Road Gambler - The Hughes Strategy

Road Gambler - The Hughes Strategy

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

By Johnny Hughes

When I entered the United States Army in 1962 at age 22, I listed my occupation as “card player: poker, gin rummy and bridge tournaments”. They made my speciality code-breaking and cryptography. Several expert poker and bridge players, including game book authors Herbert O. Yardley, Harry Fishbein, and Oswald Jacoby had been code breakers during World War II.

The British were even better at code breaking. Their expert chess and bridge playing code-breakers included Shaun Wylie, Alan Turing and Dilly Knox. Needless to say, the Japanese and German codes were broken. Code breaking in World War II was a major contributor to the development of computer science and artificial intelligence.

In the earliest days of no-limit Texas Hold 'em, there were no books and no odds calculators. We had to be like the code-breakers, figuring the game out for ourselves.

As Crandell Addington has written, the flow of poker was different, with far fewer re-raises or move-ins before the flop. I was a very aggressive player, and we were in a real minority. The old dudes had started out on five-stud and draw poker. If they missed the flop, you could tell it. They didn't chase "shorts " (small pairs). However, with the poker boom, tournaments, television, online poker and poker books, aggressive players raise in cash games as if it were a tournament and they had to gamble. The frequency of raises these days led me to develop the Hughes Strategy. The major element is that you never or rarely raise in the 4 and 5 seats, the two seats behind the blinds.

Poker has changed. Most of what I now play is $2-$5, with an optional $10 straddle, no-limit Texas Hold'em. This is a big-pot strategy designed to avoid the heavy rake in casinos and to maximize your best hands. When you case a new game online or in casinos, the first thing to do is count the frequency of raises and rate the players on aggressiveness. You are trying to win a few big pots a day and not wrestle over the blinds paying the rake over and over.

Online or in casinos, you want a tight A-B-C, usually older player or two behind you. Old dude, chips neatly stacked, arms folded, patience exuded. Part of the Hughes Strategy is aggressive play in the 9 and 10 seat, the cutoff and the button. You play a narrow, disciplined starting-hand list in all other positions. Basically, you play the tight player's button. The major error most people make is wasting chips by playing too many pots. In this big-bet strategy, your chips want in the pot. Every time you waste $5, you also waste what it would have made, since you will be moving in soon.

I don't play much poker now because the bigger game is in the next county, and the editor keeps me writing. It is a very tough game, with Texas road gamblers coming from hundreds of miles around. There are three extremely aggressive players in the game and the Hughes Strategy is the paddle for their ass.

I want to sit downwind of these aggressive players, being in the 4 or 5 seat when they are in the 10, cutoff or button seat. Assume in the 4 and 5 seat you smooth-call the $5 or $10. Look at a starting range of hands all pairs, A-A to 2-2, A-K, A-Q. A face-card suited. High-suited connectors, above 9-8.

When you call and wait in the 4 and 5 seat rather than raise, you change the disadvantage of position. You get to watch what the whole table does and act last. When I retired in 2004, I started to play a lot of poker in Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. The journal I kept shows many of my big pots and profits came from limping and popping from the four and five seat. Actually, I played really lucky and the hands stood up more than the math would imply they should.

Most aggressive players make the following assumption: "Nobody could raise it." Poker players "bid" their hands. If one guys raises from middle position, and four guys call, the callers have "bid" that they don’t have a big pair or maybe not A-K.

With no-limit or pot limit Hold’em these days, the blinds are small compared to the escalating pots. A heuristic rule of thumb is that you can call one raise with any pair, but not a re-raise.

Let’s look at the big hands: A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K, A-Q. These are the re-raise hands depending on the action in front of you. If a tight player raises, I would call but not re-raise with A-K, A-Q, and Q-Q. Remember, the deceptive value of not raising is stuck in your opponent’s mind throughout the pot. It is not good to re-raise with a small pair because the best that can happen is usually a coin-flip. You are either a small favourite or a big underdog.

The classic match-up is A-K versus 9-9. One player, Joe Floyd, would move in on a 9-9 if there was a single raise and because we didn’t have books or odds calculators back then, often an argument arose after a big pot as to who "had the best of it." That would create two macho challenges, one to play heads up, the other to "run it hot and cold”.

Floyd and the big producer in a poker game quit once to sit on a motel room bed and run Joe’s 9-9 against the other guy’s A-K over and over for $100 a pop all night. We know the pair has the best of it. The odds are A-K 44%, 9-9 56%, but the A-K is a better playing hand. If the A-K is suited, the odds are 47% to 53% for the 9-9, the 3% difference that glows in the sucker’s eyes.

I like to start with around $300 where the other guys have bigger stacks. Say I smooth-call with A-A or K-K, then someone raises $40 and gets one caller. With the blinds and all, there is $100 out there and I raise from $100 to all of it, $260 more. Now they often put me on a small pair, the worst hand to make the play with. I have gotten calls from A-Q for all of it. Either here or on fifth street, there is some psychological value to moving all in. It’s a sets a kind of challenge which provokes foolish calls.

In the latter part of a poker game, I may pull out more money to have $1,000 to $1,500 or more in front of me, even if I am loser. This is not to try to get even, ever. Late in the game, I'm looking for a different type hand – a nut straight or nut flush draw – and to build a hand, like in seven stud. Now in casinos, they often limit the buy ins in $2-$5 no-limit Hold 'em to a minimum of $300 and a maximum of $500. That way, you may be up against $2,000 stacks when you arrive. The limp from the 4 and 5 seat helps solve the short stack problem. You also want to get some action to build up a stack to fight with. In some spots, they will let you put up more, even as much as the biggest stack. In Texas, you can put up as much as you can beg, borrow and steal.

Now, the real beauty of the Hughes Strategy is in the play of A-K and A-Q, two hands which come up much more frequently than the big pairs. Again, you just call in the 4 and 5 seat. If one of the three aggressive players raises, and the pot has some swelling, I will move all in here with A-K or A-Q. The guys I know are playing so high and fast that they give me calls when they know they are behind and drawing. If a real tight player raises, I will toss the A-Q and call with A-K. However, if they call me with a mid-size pair, they are in a coin flip, given the extra money in the pot, or they are 4:1 dog to my bigger pair. A-K plays best against fewer opponents and if you get to see all five cards.

Say you raise in seat 4 or 5 with A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K, A-Q and get two or three callers behind you. You are first to act. You have announced your strength. If you raise with A-K, you have a one in three chance of hitting it. However, if you miss, a continuation bet into any number of opponents is a dangerous move because you don’t have a good draw, and must act first the rest of the hand.

Say you raise with A-K against 9-9 and the flop comes 10-4-2. You have a 27% chance and 9-9 has a 73% chance unless betting determines it. Usually it is best to check and hope for a free card with A-K missed in early position.

I like the pre-flop limp and pop move-in with A-K against aggressive, often expert players. A-K runs good on the odds calculator against all hands except K-K or A-A. A-K still has a 30% chance against K-K, with 70%. Although many of the small pairs will not call, which is what you want, you can count on J-J and Q-Q calling. The extra money in the pot often creates a situation where two people move in before the flop, and both have the best of it, a good percentage gamble.

In the Hughes Strategy, you semi-bluff draws but rarely bluff air. You make your semi-bluff on the flop or fourth street. You rarely make value bets on fifth. If someone bets a quarter of the pot in a situation, and I bet the size of the pot or more in the same winning situation, if I get calls over a fourth of the time, my play is best. I don’t need to have the nuts to bet big on fifth, just to think I have the best hand. Often two big pairs will do. Part of money management is that I am ready to bet it all, especially in the early parts of the poker game. In general in the early part of the game, you are looking at big cards, big pairs for your first buy in. Later, if you are off winner, you can build flush and straight draws. One must always be aware of the shifting flow of the poker game.

Looking over my journal, aren’t the big pots against guys you hate the ones you remember most? In Oklahoma, there was this creep who gave speeches and poker lessons after and during every hand. Once he blurted out that a guy should call me. He did and I won it. Then I limped A-K and the creep raised it $30 getting no other callers. We were both winners and he had about $700 which I could cover. I just called. The flop came Q-10-5 rainbow. I semi-bluffed $60 at it. He called and I caught the nuts, a jack for big Broadway, an ace-high straight. I bet $200. He studied a long time and called. The board was Q,J,10,5. Now a nine came off. I moved in. Since I had not raised or re-raised on A-K, I was aware of the deceptive value. He called pretty fast and I broke him. I never knew what he had, but he said, "He didn’t raise it with A-K!!" about twenty times that night. I loved it.

Try a session of no raising in the 4 and 5 seat. It is an easy way to play. I think it is best in fast games where most pots are raised. It has worked for me. In Texas Hold’em, you pick your hand and you pick your man. With the Hughes Strategy, you have so much more information before you commit on a hand.

Johnny Hughes, author of Texas Poker Wisdom, available from Amazon.

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