02/01/2006 12:00AM

Using clues to identify a foe's weakness


In horse racing, it is useful to have an assortment of winning angles in your handicapping arsenal, angles that can trump overall basic handicapping principles. The same seems to be true for hold 'em poker.

In horse racing, winning angles tend to focus on the specialized performance statistics of trainers or the effective lift given by various equipment and/or surface changes. In poker, the most potent winning angles focus on how to apply pressure to weak players, setting traps to win more chips, and making convincing bluffs at the right moment with effective power plays.

Yet, the most effective angle I thus far have seen in poker does not necessarily relate to the outcome of the hand being played. It relies on gaining information about a given player's natural tendencies under fire, a tactic that can pay dividends in future hands.

Let me give you a specific example that came from an early hand in a recent one-table, $50 buy-in, no-limit hold 'em tournament. The blinds were $20-40 and all players had between $1,300 and $1,800 in chips. The tournament paid out to the three top places.

After seven players folded, I raised to $120 with 8-8 from the small blind. The big blind put up the needed $80 to call my raise and see the flop, which came up rainbow 4-6-7, leaving me with top pair and an inside straight draw.

After this ragged flop, I bet the size of the pot ($240), making it moderately expensive for my opponent to proceed with a marginal hand. Pending what he did, I would have all the evidence I needed to figure out his two-card holding, and I might even gain insight to his style of play for future reference.

If he folded (rather than putting in the $240, or making a significant or "all-in" raise), I would know that he probably had bought into the flop with AJ, or A10, or A-x, but not a pair in the hole. If he had A7 suited he might have called my pre-flop wager heads up, but anything weaker would have or should have been folded right then and there.

Now, after this seemingly innocent flop, a raise by this player - into the teeth of my pre-flop bet and a bet after the flop - would have indicated possible trips with a pair in the hole, or at least a pair of sevens with an ace kicker. To raise with anything weaker would have been a reckless play by someone who did not appreciate the odds against him catching a winning hand. Just a hunch player, this player would be destined for broke in many future hands.

An aggressive raise by a good player in this situation could only be designed to take the money right now rather than be potentially victimized by a straight being made on the turn or river. But if this raise was being made as an attempted bluff, it bore the risk of trying to convince me to fold a hand that I had already declared as relatively strong, which is not a wise time to make a calculated bluff.

He raised, $480.

While there was no 100 percent guaranteed winning play for me in this situation, I decided to call, thinking that I could recover with about $1,000 in chips if he followed up this play with another raise on the turn. When a 10 came out on the turn, I checked to the raiser, who also checked, which was the key piece of information to convince me he did not have trips, a fact that was borne out when he folded to my all-in bet after another 10 fell on the river.

Most any player would have realized at this point that he needed trips to win if we were going to go to a showdown. Lacking three of a kind, he was going to be crippled with an inferior hand for no good reason.

The information gained in this hand led me to see that my opponent was loose to a point where he could be pulled into a pot with a mediocre holding, a player who sometimes overbet his cards. This aspect of his game led to a later score that knocked him out of the tournament. A few weeks later, I found myself playing on the same table with him and made another score.

The angle here was to let myself be vulnerable for one reasonable bet in order to get a quick and reliable read on a player I would face many times in this tournament and possibly later.

That was akin to seeing a new trainer at your home track lose a few races with well-bet stock. With the winning touch, you could bet along with him, but if his first few heavily bet horses underperformed their odds, you probably should look elsewhere for better-priced winners. Fact is, all winning angles in horse racing and in poker come from the discipline of deductive reasoning applied to available information.

Steve Davidowitz plays as "StevenLD" on various Internet poker sites and is the author of the classic handicapping book "Betting Thoroughbreds."