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  Poker not your game!
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Defense against the Semi Bluff
By Ashley Adams
January 23, 2005

When you were starting out you'd try very hard to play with the worst players in the casino.  Your stakes were low and so was the quality of your opposition.  You won your money by taking advantage of the bad play of those stiffs at the low limit table.  You didn't need to vary your play much.  Careful,  patient,  steady,  tight-aggressive play got the money from players who were too loose and too passive for their own good.

But with your success came ambition.   You weren't content to win two or even three big bets an hour at the low stakes game.   You wanted action and excitement at the higher stakes game.  And so you moved up.

One problem,  though - the players are better.   You're facing the same friendly lineup of stiffs.  You're against people who really know what they're doing.   So your strategy of just waiting for their mistakes isn't nearly as effective.

You've also noticed that your opponents are putting moves on you.   You're not used to this.   It used to be that you were the aggressor on a table of calling stations.   How do you deal with aggression from others?

There are generally three ways to deal effectively with an aggressive opponent.  You can avoid them,  neutralize them with passivity,  or use their aggression against them.   I'll deal quickly with the first two and focus on the last.

Avoidance is the technique you used at the lower stakes games for the most part.  You stayed there so you wouldn't be facing a bully.  And if the game you sat down in seemed to have some tough players,  you'd go to a softer game.  This was and is a perfectly respectable way of dealing with aggression:   To avoid it if you can.

You can also neutralize the aggression by playing neutrally in return.  (I will write a future article on this.)   But leave it to say that you are less reactive than you might normally be to the moves of the aggressive player - countering with passivity rather than with strength.   It's a tactic that works especially well against the wild,  loose-aggressive player.

But I'd like to focus on the technique of aggression against the aggressor - beating him at his own game for the most part.  Let me give you some specifics to consider.

A semi-bluff is an effective weapon used by good aggressive players.  Just for review,  it's a bluff with a back-up plan.   You hope that your bet or your raise will get your opponent to fold.  But if it doesn't work then you still have the possibility of improving to what is likely to be the best hand on the next card.  I covered it in some detail in my last article.

So - the semi-bluff is a good weapon.  What's an effective counter if it's used on you?  Let's say your opponent raises in early position with a King up.   It's the highest up card on the table.  You've been watching him and you suspect that he is raising as a semi-bluff - probably with another high card and another suited card to go with his scary King.  Maybe he has a low pair in the hole.   Either way,  you suspect that he doesn't have much to go with that King.

Let's say you have a pair of 8s in the hole and a suited ten up.  You have a relatively tight image.  The observant opponents,  among whom you'd include the guy with the King,  would surely have noticed that you don't play many hands.  Typically,  you know, you would fold that pair of 8s,  knowing that they were behind what appeared to be a pair of Kings.

Let's look at other options.  If you suspect that the King really was not a pair of Kings you might be tempted to call - since your pair might well be the high hand and you wouldn't want to fold for a single bet.  Maybe he'd give up on the bluff attempt on Fourth Street if you showed a little backbone and called on Third.

Yeah,  maybe.   Sometimes that call makes sense - especially if you've read your opponent for the type of player who will make only one stab at the pot and then back off if the bluff fails.  But there's another move that I think generally works better.

Next time you're against a player whom you suspect of semi-bluffing,  semi-bluff him back!   He raises with his King?   You raise with your 10!   What you're doing is giving yourself two ways to win.  First of all,  he might fold to your raise,  assuming that you have either read him correctly or that you are really loaded.  With a hidden pair of Aces or trips.  Either way,  he might back off for the additional bet - something he surely wouldn't have done if you just called.  And,  if you hit one of those five cards on Fourth Street that really improve your hand you will either be likely to be far in the lead  (with one of the two 8s)  or look like you're likely to be far in the lead  (with one of the three 10s).

The addition of the possibility that he will fold to your raise with the possibility that you will hit a great card on Fourth Street if he doesn't fold make this an excellent play much of the time.

Now,  that being said, you don't want to overdo it.   First,  keep this move for those situations when you really do have some value to your hand - when it really can improve to a superior hand.  You don't want to start doing this recklessly just because you can with any card.  There needs to be the chance that you'll improve to a very strong hand on the next card.

Second,  you want to pick your opponents.  This move works on your fairly tight-aggressive opponents - the ones who are also careful with their aggression.   There needs to be some chance that the move will succeed initially as a bluff - that it will get your opponent to fold.   If your opponent is just a wildman who raises all the time and will surely call your reraise - or re-reraise you - then the move doesn't make sense.

Consider what hand you'll be representing to your opponent with your raise.  Think about what your move makes your opponent think you have.  This can become a very heady game.  Consider,  for example,  in this instance,  when you raised his King with a 10,  if you have had a very tight image,  your opponent may think either than you have a hidden pair of Aces,  trip 10s,  or that you are reading him for overplaying his hand - failing to give him credit for the Kings that he is representing - in which case he might read you for only a pair of 10s or a hidden pair.   If he is a particularly skilled and observant opponent,  if he puts you on a hand less than trips or a hidden pair of Aces,  he might even raise you back again,  saying in effect that he really does have the Kings.

Against an opponent like this you might wish that you had chosen another time to make this move - like maybe when you had at least an Ace up.   With an Ace up you'd be representing a pair of Aces - a more likely hand given that there are more ways for pairs to be split than to be hidden.   Your tight-aggressive opponent might be more likely then to think that you really do have him beaten with a pair of Aces - and that he should fold.   But if your opponent is particularly insightful,  and knows what you know about poker - he might assume that you know that he knows this and might be more likely to represent a stronger hand when you have something that looks like it might be stronger.  Hence,  with your Ace up,  he'd know that you'd be more likely to be bluffing than to actually have the pair of Aces.

As you can see,  there are many levels on which to play this fascinating game.   For now though,  let's keep it simple.   Pick your spots for semi-bluffing the semi-bluffer carefully. And don't be afraid to stand up to the bully with some bullying tactics of your own.  They will give you another way to win.

Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 42 years,  since learning the game literally at his grandfather's knee.  He's been playing seriously  (and winning)  in casinos,  poker rooms,  living rooms and kitchens all over the world,  for the past 12 years.  He started playing seriously in 1993 at the poker room in Foxwoods Resort Casino and he's been winning just about ever since.  He's won No Limit Hold‘Em and 7-Card Stud tournaments in Connecticut,  Massachusetts,  California and Nevada.

He is the author of  Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003)  and articles in Card Player Magazine,  Poker Player Magazine,  Live Action Poker Magazine,  Southwestern Poker Magazine,  5thStreet Magazine,  and numerous online sites.  He is under agreement for his next book,  Winning Low Limit/No Limit Hold‘Em,  due to be published by Kensington in early 2006.

He is by profession a union organizer and negotiator,  representing broadcasters,  health care workers and now teachers.  He has two daughters,  both of whom play poker.


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