Though I certainly stock this deceptive and sometimes very profitable play in my poker tool box, I must admit I’ve never been a big fan of slow playing. Playing a strong hand weakly or passively or spinelessly just isn’t in my nature. I always try to establish an aggressive table image – someone who plays his premium holdings aggressively, but who will, on occasion, bluff with the same aggression – so slow playing often goes against the grain of my game.
Because of my aggressive table image, opponents usually give me as much action as I desire. My slow plays thus only ring alarm bells. That being said, give me a pocket pair and let me hit quads and I will check and flat-call that monster down to the river if need be and pray someone gets ballsy and makes a terrible mistake. Or let’s say I flop an improbable straight flush or something like that. Then I’ll slow play. But in almost no other instance do I think it wise or profitable to slow play strong starting hands or well-hit boards. Too often, much too often, the slow play merely winds up chomping you in the ass.
In his seminal book The Theory of Poker, David Sklansky succinctly spells out the conditions for profitable slow play: 1) naturally, you must have a strong hand – you only slow play garbage if you plan to make an aggressive bluff at the turn or river; 2) the free card granted to your opponents ideally should make them a second-best hand; 3) that same free card must not give them a better hand or even give them a draw to a better hand on the next round with pot odds to justify a call; 4) also, you have to believe that any aggression will drive out opponents and curtail the chances of building a sizable pot; and finally, 5) the pot should not as yet be large.
I think these are sound principles, and definitely one should consider them before embarking on a slow play. But some individuals, perhaps patterning their game after the python, believe that relentless deception, stealth and slow constriction will bring them more meat in the end than overt aggression.
A case in point is an acquaintance of mine I’ll name Einstein for the purposes of this column. Einstein may well be one of the smartest people I know – a PhD in Medieval Studies, a consummate flautist and a bona fide chess wizard. But when it comes to poker he has a serious leak in his game: an almost pathological aversion to raising. He will not raise if he has the stone-cold nuts, he will not raise on the river when he knows he has the winning hand, he will not raise with pocket aces or kings or Big Slick pre-flop – he simply will not raise under any circumstances. As a result he sometimes turns over absurd monster hands to players attempting to bluff or raising with only the second-best hand, much to the chagrin of these fellows. It’s amazing when people move all-in on him and he calls and shows them the nuts. But this strategy only works on occasion. More often than not it blows up in his face.
When asked about his aversion to raising, no matter what his holdings, Einstein offered this lame explanation. “Whenever I raise with premium hands I always get more than one caller and invariably I get dirtied, so I try to keep the pots small. Then if I hit I let buddy bet into me and take as many chips as he wants to give me.”
Einstein told me this with a very straight face, his otherwise intelligent eyes betraying slivers of the poker moron inside him. I told him that if he continued slow playing he would never become a winning poker player. But perhaps someone as brilliant and successful as Einstein doesn’t seek victory at the poker table. He is playing some other game, one of his own Byzantine devising, which the rest of us dumdums cannot fathom. Well, that may well be true, but let me recount an incident that occurred not too long ago during an evening of cards at my friend Carmine’s house. The fellows who gather at this game vary in skills, but because the stakes are low some creativity is permitted and even encouraged.
Anyway, Einstein is a regular at this game and does reasonably well, given its low limits and its looseness. And I must admit that Einstein has burned me on occasion with his slow-playing style, you know, calling me to the river with a nut flush or a full boat or what have you to whatever garbage I’m betting with, for as mentioned I am aggressive. But now and then his strategy backfires badly on him, and when he cries then, no one feels sympathy for him, for he has been warned.
So during one particular hand I find myself on the button with a jack-9 of clubs, a hand I don’t like as much as some people do. Nevertheless, in a limped pot with three already in, I call and wait to see what the blinds do. The small blind calls and Einstein, in the big, checks. So what we have are six players in this limped pot. The flop comes 10 of clubs, 7 of diamonds and queen of clubs. My God, I think, I’m on a straight-flush draw. The pot is checked to a player in the cut-off, who makes a healthy bet. I figure I’m going to get my chips in on this hand but I don’t want to shoot my wad right now, so I call and hope I hit the turn and then all the chips will go in. To my surprise Einstein calls. Except for the guy in the cut-off, everyone else folds, and then the cut-off flat-calls.
The ace of diamonds that fell on the turn only intensified my desire to push with what I thought was a superb draw. When Einstein and the cut-off guy both checked, I moved all-in. Einstein went in the tank for a good five minutes before he reluctantly pushed in all his chips. The cut-off guy cursed under breath and folded. When Einstein opened up his pocket aces I was stunned. I couldn’t believe he had limped with them, I mean, even a small pre-flop raise would have likely sent me packing, as I don’t really like jack-9, even suited. Einstein blinked away with genuine concern. “I can’t believe you moved all-in with a draw!” he cried.
The river came and I didn’t hit my straight flush but the deuce of clubs gave me the flush and crushed the set of aces. Einstein stared at the board in disbelief and as I gathered up the chips. He started shaking with fury. “How could you move all-in with a draw like that!” he shouted. I said nothing, as I didn’t want to rub it in his face. It’s a very bad beat to have your set of aces crushed. A very bad beat. But then again, even Einstein can learn something from this: don’t fucking slow play your aces. At the very least, don’t slow play your aces. Make a big bet and either take the pot down right there or at least get heads-up against someone and limit your chances of getting dirtied.
Emile Frendo of the Honeymoon City is a semi-professional poker player and winner of the 2006 Pirate Poker Open Championship.