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The Slow Play

A friend of mine, let’s call him Zorro, is a frequent contributor to our poker chat room. Zorro signs off all his emails with the line “more money has been lost than won by slow playing big hands.” It’s a good line. I’ve read it now maybe a thousand times and am impressed by how firmly my friend clearly believes this is gospel.

But, I’m an empiricist, trained in the scientific method and something of a skeptic. So, I’m wondering? Is this true? False? And in either case, how can we know? To put it succinctly, is the EV of slow playing a preflop holding like A,A or K,K higher or lower than the EV of raising with it?

Well, search as I may, I cannot find anything close to a definitive answer. Oh, there’s a lot of writing on this issue, but all that comes up are opinions, beliefs, strongly held positions and they don’t agree —- and that, in itself, is interesting.

When the truth (or falsity) of some proposition is obvious there is usually pretty strong unanimity and, frankly, that’s usually not interesting.

So what we have here is the classic situation: There aren’t any data, just theory and argument. There are strong, well-articulated opinions on both sides and both sides can effectively point out the flaws in the other.

When this kind of thing emerges in academic discourse, it’s often turns out that both sides are right. The lack of agreement is because the real answer lies in a different realm than the ones each side has presented.

If you take Zorro’s position you’ll probably point to situations where slow playing big starting cards like K,K or A,A is likely to cost you a bundle. You limp or smooth call a raise and you end up letting a couple of limpers (or semi-limpers) in and one of them hits a well-hidden hand like two pair or better. If this one isn’t persuasive, other unhappy scenarios can easily be imagined. You limp, someone raises, the next guy calls and the whole freakin’ table gets dragged into the pot. Your monster starting hand just shrunk up like your “goodies” in an unheated swimming pool. Think about these situations long enough and you’ll start feeling like Zorro’s got something going for him.

Interestingly, pushing with big hands became part of the “accepted wisdom” early on when Sklansky and Malmuth announced the mantra, “big hands play best heads up” and has remained a part of most players’ belief systems —— although it’s worth noting that Johnny Chan is a big fan of the slow play.

On the very other hand, it isn’t all that tough to conjure up situations where playing big hands fast and loose costs you money. You rarely end up with a big pot and if your opponent (and you typically only have one) doesn’t hit something on the flop your win will be meager. Worse, you often raise everyone out of the pot and all you get for your 1 in 241 shot are the blinds. A couple of these can put you on tilt —— you didn’t think that it was only losing that caused tilt, did you?

So, what’s right? What’s best? Since it’s all opinions and beliefs, here’re mine:

Both positions are correct and, of course, both are wrong. That is, slow playing a big hand or pushing hard with it can be profitable or not depending on the situation. In most circumstances it is almost certainly correct to raise strongly with big starting cards and to push a made hand on the flop. You know the reasons why so I won’t waste your time with them. But there are situations when you want to slow play them. First, if you’re the SB and it’s folded to you, slow play a big pair. Second, if you flop a monster, like a devilishly hidden straight with double-gapped hole cards, slow play it and hope that someone improves enough to call you later. What is important isn’t holding fast to a particular rule, it’s recognizing subtlety.

But the main reason for the occasional slow play is its contribution to the metagame. If you’ve shown down K,K after a pre-flop limp, it makes you harder to read. If you smooth call a raise from the hijack seat with A,A, it will have a similar effect. I haven’t talked with Mr. Chan about why he likes to slow-play aces but I wouldn’t be surprised if his answer has nothing to do with how that particular hand plays out and everything to do with the metagame, with how he is perceived and for the small sliver of doubt that it creates in his opponents the next time he smooth calls pre-flop.

The bottom line: I‘ve no data on the EV of each mode of action but my suspicion, from a psychological perspective, is that you just cannot play a big hand the same way all the time. If you do then its EV will go down. The long-term EV of a big hand will depend on how difficult it becomes for other others to know you have it —- which is why the arguments on both sides sound so reasonable, so right. They are.

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