Poker pro Little’s strategy debatable yet interesting

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Jonathan Little is a highly regarded poker pro and writer/teacher; but that doesn’t mean he is always correct. In a recent publication, he described an interesting hand in a high-stakes no-limit hold’em tournament that cost him a substantial portion of his chip stacks.

The table was seven handed. In a late position Jonathan was dealt pocket Kings – a great starting-hand. This is a made hand preflop. It could win the pot without further improvement. Most likely, it will not improve, with only two outs to catch a set. The odds are about 8-to-1 against. Then, after the flop, the odds increase to about 11-to-1 against.

So, keeping that in mind, what is the best way to play this hand? Jonathan re-raised preflop from his hijack position after a raise from “a splashy player.” It would have been interesting to know how that opponent’s “splashy” playing style affected Jonathan’s decisions during that hand. And, I am curious as to how he decided on the amount of his reraise. Indeed, what was his strategy while playing his K-K in the hole?

In any case, I agree a re-raise was the right decision. Before the flop, Jonathan’s pocket Kings almost certainly was the top hand. Only pocket Aces would have been better, for which the odds were much against any of his six opponents holding that hand – almost 40-to-1.

Since he was not likely to improve his pocket Kings, he should protect it as much as possible. How? The amount of his re-raise is one way; the more chips he wagers, the less likely an opponent will call with a marginal drawing hand – like Q-10 offsuit.

A second tactic to thin the playing field is the Esther Bluff. As I have explained in previous columns, it’s a psychological method for embedding your message into your opponent’s “head,” convincing him to fold his hand and save his chips.

As the hand played out, the flop included a Queen and a ten, giving an opponent two-pair, which ultimately took that pot away from Jonathan. He commented at the end of his column: “It certainly could have been worse.” Perhaps so; yes, he could have lost even more of his precious chips. But, that’s a negative way of looking at this situation; I would prefer to look at it from a positive viewpoint: How could he have prevented the loss – and, more likely, won that pot?

It’s a matter of probability: Preflop, pocket Kings is about a 70 percent favorite over each opponent’s hand. With three or more opponents staying to see the flop, it becomes a distinct underdog – more likely to lose. So, Jonathan was wise to re-raise preflop to discourage callers. Unfortunately for Jonathan, an opponent holding Q-10 offsuit, chose to call his preflop re-raise – and, ultimately connected with the two-pair hand that took the pot away from him.

In hindsight, I cannot but wonder what would have been the end result if Jonathan had made a bigger raise; and what if he had also used the Esther Bluff tactic.

I recognize Little is a highly qualified poker pro and I read his words often. He has twice won the WPT championship and earned more than $6 million in big tournaments. So, before submitting this column for publication in GamingToday, I thought I should invite Jonathan to comment on my draft.

His response.

“If you are afraid of getting outdrawn, you should push all-in before the flop. That certainly isn’t how you win at poker though. When you play in a manner to extract maximum value, sometimes you get outdrawn. Also, I am certainly not trying to bluff with K-K. I want calls from all sorts of junk, recognizing that sometimes I will lose.”

Based on Jonathan’s comment, I realize we are looking at similar situations from different perspectives: I as a low-limit cash-game recreational player, and he as a no-limit/tournament player. That can make a big difference.

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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