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Improve Your Poker
by Bob Ciaffone
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One of the more respected writers of this generation, Ciaffone's material, now compiled under one cover, has previously appeared in a variety of publications. Here, he helps sharpen the skills of beginners and experienced players in ten different areas, including general concepts like beating a loose game, and tight/loose play. He moves to gambling skills like the mental side, and money management; then to Reading Opponents, including tells and using your eyes. A vital section on Deception and Bluffing is followed by incisive advice on Hold'em including raising and missing.
Read a review of Improve Your Poker
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My Poker Coaching

Friday, December 16, 2005
My nickname of “The Coach” was given to me more than 30 years ago when I was coaching a bridge team, the Detroit Bullets. Lots of my longtime friends still call me “Coach” whenBob CiaffoneBob Ciaffone is one of America’s best-known poker players, writers, and teachers. He has numerous poker tournament wins and placings, the most prominent being third place in the 1987 World Championship. He has been a poker teacher since 1995, with his students having earned well over a million dollars in tournament play.  Bob's website is  speaking to me (or “The Coach” when speaking about me). It seemed natural and fitting when I began coaching poker in 1996 after moving back to Michigan that I use that nickname in its new environment.

What does a poker coach do? I am sure every person who teaches poker has his own method. Frankly, I have hardly ever talked to anyone else who teaches poker, so I do not know what others do. My method is to provide a certain amount of reading material, but I rely heavily on analyzing hands played by my students. I receive these hands either by phone or by e-mail. E-mail is usually better, since the answer can be kept in a file for future reference, but the phone is handy for discussing a situation in greater depth.

I do not watch people while they are playing (it’s time-wasting and boring) or read hand histories provided by Internet poker sites (they’re too lengthy and filled with extraneous material). I read the write-ups on hands provided by my students.

I would guess that more than 90 percent of my students are hold'em players. It used to be nearly all limit hold’em, but the interest in no-limit has risen rapidly in the past year, especially as played in a tournament setting. Lately, I have been taking on more new students who play online than face-to-face.

What is the number one requirement for a coach? Of course, it is technical competence. But number two is objectivity. In most of the problems I get, I am told the outcome before discussing the situation. Poker players must always be mindful that the actual outcome of a hand is a sample size of one, with all the statistical invalidity that comes with that fact. In many of the hands I am given, my pupil did nothing wrong. He just suffered a bad result, whether by running into a whopper of a hand or suffering a drawout. Beware of a poker coach who treats the actual hand as though it were a sample size of a thousand, telling you that you made a mistake every time you suffer a bad result.

For the rest of this column, I will give you a few hands played by my students, and my analysis of them. In each case, the student’s hand comes first, my actual reply to the student is in italics, and an addendum written for this column follows it.

1. “The game is $10-$20 hold’em. I have the Aclubs Aspade in middle position and open-raise. Cutoff calls. Heads up. Flop is Aheart K Q. I bet, cutoff calls. Turn is the 6. I bet and get raised. I know J-10 is the nuts, but do not give him that hand, as a preflop call makes no sense (he is a decent player as far as I have been able to ascertain). I reraised and got four-bet. I called the river when a jack came and was shown J-10 offsuit. Did I give too much action on the turn or was my reasoning justified? (A-K, A-Q, A J, and 10-10 with a diamond all made much more sense to me.)”

I think the odds strongly favor you having the best hand. I also would have reraised.

This hand is an example of one in which it would be easy to berate the student by explaining that he does not have the nuts and his reraise opens him up to yet another reraise. But look where this hand came from. There were only two players who saw the flop, my student and his opponent. In such a setting, it is less likely that the opponent has a big hand than in a larger field. It is also more likely that someone will raise, since there is only one obstacle blocking the goal line. Since the opponent has position, he may just check on the end if you go into a shell, likely costing you two big bets. A reraise looks right to me, even though this time he both ran into the nuts and failed to hit one of his 10 outs at the river.

2. “I have pocket sixes in the small blind. Everyone folds to the cutoff (an aggressive player), who raises. The button folds. I fold. How should I have played this?”

I consider this to be a reraise-or-fold situation, because you have a very good chance of knocking out the big blind (the only hand behind you) by reraising. I like reraising an aggressive player, but folding against a more solid player.

It is important for a hold’em player to recognize raise-or-fold situations. They occur mostly when you have a pocket pair, because it is a hard holding to improve, and you have something to start with. A pair normally prefers only one opponent if it is the best hand going in (but many opponents if it is not). Against most players, I would three-bet from the small blind with a low/intermediate pair like 6-6. As long as you are going to play anyway, do not be afraid to throw in an extra bet if it substantially improves your winning chances. But there are some individuals who do not recognize the value of stealing the blind money, and raise only when they think you are crushed. Against such a player, you should fold.

3. I often get generic questions. Here are two questions from a no-limit hold'em player.

“How strongly should I play a pair of jacks?”

How big is your stack? Jacks are good when you are small-stacked, but not so great when there is a lot of money in front of you.

Note that the question is a deep one that one could take many pages to answer, but I am not writing a doctoral dissertation. The most important factor in no-limit that determines how you play a hand (other than the strength of the hand) is how deep your money is. If you’re short-stacked, J-J looks like a wonderful gift from the poker deity. If your money is deep, you need to hit a set before pouring money into the pot.

“Does the weird, loose, sometimes aggressive style of online players change my standards about hands like this?”

To a degree. It’s hard to make jacks hold up without helping them if there is a big field.

This should give you an idea of what it is like to be a poker coach. I have a wide range of students, from beginners to professional players. Most are already winning players who realize there is room for further improvement. There is plenty of literature on poker (some, of course, by me), but getting feedback on hands you have played is the best way to make rapid progress.

For me, it is nice to have a job that I enjoy. Teaching is the next-best thing to playing.

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