The Problem of the Peel

The Problem of the Peel

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Jeff Kimber on when to call a three-bet.

The clash of styles when online players take on the live guys at their own game has always been a battle that fascinates me.

Poker is forever evolving, and it’s the online guys that drive that; always looking to try something new, looking for the edge that a slight change of tactics might bring.

For the live players, they either embrace (or at least take the time to understand the thinking behind) the change, or they stay where they are while others move forward.

I learnt to play poker online in the late 1990s, just as internet poker was being developed. At that time you couldn’t even play No Limit Hold’em, never mind a single table tournament (this was well before MTTs came in).
I quickly switched to live poker, and while I still play some online cash games, I’m in no doubt I have a far bigger edge playing live tournaments compared to online.

Because I came from an online background, I have great respect for online MTT grinders, and am lucky to count some of the best around among my poker buddies.

While other live players simply dismiss online players as gamblers, happy to stick it in and fire up another 16 MTTs if they bust the current one, I have great respect for their play. I am constantly looking at what they do and why.

I’m of the opinion that some online play just doesn’t work live, so you can’t just transfer the skills over (I’d compare it to playing volleyball and beach volleyball, or rugby union and rugby sevens – the games are of the same parentage, but need to be approached a little differently to be a success, and very few players master both).

When I come up against the very best online grinders, I’m always ready to test myself against them, to take on board what they’re doing and understand their reasoning. Of course, I then try and counteract it, before secretly stealing the best bits and presenting them as my own (much like I did with my GCSE coursework).

Certainly the amount of pressure applied by online players is far greater than by traditional live players, and counteracting that takes some doing. I’ve played a lot with really good online players who’ve gone on to great success in live poker, most notably WSOP bracelet winners Jake Cody, Matt Perrins and Craig McCorkell.

As these guys started playing more and more live, it wasn’t unusual to come against one, two or all three deep in domestic live tournaments.
As I watched them pick up more and more chips by three-betting, I noticed how if they didn’t win the pot with the three-bet, they very rarely won it. Having said that, it was still highly profitable, as people generally folded to them.

If the opponent four-bet, they would fold a very high percentage of the time (presumably having no hand) and if the opponent got stubborn, and peeled out of position, the online guys would generally give up on the pot unless they flopped huge (all the while mumbling about how terrible peeling was).

Peeling a three-bet just wasn’t the done thing online. Even if you had the best hand, you were unlikely to win. This was because the three-bettor would barrel away, forcing you to either call them down without knowing where you were in the hand, or more likely, you’d end up folding somewhere down the streets (no doubt often with the best hand). Online poker was all about the pre-flop play.

The online guys had brought with them some good thinking. They wanted to take the betting lead, and they always wanted to play in position. However, they weren’t adapting to the way live players were responding.
Not only did this mean you could put them in uncomfortable situations by peeling their three-bets, you could also three-bet them, or peel from the blinds out of position, and take them out of their comfort zones.

I played with Jake Cody a lot early in his live career, and found the best way to adapt to how good he was was to make him uncomfortable. If I raised his blinds every lap, he’d happily fold them; hating playing out of position, and knowing he could get those chips back and more with a light three-bet later. I’d also peel his three-bets.

Of course, playing out of position against good players is not for the fainthearted, but as long as you’re comfortable playing post-flop, peeling could give implied odds as well as slowing down the best player on the table.

I played with Craig in the very first UKIPT in Manchester, moving one to his left halfway through Day 1 – with both of us pretty deep stacked.
Craig had obviously been bossing the table, and was open-raising or three-betting most hands.

After watching this happen for a few orbits, I decided to think about what he really wouldn’t like me to do, and do that.

I started four-betting light, which because the online guys raised so small compared to live players, only involved putting in the same amount of chips I would probably have used to three-bet at that time.

He folded very quickly the first couple of times, but then obviously caught on that possibly I wasn’t as tight as he presumed. The thing was, peeling was just wrong to online players, so I knew he’d have to five-bet, and that takes some bottle against someone you fear might have it.

I also cold-called a few of his three-bets with hands that were strong, but I didn’t fancy being faced with a five-bet with a middle pair or something like that.

At the time, we didn’t really know each other as friends, and I could see him thinking ‘what are you doing? You’re supposed to be pretty good, and cold-calling my three-bet is horrible!’. But in reality, all I was doing was what I knew he didn’t want me to do – putting him out of his comfort zone, and stopping him having it all his own way.

Having had a big stack all day, Corky was getting frustrated, not winning many pots, and getting fed up with me.

Towards the end of the day he eventually peeled a three-bet of mine. I told him I thought that was against the rules for online guys, with a smile. He responded with something along the lines of, “I’m not sure what else I can do!”

While the online guys were very, very good players, they made it easier to play against them. This was because once you three-bet them (or four-bet their three-bet), you didn’t face any tricky decisions – the hand was over quickly pre-flop.

They would never peel, so you could three-bet anything without worrying how well it flops, or whether it may be dominated.

They would either four-bet, meaning you either bin your light hands or go with your genuine holdings, or much more likely, they’d fold and you’d pick up the pot.

The bad news? Just when you think you’ve cracked it, the online guys adapt and make life difficult again.

One of the most noticeable trends I’ve seen in tournaments over the past few months is the amount of peeling pre-flop that the younger, online guys now do.

While they’re still excellent pre-flop players, they’re now much more comfortable playing post-flop too. If that involves playing marginal hands out of position, so be it – that’s all part of the challenge of being a poker player.

For these guys, it’s all about EV, and as more and more people started to adapt to their tendencies to either bin or aggressively go with their holdings, they worked out that they were throwing away +EV hands.

It’s not ideal to be out of position, but you can adapt by choosing a different opening and peeling range. For example, a hand like A-9 or A-T will not be a great peeling hand, as it could well be dominated, and there’re plenty of flops that will see us do some money.

However, a hand like 7-9 suited could work out nicely. You’re not going to go crazy if you flop top pair, but there’s potential to flop straights, flushes, big draws and disguised trips and two pairs that can see you stack someone.

Now that good online players are changing the lines of the playing field again, it’s time to adapt again. To be successful, you have to try and stay contrarian, and put people in positions that make them uncomfortable. The worst kind of poker players are the ones that don’t move with the times, because they dismiss new ideas as wrong without trying to understand them.

I played all of Day 1 of GPS Birmingham with one of the hottest tournament players around, Simon Deadman, and it was noticeable how comfortable he was peeling out of position. He’d play down the streets, adapting to his opponents and forcing them into bad situations – check-raising flops, floating out of position, setting them in on bad rivers. He very rarely seemed to win at showdown (i.e. he rarely had the best of it), but more than made up for that by taking down pot after pot with no showdown.

Adapting to good players is all about trying different things, taking them out of their comfort zones. Don’t be afraid to trap with big hands, raise flops as bluffs or semi-bluffs, and play rivers aggressively.

Change your raise sizes if you think it will make their life harder. Switch to min three-bets, or 4x it, depending on what you think will achieve your goal. Remember there were reasons these guys didn’t like peeling in the first place, so use position to your advantage, and don’t be afraid to barrel and take control of hands.

Eventually they’ll decide there’re far easier spots on the table, and that’s half the battle won.

Tags: Strategy, Jeff Kimber