Lessons are sometimes painful in poker

Sep 8, 2009 5:10 PM
The Inside Straight by Joe Awada |

We’ve heard it many times before, that patience is key to winning at poker.

A perfect example occurred during the World Series of Poker, when I was asked by a friend of mine, Jim Snead, who runs a Washington state casino, to coach his younger brother, Paul Snead, who was among the chip leaders heading toward the final table.

When I got to the tournament room and looked around, I noticed practically all the players were in their 20s. My first thought was to advise Paul to take it easy, cruise, play very selectively and not get involved unless you really have a big hand.

His wife was there, and she was a nervous wreck. With about 20 players left, he was sixth or seventh in chips; if he takes it easy and plays conservatively, he should make the final table – worth at least a one million, and possibly another one- to two-million in endorsements.

Look at the players around you, I told him, they’re going to get excited, play for the TV cameras, especially the first 20 or 30 minutes, when everyone is wound up.

However, when play starts he gets involved right away. In the first hand he goes up against Tiffany Michelle and takes about a million or million and a half chips from her.

I could see he was hyper, and I kept advising his wife to encourage him to take a deep breath and take it easy.

Paul gets involved in another hand, wins a pot and is up to 11 million in chips – right there with the chip leaders.

I suggested he was in great shape, but that he can’t continue to get involved; be more selective. Just cruise, unless you get a big hand. Then make a big move, not small moves.

However, he immediately gets involved in a pot with ace-jack, a decent starting hand but one that can lead to disaster. The flop comes king-jack-jack and he has a big hand with three jacks. His opponent, I call him the kid, bets about three or four hundred thousand. But rather than raise all-in or an amount that would put the kid all-in, Paul only re-raises about $1.5 million, which the kid calls after a lot of thought. You have to believe at this point, the kid has a decent hand, maybe pocket aces or ace-king in order to make that call.

The turn brought another king to the board, and the kid bet the rest of his chips, about two or three million. Unfortunately, Paul calls him and he loses the five million he just won.

So he’s down to six million chips. I call him over and tell him, look, you’re back to where you were. Just take it easy, especially now. A great player knows how to handle losing a hand like that. Not when they’re winning. His response was, "Yeah, but, if I would have won that hand, the tournament’s over."

Paul, if you won you would have had 16 million, but the tournament’s not over. The only thing that can be over tonight is you. You can’t win the tournament today, you can only lose it.

We have a break in the action, and the players retire to their own lounge area. I meet with Paul and his wife, who practically begs him, "Listen to Joe."

Paul, I advised, you’re getting too involved; you’re playing way too many hands. In the case of the ace-jack, you got the flop you wanted, but you didn’t finish it right.

Nonetheless, let’s look ahead. You have to have a short memory. You need to forget all that has happened. Remember, you’re here playing for the final table. You may come back next year and find yourself in the same situation. Or you may never be in this spot again, in your life-time! So, take it very seriously. Be patient.

So the strategy I wanted him to follow is this: Even though you have about six million left, when you go back to the table, play as if you have only two and a half million. And play as if you have to win the hand – no speculating, no slow playing. Thus, don’t play any hand unless you know it has a great chance of winning.

I felt like a trainer sending a fighter back into the ring. "You’re playing for your family (he has three kids) at this point. Not just playing for yourself or the TV cameras. You can’t get swept up in the glamour and excitement."

But it wasn’t even five minutes before he was involved in a hand with jack-six, both hearts, against the young kid again.

This is not a hand you want to be involved with. I think he called a raise before the flop to play this hand, which makes it doubly bad.

The flop comes jack (diamond), 10 (diamond) and 3 of hearts. All right, at this point, Paul has top pair (jacks), but there’s a possible flush draw on the board. The kid checks and Paul makes a bet. Well, the kid comes back over the top and re-raises all-in. I’m telling Paul’s wife, the kid has to have something, even if it’s only a flush draw, and I’m hoping Paul throws away his hand, even if it was top pair.

But after a long deliberation, Paul calls the bet with nearly all his remaining chips. They showed their hands, and all the kid had was ace-four, off-suit. Nothing. No pair, no flush draw, nothing.

The turn comes the 8 of hearts. This helped Paul’s chances because now he couldn’t be beaten if an ace of hearts came up on the river. There’s only two aces left in the deck that can beat him, just like in the previous hand there was only two kings in the deck that could beat him.

Sure enough, the ace of diamond lands on the river. It broke my heart to see that card come up. I felt like I was playing and lost.

Looking back, he had two outs both times where he shouldn’t have been involved. I felt so bad for the young guy and his wife.

It’s a shame, since he was in position to cruise to the final table. He quickly went out after that in 21st position.

I know how he felt, we’ve all been there. It’s a horrible feeling, knowing you were so close and not making it to the final round.

Paul’s a good, aggressive poker player, but sometimes you need to slow down and take smaller steps, which can ultimately carry you to the final table.

You can try out your strategy by playing our free live online poker.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Joe Awada