Remember the old Westerns where card players leaned back on their wooden chairs so they could extract aces from their boots, and they didn’t play table stakes so eventually somebody’s horse or farm would be in the pot? Well that’s not what I mean by Wild West. I mean more in the spirit of things: do whatever you want, only the tough survive, shoot first and ask questions later kind of thing.
I played in a wild west type game yesterday at Wintergarden East on Gratiot just south of 21 Mile Road. Most people think that because the address is Chesterfield that it is closer to 23 Mile Road, but no. You will end up roaming the prairie without luck if you get off I-94 at 23 Mile Road looking for this room. Head south to the 21 Mile Road exit and take a left on Gratiot, second building on the right with the big sign outside. Poker room is to the right of the entrance and restaurant is to the left.
The last few times I have played there it has been one table running, and this time wasn’t any different. I have seen two tables of cash $1/$2 NLHE running there, but only once. There is also fairly constant blackjack action going on in the room. There were some players trying to hit 21 yesterday when I walked in, and lucky me there was an open seat at the poker table. I bought in for the maximum $200, and sat between a couple of younger fellows who were very pleasant. For certain the action was on the other end of the table. From what he was sharing with the table, he was a sports bettor who had been running good at baseball, and he had some money to push us donkeys around on the felt.
He was primarily the action at the table at first, but later on he busted out and was replaced by another tall, bearded desperado who wasn’t scared of any pre-flop raise, and never met a flop he didn’t like. The action took a wild turn when the sports bettor returned to the felt with more bullets. These heroes of the west were supported by a couple of tough opponents who were not going to be intimidated by their shenanigans. There was seat 5, a regular at Wintergarden who had been at the table at every session I had played there. He busted at one time and came back after hitting the ATM. Who can blame him? The game was that juicy. Then later in the session there was the southern gentleman with wire-frame glasses on my left, who also was not afraid to get it in against these ruffians, as he went all in on the very first hand he played, and won a huge pot without a showdown. He claimed to have a very good hand, and I believed him.
Not to be left out of these cast of characters was a young gunslinger, a former guest on the podcast, who I was very happy to see was still playing the circuit. He sat next to me and told me about living with Joe Cada and going on a poker cruise with him a group of friends, and playing a $2/$5 game on the cruise that was even more crazy than the one we were playing in. He recounted how he couldn’t believe the rich business men who went on these cruises and would keep going back to their cabin for more cash, and how he won as much as $25K during his one-week cruise. He had also made some deep runs in Vegas during WSOP, but no wins, and he kept lamenting not hitting a top 5 score where the real money is. Such is the life of the tournament players where the riches lie at the very top of the summit. This fellow is actually more of cash game specialist, but I could tell by his stories that the tournament bug had bit him, and we may still be hearing of better exploits from him in the future.
I essentially was involved in two meaningful hands during this crazy session. But before sharing the hand histories I have to set the stage for what was going on. Everyone was straddling at least $5-$10 on the button, but the action guy, let’s call him Dave, was straddling from UTG or from the button for either $17 or $30 depending on his whim. If he saw any cards that he liked, it was all-in pre-flop. The amazing thing to me was how no one else at the table seemed to be adjusting to this. They would still call the straddle thinking the option would be checked, and then invariably have to tank/fold when Dave made it $200 or $250 all-in. Dave had a tendency to miscall his hand before showdown too, so you had to be careful not to muck. While I was there he never got anyone to fold the winning hand, but once he claimed to have AQ for top pair top kicker and then showed AJ to lose a huge pot. That player almost mucked throwing his hand face down on the felt, but flipped them over at the last moment. Another time Dave claimed to have two pair and the bearded guy, let’s call him Jim, had already noticed his ways and made Dave show his complete air and then saying, “this guy never tells the truth.” But he chuckled afterwards, as if he somehow enjoyed Dave’s bravado.
Later on in the session when the southern gentleman joined the table, let’s call him Beau, things got even crazier. Dave went on a little bit of tilt and was straddling for $50, and shoving pre-flop on his option for as much as $500, then he would show a hand like 8c 4c. He did fold from time to time, but it must have been really no draws, no overs and no pairs for him to do so because it was a rare occurrence. One of those times was Beau’s first hand, where Beau called the $60 raise on the straddle and then went all-in on the flop and everyone including Dave folded.
So what do you do if you’re playing in this kind of game where you might be forced to go all-in pre-flop for 100 big blinds without aces or kings? First of all, you have to make a few assumptions. The two hands every orbit where Dave is straddling, you have to have a big pair, I’d say jacks or better to play. Typically I’ve seen suggested that if someone is three betting you light, you can defend/four-bet with pocket eights or better, but when you might be the three-bet and the four-bet is an all-in for 100 big blinds or more, you want something that dominates his range, like a big pair against smaller pair (80% to win) or a big pair against two smaller cards (76% to 88% to win). So you might not ever play a hand when Dave is straddling in this scenario. And I didn’t.
But Beau did. He called a $30 straddle in the cutoff, I assume because there were a couple of calls ahead of him, but who knows; maybe he just felt lucky. Dave predictably went all-in for over $400. He got a call from Jim, and now Beau looked down on his K6o thinking, what do I do now? Well, he called, and hit a king on the river to beat Dave’s pocket fours. Dave still won a huge side pot from Jim, but Beau got lucky in a situation where he had to win a race for all his chips. This is called high variance play of course, and you can make a lot of money quickly if you have the bankroll for it, or lose a lot of money quickly too. But to each his own.
Now what about the hands where it was only a $5 or $10 straddle by other players at the table? You still have to watch the action and your position closely, because if betting gets re-opened by someone three-betting or four-betting and it gets back to Dave or Jim, it’s all-in or nothing. So you pick your spots. Learn who are the passive players who will only raise with real hands, so even if you’re not closing the action, you can play a hand when you know the players behind you are just going to call.
So there was a lot of folding for me at this game, but in the first hand I played, the player two to my left had straddled for $5, and Dave raised it to $15 and there had been three other callers before me. I knew the button was probably just going to call the bet, so I also called with 9h Th and about $210 behind. Six players to the flop and the pot is already $90. Flop comes 4h 7h 9s. Again, please forgive me if I don’t get all the details right in these hands, but the general themes should be correct. Surprisingly, Dave checked, but the regular I had mentioned before, let’s call him Tony, he bets $20. $20? Jim calls, and it gets to me. Now, there is $130 in the pot, so if I make a pot sized bet I will have $90 behind. Logical conclusion is shove $210. But that just didn’t seem like it would follow a logical progression to the other players at the table. Player bets $20, I raise $200? The thing is, I’m never folding this hand to any raise. So should I have shoved in this spot? What do you guys think? I decided to raise to $60, less than half the pot, but three times the original bet and leaves me a nice $150 bet on the turn. Everyone folded to Dave who insta-called. Tony, who had played a fair amount with me in the past, decided to fold. Jim insta-called as well.
Now, I’m not surprised these two players are still in the hand, but I am surprised that neither of them shoved. They are certainly not afraid of getting stacks in with draws, but like I said they do sometimes fold, and I was hoping that they were both on draws and that I didn’t hit my ten-high flush. The turn is 5c. Dave and Jim both check, and I jam my $150 without hesitation. Again, I’m never folding on the flop, so I have no reason to slow down here. Now something scary happens, Dave insta-calls my shove. It must not have been only scary to me, because Jim also tanks and decides to fold. So I’m heads up with Dave for all my chips, and I don’t know what I’m hoping for. Do I want my flush to come? Do I want a blank? Do I want a nine? Probably a ten is safest, but it might still not be good enough to win.
River is a 7, and I flip over my pair of nines with ten kicker for two pair, Dave mucks and Jim loses his mind. “That’s all you had?” Obviously a classic case where I got the worst hand to call and the best hand to fold. Priceless. Well, actually it cost me about $225, but I got it all back with a nice pot on top.
I played one more hand where I turned 5s 4s into trips with a questionable call on my part that got me paid off handsomely on the river. But it was all about playing in position and implied odds. Beau asked after the hand derisively, “You called a $20 bet with a pair of fives on that flop?” I just nodded and gave him the good old, “I just got lucky.”
So I hope you can see that you don’t have to play only premium hands in these wild west games to be a winner, but you do have to pick your spots carefully. There is a lot of folding if you’re not gambling with the action players, so be prepared for a long ride through the canyons. Hopefully it will end with you cashing out a monster stack and riding off into the sunset.