February 07, 2010

Finding Gold in the Dirt

Last night, I played a session at the Meadows ATM. My first hand, I post in late position and call a small raise with Js6s. I flop a pair with a flush draw, and hit the flush to crack QQ. A couple of hands later, I play 75s, and again call a small raise. I flop a flush draw with gutshot straight draw, and turn the straight to crack KK. Establish tight image—check. I complete the first orbit when my QQ holds up against Yaks on a junky board. One orbit, three hands, and I’ve already doubled up! Sometimes I play so good.

The next few hours are pretty much a wasteland. Either I get junk cards or I whiff the flop. I take down a few small pots, and give it back one preflop raise or bad c-bet at a time. I crack KK once again when my 54o flops two pair and rivers a boat. But, I give that back when I make a tough call with TPTK holding AT on a Ten-high board, only to have the Q6s flush draw spike a Queen. Eh.

I was thinking about leaving early and locking in the double up when a regular sits down—let’s call him “JT”. JT is a known action player, has pretty good game with a style ranging from LAG to maniac, depending on the table. JT promptly starts playing nearly every hand, raising many hands, which was a big change for the table. JT also made and showed several big bluffs, which helped get him paid when he flopped big with a weird hand. JT’s pièce de résistance, however, came when he cracked a tight young player’s KK with 32s, flopping trips and turning a boat. The kid storms away in disgust, fuming, “That’s just a dirt hand! All you play is dirt!”

Hardly three hands later, the tight old regular sitting next to Dirt Boy raises to $17 preflop. I call with 64o on the button. Flop is 6-5-6. Donkey Kong! Old Grump bets the pot, I raise $50 more. Old Grump points at JT and says, “I’m glad he’s not in the hand.” Old Guy then gives the going home speech and raises to $200. I pretend to think a bit, then push all-in for his last $125. Old Grump snap calls and proudly rolls over his AA (duh! never saw that hand coming). Old Grump looks at my hand and asks the dealer, “What does he have?” The dealer says “six four” and old guy says, “He called $17 with that?” Old Grump says “good hand” dripping with sarcasm, and wanders out of the room. Dirt Boy had returned by this point, and he and a few others at his end of the table continue to murmur amongst themselves, presumably about my “stupid” play. I stack my chips—slowly—then play another orbit, before heading home with a nice profit.

So yeah, you might wonder, why am I boring y’all with another day at the poker office? After all, it’s pretty standard fare for me to crack Aces or Kings. Well, the comments by Dirt Boy and Old Grump are fairly typical of the kinds of comments I often hear after cracking Aces or Kings—“You called me with that trash?” and “You called $X preflop with that crap?” Depending on my mood, I either ignore them or make a snarky comment. But what these crAAKKer victims fail to understand are some important principles of poker that explain why they are bitchy and broke, while I’m happily stacking their chips.

First and foremost, these players place far too much emphasis on preflop hand strength. For many of these players, if they get AA/KK preflop, they feel they are entitled to win the pot, and if they lose, it is only because of some horrendous bad play by their opponent or pure bad luck. I think a lot of this mentality comes from televised and online tournament poker, where players emphasize starting hand strength due to the relatively short stacks in play forcing frequent pushes preflop. But in deep-stacked cash games, starting hand strength, while still important, fades and becomes only one of many factors to consider. As two leading poker analysts put it:

“In deep stack no limit, preflop hands derive most of their value from how well they extract money after the flop from opponents. Comparing hands based on how often they win a showdown or on their poker ‘hand rank’ is worse than worthless.”

—David Sklansky & Ed Miller, “No Limit Hold ‘Em Theory and Practice” (1st Ed., p. 124)

One of my favorite dealers at the Meadows ATM is a bit more pithy—“There are no bad hands, just bad flops.”

Now even I won’t play the extreme “any two cards” style of some maniacs, but hands like connectors and one-gappers Ten-Nine/Eight and below have some useful traits. First, assuming I can put my victim on a premium hand, my hand will almost never be dominated. Thus, I will never be faced with a tough decision, as I will know to a high degree of certainty where I stand postflop. Conversely, my victim will be in the dark as to the relative strength of my hand postflop, and he will be the one facing the tough decision—does my check-raise mean I flopped two pair or trips, or am I on a draw, or am I bluffing? Second, these hands are relatively safe, in that I can get away from them relatively easily postflop, while my victim may feel married to his AA/KK. So, my victim is at much greater risk of stacking off or losing a big pot than I am. Third, these kinds of hands often flop draws, pairs with a draw, or combo draws, giving me great semi-bluffing opportunities. Finally, showing down a few of these hands often sets up good bluffing opportunities on junky boards against other players later in the session.

The second critical error my crAAKKer victims make is to assume no rational player would call their preflop raise without a hand recognized as having a certain showdown “strength”. My victims assume that I would never make the “mistake” of calling a big preflop raise with “just” 75 suited. But, I am a logically oriented person. Why would I make a play my victims regard as irrational? Because my victims are overlooking what may be the most basic principle of poker:

“The key to no limit hold ‘em success isn’t to play perfectly. It’s to swap mistakes with your opponents. You trade small mistakes to your opponents if they will trade back big ones.”

—David Sklansky & Ed Miller, “No Limit Hold ‘Em Theory and Practice” (1st Ed., p. 178)

I don’t play speculative or “dirt” hands against just any opponent. Ideally, my victim is tight preflop, so that a raise means a fairly narrow range of “premium” hands, and a big raise means AA-JJ or AK. This is important because if I can put a player on a hand, but they can’t do the same for me, I have an advantage. Also, the victim should be a player who has trouble laying down Aces or Kings, especially heads up and on a “junky” board. Finally, the victim should be fairly deep-stacked, both to give good implied odds for when I hit (helping my risk-reward ratio), but also for those cases where he gets away with some or all of his stack intact, he may still tilt over getting his AA/KK cracked and give me a second crack at crAAKKing him.

So, when I crack someone’s AA/KK, and they rant on about how I called their $15 preflop raise with “junk”, they are absolutely correct—I did make a small mistake by calling their raise when I knew I was behind their hand. But—and this is key—they made a huge mistake stacking off for $200, $300, or more with only one pair, no matter how big that pair might be. It’s funny how my crAAKKer victims always blame me for the $15 bad preflop call, but rarely acknowledge their bad $200+ play postflop. I’m more than happy to trade those kinds of mistakes all night, or until their ATM card is maxed out.

Finally, let’s be quite clear. I play poker to make money. Cracking AA/KK with “junk” hands is merely a method for getting chips away from tight players, often in large chunks at a time. Although hilarity often ensues, the amusing story is just a fun bonus and is not the point of crAAKKing. Unless of course, my victim is someone annoying; then crAAKKing them is a matter of public service.


  1. Just wanted to add a quick comment to say I enjoy your blog and hope you stick with it. Thanks for taking the time and looking forward to the writeup from the next IMOP.

  2. Joe,

    Thanks for the comment; it's always great to get feedback of any kind, just to know someone is paying attention! I am enjoying the blogging experience so far, and have no plans to quit so long as people keep reading. Hope to hear from you again.

  3. I also enjoy your blog. I'm not that great at poker (yet) but from the sound of it Prairie Meadows has some soft games. I may have to wander down there.