Arts & Entertainment

Defense Wins Championships

You’ve probably heard that expression when referring to all types of sports, especially football. This is probably the first time, however, that you’ve ever heard it associated with playing on the World Poker Tour.

Just like in team sports, poker offense is a lot more flashy and exciting to watch, but it’s defense that gets you the title and millions in prize money. When you think of offense in poker you think of raising and reraising, or maybe even making some big bluffs. That might make for good television, but it’s not going to help you get to the final table.

There’s a misconception about how top professionals get to the money more often than others. They aren’t doing it with wild bluffs that risk large percentages of their stacks.  The real key to their long-term success and consistency is playing solid defense.

In poker, playing defensively is often considered weak.  Well, if you consider guys like Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen and me to be weak players at the poker table, then you just don’t understand the reasoning behind cautious play in large pots.
Let’s look at an example with you in the hand.

 A player raises your big blind and you defend it with A-J. The flop comes Ac-9s-4d; you check to your opponent. Now, if he bets half of the pot, what would you do?

The strong or offensive play would be to check-raise the flop, while the weak or defensive play would be to check and call.
In this case, the best play is usually to take the cautious approach.

You have a strong hand with aces and a decent kicker, but it’s far from the nuts. If your opponent has A-K, A-Q, two pairs, or a set, you’re in deep trouble. By playing cautiously, you hope to accomplish two things: rope your opponent in by letting him try to bluff you out of the hand, and, more importantly, minimize your loss on the hand when you are beat.

Of course, the one potential negative you allow by not raising on the flop is letting your opponent catch a card to beat you.

However, with a board like A-9-4, what card does he need if he doesn’t have you beat already? If he has A-10, only one of three 10s remain in the deck to beat you. Or, if he has K-K, he only has two remaining outs to win.
Here’s another example.

You hold Qh-10h and the flop reads 9s-4h-8h. The turn card is a 4d, and the river comes the 5h, giving you a queen-high flush. All along, your opponent has been betting at you. Now, on the river, she once again leads out and bets the size of the pot. You just hit your flush, so what should you do now?

Frankly, you only have two good options here: call or fold. Raising would be an offensive play, but it would often be a bad idea. If your opponent bet all the way and still bets the river card, you have to consider that you may be beat by a higher flush or even a full house. If you decide to raise, chances are your opponent will only call when he has you beat, thus giving no positive value to your raise. You lose more when you’re beat, and win no more when you have the best hand.

I see many young players overplaying their hands before and after the flop. They needlessly go broke in situations where a more experienced player would have been thinking defense. 

Your main objective in a tournament is to survive longer than everyone else and eventually win all the chips. You can’t win the tournament in the early stages, but you can get yourself knocked out foolishly if you aren’t thinking defense first.


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