I was playing in a friendly home game tournament a while ago when the table got into a drawn out discussion about how a player played a particular hand. The player, nicknamed Two Diamond Phillips, was dealt QQ in one of the blinds. A player in early position with a small stack raised all-in preflop. His stack was really small, so two players in middle position called. When the action got back to Two Diamond Phillips, TDP called.
At the time, no one but Phillips knew that Phillips had QQ, so nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I assumed Phillips had a mediocre hand and was simply calling because the pot was large (thanks to the callers) and it did not cost much for him to call (thanks to the fact that he had already put in a blind). Plus, Phillips likes playing lots of random hands.
The flop came down Jack-high. The two middle position players and Phillips all checked. The turn was a Ten and all three players checked again. A low card came on the river and the three players checked once more.
In the end, the winner of the hand was the player who was all-in. He had Jack Ten, for flopped top pair and turned two pair. Nothing Phillips could have done would have stopped the suckout from happening, but the discussion afterwards turned to whether Phillips played the hand wrong.
Phillips explained himself: “There were three of us in the hand, and the first player was all-in, so I thought we would all check down the hand to knock him out.”
This type of statement may seem logical, but it drives me nuts, because the player does not realize the true goal of poker. It is true that if your goal is to knock out a player, then the more players in the pot, the better. However, the true goal of poker, including tournament poker, is to win chips. In tournaments, you need to win all of the chips. In a cash game, you merely need to win more chips than you lose. But the end result is the same. The goal is to earn chips.
Phillips played the hand to knock out the small stack, but that is the wrong strategy. Instead, he should have been playing the hand to win the pot, which requires a different strategy.
With a hand like QQ and a player all-in, Phillips’ best strategy against an unknown hand was to isolate, i.e., raise the all-in raiser so that all of the other players will fold and leave the hand heads up. QQ plays much better against one hand than three. In hindsight, we now know that even if Phillips did this, the outcome would have been the same. However, he would have been maximizing his chance to win the pot and those delicious chips.
Alternatively, Phillips could have bet into the pot after the flop to get a side pot going against the opponents with chips still in the hand. This way, if/when he gets sucked out, he can still get some value from his premium hand. Of course, if Phillips thought the other players wouldn’t fold to a preflop raise, then once again, the preflop raise is the best play to build a side pot.
In the end, the lesson to be learned is twofold: (1) Know your goal. If your goal is wrong, then you are likely going to make the wrong play. That leads to lesson (2), the goal in poker is to win chips. It’s not enough to know the rules of the game if your goal is wrong. You want to accumulate chips and avoid giving up your chips. That is it. There can be no other way about it (unless, of course, you are simply playing for fun, but what fun is that?).
You can accumulate chips in a variety of ways: playing strong hands strong, slowplaying, bluffing, semi-bluffing, etc. But as long as you keep your goal in sight, winning more chips, and your plays fit with that goal, then you are on the right path.