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Damage Control

This month, Daniel Negreanu outlines ways to get out with your chip stack and dignity intact when you sense a rough road ahead.

One of the real keys to applying small-ball efficiency is the ability to get away from situations where it looks like you’re in danger. By playing so many hands and playing them aggressively, you are going to find yourself getting raised quite often. If that gets under your skin, it could cause you to veer from the central concept that makes small ball effective.

While you want to be the aggressor at the table, you should be extremely cautious about continuing with the hand when someone plays back at you—unless your hand is very strong or you strongly suspect that your opponent is bluffing you.

Hand in Action

You raise before the flop with 8-8 and only the big blind calls the raise. The flop comes Jh-6d-4c.

Your opponent checks, you bet about 65 percent of the pot, and your opponent check-raises you. This is a trickier situation than it first appears because your opponent is more likely to raise you with weaker hands if you have been playing lots of hands and betting the flop consistently.

Depending on your opponent, he could have any of the following hands in this situation:

• Top pair or better
• A flush and/or straight draw
• A pair lower than 8-8
• Ace high
• Absolutely nothing

How you proceed is obviously very read dependent, but I would strongly advise you to lean toward folding. Yes, while it’s true that your opponents are more likely to be making plays against you, you don’t want to play the guessing game in marginal situations for large percentages of your chips.

Also, the 8-8 just doesn’t play very well after the flop. In fact, in this situation you’d be much better off with a hand such as K-6. It is almost as good as 8-8, but with the K-6, you’d have five outs to improve your hand rather than just two.

But no matter what happens, you’re going to get bluffed from time to time. But probably the best advice I could ever give you when it comes to no-limit hold ‘em tournament poker is that people don’t bluff nearly as much as you think they do. Pros win because they play big pots with the best hand, not because they used super-advanced bluffing strategies. Pros win because they depend on the fact that you just won’t believe them. In order for a pro to cultivate that ‘wild’ image, he may choose to play lots of hands, giving the impression he’s doing a lot of wild bluffing. Watch a little closer. Sure, the pro may be raising tons of hands before the flop, but notice what happens when the big money goes in after the flop. Look at the types of hands a pro will turn over when everything is on the line. One thing you can be sure of is that you’ll generally see a premium hand, not some random hand with no chance to improve.

The goal of the small-ball approach, therefore, is to look for high-percentage opportunities to play big pots and, and avoid playing big pots that require a lot of guesswork. While this approach might seem easily exploitable, that’s not the case. Players will often try to use a counterstrategy: force you to play big pots by over-betting the pot. With that strategy, though, your opponent is risking a higher percentage of his chips on his bluffs. And when you have a strong hand, he’ll be giving you extra action with his overbets.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your composure when playing small ball. You’ll go through streaks when you get raised time and time again—don’t crack! A good opportunity will usually present itself. I’ve seen far too many good, young players go broke after being reraised and bullied a few hands in a row. Eventually, the youngster gets fed up with it all, makes a move at the wrong pot, and winds up heading for the exit.
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