Phil Hellmuth on A Bad Read

I discussed why the power of math and the ability to read your opponents are the essential ingredients in no limit Hold'em tournament success. Well, in the $25,000 buy-in North American Poker Tour High-Roller Shootout held in Vegas last week, I was involved in a hand where I would have been better off relying on pure math alone.

Here's what happened: I let poker pros John Duthie and Hevad Khan repeatedly run over my blinds. They kept raising my big blind and I never reraised in response. In four hours of play, I called raises only twice from the big blind and won only a single pot from that position.

That's some pretty weak poker on my part, especially given that the blinds and antes were escalating every forty minutes – and that's very, very fast.

I really don't mind if other players try to run over my blinds when the tournament structure is slow. I'm actually conditioning them into thinking they can bluff me whenever they want. Then, when it really counts, I'll call them down and win a huge pot by slow playing a big hand. For example, I'll call with A-K suited in the big blind and then check my hand on the flop and the turn with the board showing A-K-4-6.

It's a different story, however, when the structure is fast. You just can't let a bad run of cards dictate that you fold every big blind for three hours straight. The best tactic to employ when an opponent is constantly raising your blind is to occasionally reraise them to let them know that you simply will not roll over every time.

I normally rely on my reading ability to determine when I should reraise from the big blind but sometimes I end up folding because I can't get a strong read. The same thing is likely to happen when I'm playing online where reads are difficult to obtain.

These are the precise situations where math plays are most critical.

The math play assumes that your opponent doesn't always have a strong hand. As a result, you should occasionally go ahead and reraise out of the big blind. In fact, had the NAPT tournament been played online, I would have played more aggressively and reraised Duthie and Khan when they came knocking at my big blind door. They'd soon realize that mine was not a weak blind that could be stolen without a fight.

With the blinds at $600/$1,200 plus a $100 ante, Duthie opened for $3,600. I was in the small blind and looked down at K-J. I thought for a long time. My initial read was that Duthie's hand was strong because he opened for a full three-times-the-big-blind raise. Nonetheless, I somehow convinced myself that he was weak and moved all-in for $22,700.

Duthie said he hoped I didn't have pocket aces, and then he made the call with As-Ks. I went on to lose the hand and bust out of the tournament. All because of one lousy read. Look, I'm not always able to make the correct read – no one is.

But you don't have to read every single opponent perfectly every single time to win a poker tournament, let alone eleven World Series of Poker championship bracelets. It's much more important that you're able to read an opponent perfectly a mere once or twice per hour.

Next time, I'll rely more on the math play and hope that my read is good enough in those very few hands when I really need to get it right!

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