Steve’s Dilemma: Avoiding Hyper-Narrow Ranges
Prolific poker writer Steve Ruddock was recently given a chance to appear on Poker Night in America to play 25/50 No-Limit Hold’em with a $5000 buy-in paid on his behalf. Steve played Limit cash games professionally when he was younger, but hasn’t played No-Limit any higher than $1/$2 and describes himself as a recreational player in that regard.
Steve’s a good friend of mine – in fact, I owe my job here at PTP in part to him, for putting me in touch with the right people – so I was sweating him hard. The most agonizing part of his day at the table, both for me as an observer and, I’m sure, for him, was watching him make a huge preflop laydown with pocket Kings against Shaun Deeb. There is a long history of me calling Steve a nit whenever we talk strategy, so watching powerlessly in real-time as he tanked with Kings had me tearing my hair out, or would have if I actually had any hair to begin with.
The situation was this: Steve had run his initial $5000 stake up to a little over $10,000 and had a pretty solid if over-tight table image. In the fateful hand, there was an early position raiser, Steve 3-bet his Kings and, to his surprise, he got a cold call from the cutoff behind him and then a cold 4-bet from Shaun on the button. The initial raiser folded and action was back on Steve. Shaun’s 4-bet was to $1750 and Steve would have around $8000 behind after matching Shaun’s bet.
The 5-bet is the real decision point
As nitty as Steve is, no one is ever folding Kings at this point, I don’t think, so there are three options: flat call, make a small 5-bet, or shove all-in. In reality, what happened was that Steve 5-bet small and made an extremely tight fold when Shaun shoved, because he felt Shaun could range him as narrowly as just KK/AA based on the action and would therefore not shove anything other than Aces.
As it turns out, Shaun was shoving with AK as a semibluff, so Steve’s fold was a disaster. Of course, after laughing about it, the table decided to go rabbit-hunting and it turns out that an Ace “would have” come on the flop, but this sort of results-oriented thinking doesn’t change the fact that folding KK to AK while getting 2-1 is atrocious.
Steve and I talked a lot about that hand in the days after the show was taped. He still feels the fold was justified, for reasons you can read yourself if you follow the link above. I think it was a mistake, but only narrowly so, because even a player like Shaun should in fact have Aces a lot of the time there, given that Steve was representing a monster the whole way. What Steve and I both agree on, however, is that his biggest mistake was the move before, in making the small 5-bet.
The problem with 5-bet/folding is that he’s turning the second-best possible hand into a stone cold bluff; whatever showdown equity his Kings have against Shaun’s range is never realized, because Shaun is probably never flatting the 5-bet. This is an important principle: If you take a line which always results in either you or your opponent folding, your cards have no value except as blockers. Steve feels he should have shoved instead to avoid being bluffed, but I don’t think that’s correct either, as he’s still basically turning KK into a bluff this way, unless he believes that Shaun will happily stack off for 200 big blinds, getting only 1.5-1 with QQ or AK against a 5-bet shove from a guy with Steve’s image.
That leaves flatting, which I think is correct, and not just by process of elimination. To explain why, however, I’m going to need to digress a little bit.
A conversation with Jonathan Little
What all of this reminded me of is some advice I once read from Jonathan Little in the Float the Turn sub-forum of my old stomping grounds Pokerforums.org (where, it happens, I first met Steve). Jon was talking about a somewhat different situation: Playing AA against an under-the-gun open from a player who is both very tight and very attentive.
What Jon said is that he flats in this spot with his entire range, including the Aces. This is because the range of hands which he could 3-bet for value against such an opponent is very narrow, and makes him too easy to play against. Given that, his options are to balance by 3-bet bluffing sometimes, or not to 3-bet any hands at all. Game theory would probably recommend the first option, but this is hard to stomach when you’re trying to avoid variance – either because you’re playing a tournament, as Jon does, or because you’re playing above your bankroll, as Steve was. That being the case, emptying out your 3-bet range for that particular spot becomes a pretty viable option.
Interestingly, if I remember correctly, Jon said that he doesn’t think of flatting with Aces against such a player as slowplaying, because he’s not trapping. That is, he’s not calling with the expectation that the opponent won’t put him on Aces, he’s doing it so that the opponent must include many other hands in his range as well as the Aces and will therefore have more difficult decisions to make later in the hand.
I think we can generalize from this advice and say that you should often consider flatting your full range in spots where all the following conditions are met:
- Your value-raising range, if you had one, would consist of a very small number of hands,
- You don’t feel that bluffs are likely to be profitable and are thus playing a merged rather than a polarized range,
- Your opponent is a thinking player who is likely aware of the above two facts, and
- There is significant action left to come.
Even though it’s Jon’s advice that I’m extrapolating on here, I hope that he won’t mind if I henceforth refer to these types of situations as “Steve’s Dilemma,” because in my opinion, the hand we’re discussing is just about the ultimate example of such a spot.
Back to the hand
So, going back to where we left the action, Steve has 3-bet, gotten one cold call and a cold 4-bet and is now making a decision with $1,250 to call and another $8,000 behind on top of that. If he 5-bets, whether it’s a small raise or an all-in, the information advantage lies entirely with the players behind him, as he’s all but turned his cards face up at that point.
If he calls, on the other hand, the player in the squeeze seat (Samantha Abernathy) may feel priced in to call as well, creating a pot of around $5,500 with $8,000 behind. That’s a perfect stack-to-pot ratio for a check-shove on any non-Ace flop in a live game, and makes it much harder for his opponents to play perfectly, as they can no longer put him on his exact hand. If Abernathy doesn’t call, then the pot’s a little smaller and Steve may have to try to get the chips in on the turn instead (or make a big fold, depending on the runout), but either way, he protects his hand equity by not allowing Shaun to put him on a hyper-narrow range.
Now, I realize that taking Kings multi-way to the flop in a big pot is generally not recommended, but here you have to consider it relative to the alternatives, which are either 5-bet/folding, as Steve did, or stacking off with them in a situation where you’re very likely only getting your opponent to come along when he has the one hand which beats you. Neither of those are good options either and, in my opinion, are considerably worse than letting two people try to outflop you.
As a footnote, I think I have to address the question of the opponent himself. Steve has, predictably, taken a lot of flak for how he played the hand and, in particular, for the way he defended his actions in his article. One of the most common criticisms is that his opponent is Shaun Deeb, who has a reputation for being loose and aggressive. Many have said that Steve should have snap-called based on Deeb’s image, including Matt Glantz, who was also at the table that day.
— Matt Glantz (@MattGlantz) August 27, 2015
The counterpoint to the “but… Deeb!” argument is “but… Ruddock!” The idea that we should stack off because it’s Deeb ignores the fact that Shaun is a great player and therefore capable of putting his opponents on ranges and adjusting his play accordingly. This is not, after all, a preflop raising war between two typical players in typical positions. Steve had a tight image to begin with and had first 3-bet against an early position raiser and then 5-bet against a cold 4-bet. No matter Deeb’s overall style, no one considers that action and Steve’s image and thinks this is a great bluffing spot.
Of course, it is if you know he’s going to fold Kings, but everyone including Deeb was surprised that he did; Deeb had actually made a bit of a misread of his own, saying afterwards that he’d figured Steve for Queens. That was a mistake in its own right, as Steve says he wouldn’t have made a small 5-bet with Queens, and I believe him. So, ultimately, it was a combination of three consecutive errors which led to Steve’s disastrous fold, which leaves me with one final principle to point out: in poker, as in most games, the winner is often the one who makes the second-to-last mistake.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.