. If your opponent throws his hand away, you've made one more bet than presumably you would have had you bet out straightaway. If he calls, you've gotten significantly more money in the pot.

While the check-raise can make you some extra money with a good hand, it does come with associated risks. Here are a few things to consider when contemplating a check-raise:

  1. Is your opponent aggressive? If he's not aggressive, then checking with the idea of check-raising may just be a tactical error. A tight or weak-tight player may just check behind you and take a free card, and you haven't succeeded in getting any more money in the pot.
  2. Can you stand to give a free card? If there are draws on board that can beat your strong hand, you may well be better off taking the pot right there, or at least giving your opponent the wrong odds for drawing.
  3. Do you have the table persona of a straightforward value bettor or a tricky trappy guy? If you've been playing straightforward poker, your check-raise is more likely to work. If you've been shucking and jiving through the session, your opponents have probably started to assume that your plays mean the opposite of what they appear to mean, and will give you a wide berth.

Here's an example showing a good check-raise situation:

Example 8. Eight players remain at your table. Blinds are $400/800 with $50 antes. $1,600 in the pot to start. You are the big blind with A4Q4. The first five players fold, and the button, a very aggressive player who routinely bets at pots no one has opened, and who makes continuation bets after the flop, raises to $3,000. The small blind folds. Both you and the button have large stacks at this point. You have played solidly throughout the tournament. What do you do?

Answer: The normal play is to reraise with a hand this good, but you need to call occasionally for variety. The button may be stealing, but you don't know that and he will have position on you in subsequent rounds. I would use a mixture of 70 percent raises and 30 percent calls in this situation.

You actually call and the pot is $6,800. The flop comes AV9424. You act first. What do you do?

Answer: All conditions are right for a check-raise. Your opponent is aggressive and has moved at pots in the past, you seem solid and straightforward, and the board isn't offering any dangerous straight or flush draws. Your pair of aces with a queen kicker is very likely to be good at this point.

A good amount for a raise is something between double and triple his bet, but closer to triple than double. Drawing out on you should be a very expensive proposition.

You raise to $9,000, and he folds.

Check-calling is a riskier but potentially more profitable play than check-raising. Here you are going to voluntarily give your opponent a free card, with the idea of winning more money later in the hand. The next example shows some of the issues involved.

Example 9. Final table of a major tournament. Six players remain. The blinds are $1,000 and $2,000, with $200 antes. The starting pot is $4,200. You are second to act before the flop. The players and their chip counts are as follows:

Sm Blind $80,000

Big Blind $210,000

Player 1 $240,000

You $250,000

Player 3 $110,000

Player 4 $90,000

You are known to be a very smart, experienced player, capable of making moves at any time. Player 3 is also smart and very experienced, with a reputation for aggressive play. Player 1 folds. You pick up

A *

***

V

* *t

and raise $7,000, slightly more than three times the big blind. It's been the standard opening raise during this round of blinds. Player 3 calls. The button and the blinds fold. The pot is now $18,200. The flop comes

You're first to act. What should you do?

Answer: You've flopped a monster, trip nines, and your hand is obviously strong enough to slow-play. You should mostly elect to check here. I say "mostly," because you will occasionally have to put out a bet in these situations, so your opponents can't simply peg you as someone who checks when he's strong and only bets when he's weak. Good players have a tendency to fall into that pattern, especially in short-handed situations at the end of tournaments. But let's assume you've been mixing up your play well recently, so now you are free to check and set a trap.

Here's the really interesting question. Suppose you check and your opponent makes a good-sized bet, say $10,000. Do you then raise, or just call?

Deciding between slow-playing with a check-raise and slow-playing with a check-call is one of the toughest decisions in poker. Often there will not be a clear-cut answer. You have two goals:

  1. Extract as many extra bets as possible from your opponent, and
  2. Avoid losing the hand. Here are some of the issues that bear on the decision:

Is your opponent weak and/or tight? Will he put in extra bets down the road, or not? A weak-tight player might make one stab at the pot, but if he meets resistance, he's done with the hand unless he catches something big down the road.

Check-calling an opponent with this profile is wrong since he won't put any more money in the pot unless the free card you gave him actually improves his hand, in a way that may beat you. Here you check-raise, and expect to win the hand immediately.

Is your opponent known to be aggressive? An aggressive player presents different problems. He'll certainly interpret your check-call as representing some sort of hand, but if he puts you on a drawing hand (in this case a flush draw), he may be inclined to test you with another bet on fourth or fifth street. If he's holding a medium or low pair (say eights or fours) he may simply believe that he still has the best hand and bet on that basis. A check and a call makes the most sense against this player. That play represents two high cards, and if a small card comes on fourth street and you check again, he may bet again.

Do you need to establish some defense? There's yet another reason for check-calling against an aggressive player — a defensive reason. You'll find yourself in plenty of situations where you check after the flop and don't want anyone to bet at you. To get some respect and free cards, you need to demonstrate occasionally that you're capable of checking a very strong hand all the way down to the river while waiting for your opponent to bet at you. Once your opponents realize you can do this, they'll be a little more reluctant to toss out routine bets after you miss the flop and check. If your opponents have been betting at you relentlessly, this hand could be useful for that purpose.

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