Harrington on Hold ’em

Recently I’ve started playing online poker again, after not having played for a while. Whereas in real life I’m a PLO fan, I’ve finally succumbed to just playing Texas on-line. I can hold my own at the low-limit Omaha games, but it gets too scary too quickly as you move up the tables. In Texas there are still loads of people who seem to have learned by watching TV and think that you’re meant to go all-in every time you get a pair of sevens…

The big problem with playing Texas, of course, is that it’s dull. I generally play tight, so most of the time it’s just fold – fold – fold – fold – fold. It’s generally not worth paying more than minimal attention to the other players, as they come and go so frequently, so unless I’ve something else to do at the same time, I end up playing more games than I should, just out of boredom.

So I’ve recently started playing tournaments. You still get a lot of wild players, particularly early on as the loose players try to double up, but there’s much more to be gained from studying the other players when you’re not in the hand and taking copious notes. For the first few weeks I played fairly solidly, generally ending up at the final table (out of 35-40 starters), and about 33-50% of the time ending in the money (i.e. top 5). But generally I find myself too short at the end, and have to make a wild move just to avoid getting blinded out. The games where I’m in the money are generally because I just refuse to play any games at all, and a few players above me end up going all in and losing out in the inevitable KK v AA or AKs v QQ battles.

I knew that I needed to loosen up a bit as the tables started thinning out, but didn’t really know how, and my early attempts ended in disaster, as my average finishing position started dropping to about 15. So, based on a few recommendations, I bought the first volume of Harrington on Hold ’em and took it to Birmingham with me last week.

It convinced me that my problem isn’t that I should be playing looser, it’s that in the hands that I do decide to play I should play much more aggressively. Even with a good hand I play far too cautiously, probably in large part as I’m much more used to Omaha, where your nut flush will regularly come in third to the full house and the quads. So even when I win hands, I win much less than I should.

I need to re-read the book and work through the exercises in more detail, but armed with a few basic rules, and a general resolve to play tight but aggressive, tonight I entered my first tournament since getting back home, to see what difference it made.

I managed to double up early with a few good hands one after another, and found myself relocated to another table positioned just before the tournament leader who was playing really aggressively, and whose favourite opening bet seemed to be about 10-20 times the big blind. The few times he’d had to reveal his cards they were generally along the lines of 87o or Q4s.

I tightened up considerably, and eventually the big hand came around. I’m on the big blind at $15/$30, and the big bully raises to $600. The second highest stack, who is also playing aggressively (although not quite so recklessly) calls. Everyone else folds round to the small blind who is down to just over $500 and, seeing a chance to treble his money, calls all in. I’m holding QQ, so put in a $1200 raise. Both loose players call. The flop delivers a rainbow KK2.

The small blind is all-in, so I’m first to act. Previously, I would have been scared that at least one of the two active players, who have, after all, either put in or called substantial raises pre-flop, will be sitting on one of the other kings, and I would just have checked, and then mucked my hand when someone bet.

Now, however, even though I’m still scared, I open with a bet of $720, which is just over half my remaining chips. Both active players fold, and the small blind flips AQo for the all-in showdown. No aces arrive and I jump to over $5500 as the new table leader.

I haven’t really mastered the art of playing the role of table bully myself yet, so I continued to play tight, letting the other two loose players, who still have decent sized piles, muscle the others around and gradually take the table lead back again. Although in theory I know that it’s easier to take the money off the weaker players at an earlier stage than have to take it off the players later who have survived that far, I’m happy enough for the two loose players to pick everyone off as I figure I’ll be comfortable enough standing up to them when I do get a hand.

And sure enough, a while later, a three way fight leads to two people dropping out, and I’m left at a four-handed table before people get reshuffled. Blinds are at $50/$100, and I’m on the second biggest stack (still immediately before the big bully from previously who’s now back up to about 1.5x my stack). I’m on the small blind, and with A♣K♣, raise $600. The big blind calls, and we go heads up. The flop comes A♠ K♠ Q♦.

If my opponent happens to be holding JT I’m set to lose a lot of money, but I’m much more worried about giving him a needless free card for a straight draw if he’s holding one of those, so I bet just over half the pot. He just calls, which I read as much more of a sign of weakness than I would have previously.

The turn is 6♦, which is unlikely to help him but there are now two suits where he could conceivably be drawing to a flush. So, with the pot at $2700 I lead with $1800. Again he just calls.

The river is 5♣ which misses all possible flush or straight draws. My stack is down to under $3000, and I should probably have just gone all-in, but I wimped out and just bet $2000 of it. Again, he calls. My top two pair hold up, and I pocket over $10,000 without discovering what he was calling with. I’d like to think it was either AJ or AT, limping along with top pair and a straight draw, or Ax in spades or diamonds looking for the flush (or maybe even top pair with draws for both the straight and the flush). Whatever it was was hugely expensive, with a $5000 swing each way suddenly reducing his dominating $7500 table lead to well below average $2500.
A round or two later, having dispatched a few stragglers unsuccessfully trying to double up, I found myself with more than half the chips in the entire tournament, with two tables still playing, and managed to stay that way until the end, winning my first ever multi-table tournament.

I picked up Volume 2 in Birmingham, which promises to teach me much more about playing at short handed tables and one-on-one. If it’s even half as good as the first one, and my win tonight wasn’t a complete fluke, it should pay for itself in no time at all…

9 thoughts on “Harrington on Hold ’em

  1. Interesting post, I have been tracking my results and have found that the patient kind of poker Harrington preaches pays off consistently. I agree that people do get the wrong impression watching edited poker tournaments, and start making mistakes like pushing marginal hands, playing AK like it’s the holy grail and seeing too many flops.

    This is obviously great news for a patient player. If your getting your fair share of premium hands then you should be able to get your money in with the best of it once or twice and hour and win a good sized pot. Pick up a few uncontested pots here and there and your are well on your way to the final table. I see flops on average 24% of the time, and avoid boredom during long strecthes of poor cards by watching tv or researching poker theory on the web.

    Harringtons 2 volumes are great and I also recomend:Cloutier/McEvoy’s Championship Hold em Tournament Hands and Championship NL\PL Holdem , Sklansky’s Hold em Poker for Advanced Players and The Theory of Poker. Sklansky’s short chapter on “What you must realize when playing heads up” is required reading and his question/answer summary sections are phenomenal. They are written in a convesational style and pick his brain on what constitutes correct play in all kinds of situations. ex. What Criteria must be met for a slowplay to be correct or Is it ever correct to raise with a drawing hand?

    Good luck with your game. Cheers!

  2. I have to completely agree with you about Harrington on Hold em I and II. I first started playing NLH in the fall of 05 and the only thing I knew how to do was shuffle the cards. I had no concept of starting hand requirements, how to read the board,or how to respond to the bully. Reading this book completely revolutionized my game. Since purchasing both HOH I and II I have increased my poker bankroll from around 1000 to about 30,000 playing in small buy in tournaments and small buy in sit and gos.

    As far as playing at a table with the maniac, HOH I has an entire section called “the hammer” that describes how you optimally play against this type of player. Essentially you allow the maniac to do your betting for you. Lets say you pick up K,Qs and its you and the maniac who see the flop and the flop comes K, 8, 2. This is a perfect flop for you. According to HOH I you should let the maniac take the lead and simply call his bets. ON the river, you HAMMER him with a big bet. Using his agression against him and picking up a huge pot in the process. Since the maniac plays weak starting hands he probably played the 8 or even the 2 all the way to the river. He was banking on you folding to his big bets.

    HOH II is another great book for the later stages of the tournament. I specifically increased my knowledge of short stack poker in the section called “inflection points”. Overall both books have made me a much better poker player and a winning poker player. I would recommend both books to anyone who is new or wants to play better NLH.

  3. ?? What levels are you playing?

    You see a guy bettin 600 preflop with blinds 15/30?

    Thats not a good player or even a bully thats prob a drunk guy

  4. seriously like this post and all the comments im seeing.. 24% of hands played (way way to high)

    researching stuff or watching tv while you play..

    and you guys wonder why your losing players

  5. Hello you poker nuts outs there….

    Interesting post. But re-raising with those QQs were a bit frisky. Just calling in the BB would have prevented an re-opening of the betting, as you could have been met with another all-in for all your chips, leaving yourself with a difficult decision. (a coin-flip against AK and 2-1 against A-x, K-x) That flop was difficult enough though, in a dreaded “way ahead, or way behind” type of situation, but you were right to bet anyway…

    Harringtons ideas have later been supplemented by concepts like “floating”, overbetting with monsters and inducing a squeeze from middle position with stronger hands. Every strategy results in counter-moves, and as such you must be prepared for more tricky plays as you move up in limits. Harringtons basic approach is rather tight and based on a better survival-math against most typical opponents, but in my experience this approach usually works quite well before almost everybody is short-stacked and are forced to be making moves with lesser hands. But calculating your effective M is crucial, even if some of your opponents apparently do not even understand the Gap-concept… As for more on final table short-stack dynamics, I’ll recommend Collin Moshmans “Sit’n Go Strategy”. Pot-sizes, stack-sizes, your available number of hands and everything is covered in a comprehensive way there too…

    See you at the tables!

    I’ll be a great player one day myself…
    (But not today….)

    Conrad Holm (aka Jarier on FullTilt and NordicBet)

  6. You said “without discovering what he was calling with.” somewhere in that^^.if you look at the hand history most(maybe all) sites will show your opponents mucked hands

  7. Tight players starting hands are between 10-20% and 20% is border.Early is 10-15% enough but in middle stages you must open starting requirements.Generaly you are still tight but you use wide range for stealing. Harrington didnt prefer conservative approach – he recommended this style only for live cash games (in early 80´ preferably:)In part five: Betting before flop he has liberal range. In consideration of his results it is not bad approach
    but WSOP is not 2$ donkament.

  8. @lalala

    Not really – 24% on a 10 person table is a little high, but on a six man table.. well i’ve found it hard to stay below 30% on a passive table. 12% is just unraised big blind (3 out of 4 times). about 4% is very weak players giving you the odds to call with marginal hands on the small blind (About 1 in 4 times)…you’re at 16% with virtually no risk other than your required blinds and the occaisional 1/2 bet.

    And tournament play – if your tracking it (with Poker Office say) you’ll get to the final table with respectable VPIP figures, but once it gets really short handed (4/3 or heads up) your going to be in with it an awful lot. Folding hand after hand when the blinds are almost an 1/8th of the biggest stack on the table is going to get you out of the tournament very quickly.

    Check your stats after winning, and your nice respectable “tight aggressive” VPIP rating that you kept under 20% for most of the tournament, has been pissed out of the window, and could very easily be over 30%.

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