How to Play Against Calling Stations
Most professional players playing, for instance, $20-$40 limit hold 'em are quite happy to make one big bet, forty dollars, per hour. That's how they traditionally climb the "limit latter". Professional limit players will try to play at a particular limit until they begin to make more than one big bet per hour. Once they can consistently beat a limit by more than one big bet an hour, and once they have the bankroll to effectively earn at a larger limit without "risking ruin" they will move to the next set of limits. If you are fortunate enough to be able to find a group of calling stations to beat up on you would do best to not latter climb in the same way. For example, I have recently switched most of my attention to a, very small, $3-$6 limit seven card stud game. I should not be able to earn more than three or four big bets at any limit, however, I found players so weak that I am able to make five to seven big bets an hour with almost no risk of ruin. Your risk of ruin is your statistically figured chance of losing your entire bankroll. The reason I can beat that game so badly is because the players involved are all Stations, every last one of them. They generally take turns putting there money in until the last card and then whoever has the best hand takes the pot. It really is a beautiful thing.
Aside from reducing the size of the limits you should play on a set bankroll, there are also some strategic differences in how you should play against Stations. You should play very tight and very aggressive. Against a group of Calling Stations you should play fewer hands and you should increase the size of your raises. In essence you should become the "Rock" to beat the Station. You will only play premium starting hands and you will come in for a raise when you play. When playing NLH I usually use an opening bet size of three times the big blind. When I'm playing against a group of loose-passive Stations I like to increase my bet size to at least four times the big blind plus one big blind for every limper. If the first three players limp in and I have AK in fourth position I will raise it to a total of 7 times the big blind. Then I will get called by one player holding A7o and one with KJs. Then, when I flop top pair top kicker when an ace of a king flops I can usually arrange for all of the money to go in with one of my opponents drawing to three live cards in the deck. Do you still hate playing against fish?
When trying to put your Calling Station opponents on hands, it's usually best to just try to narrow your opponents' possible holdings down to a range of hands. When a Rock, or even a savvy player raises from early position you can generally assume he has either a big ace, AK or AQ, or a pair between pocket nines and pocket aces, usually 9-K due to the fact that the standard play with pocket aces is to limp in early and look for a re-raise. When a Station puts in a raise from under the gun you can still bet that that player has something he's proud of. The problem is, to a player who routinely calls raises with queen ten off suit, a hand like KJs looks like the nuts. My answer is simply to react to a calling stations raises just as though a good player where making the raise. There's really no reason to speculate and potentially get busted when you're not sure where you are. You'll have plenty of chances to loot the Stations pockets on your own terms. For instance; when he watches you fold ten hands in a row and then calls your early position raise with A9o. Sometimes the flop's gonna come A 8 9 and your gonna get all your money in with AK and your gonna go broke, most of them time though you're going to be getting the best of it. The truth is: "most of the time" is plenty, assuming you're playing within your bankroll.
Schooling Effect of Fish
Now I'd like to talk about the "Schooling effect of fish". As I stated in section one of this article, the schooling effect refers to a sort of "phantom collusion" that occurs when the mistakes of multiple players actually creates a favorable situation for each fish and actually causes an unfavorable situation for you. The easiest way to illustrate this phenomenon is to give you an example.
This example is a hand that I was actually involved with about two years ago. I was playing a $30+3 sit 'n' go tournament on Pacific Poker (home of the Stations), I actually refer to it as the "Pacific Ocean" which actually isn't an altogether accurate analogy, the real Pacific Ocean doesn't hold nearly as large a population of fish and there are a lot more sharks per capita. In this ten player tournament we each started with 1000 tournament chips, or T1000. In one of the early blind rounds, perhaps 15-30, I opened the pot from under the gun with AsKs making my standard Station raise of four and a half big blinds. Three players called the over bet. The flop delivered my king but it also brought a scary couple of suited connectors. With a flop of Ac 8d 9d I had no intention of slow playing my tptk (top pair top kicker). I made a pot sized wager fully expecting that one of the players would incorrectly call with a weak ace or a flush or straight draw. In fact, all three players called the raise. Fourth street didn't seem to change anything but I was nervous.
I figured I could slow down a bit and just bet half the size of the pot which, I reasoned, would cause any player to make a bad call mathematically if they were drawing to a straight or a flush. Betting ½ the pot gives your opponent 3 to 1 pot odds and the odds against filling a flush or a straight is pretty nearly 4 to 1 against, therefore, the drawing opponent is not getting the correct pot odds based on the current size of the pot. Calling a half pot sized bet on a powerful straight or flush draw is usually not a mistake if you feel pretty certain you can make a medium sized value bet if you do hit your hand. I had already decided that I would not pay off a value bet on the end if any scare cards hit the board. That, I figured, made an opponent calling on a draw a negative EV play (a mistake).
Well, all three players called the bet again. I stayed with my read of the situation, that my opponents might be "sharing outs" by drawing to identical straights or similar flushes, and that one or more of my opponents might even be drawing to one of three "miracle outs", whichever card accompanied his ace-rag hand. Bad things happened on the river. The ace of diamonds hit which gave me a set of aces. I checked, the player acting after me checked the next player bet 1/3 the size of the pot and the last player to act threw his hand away. Now what was I gonna do? I made a "crying call" just praying that they both missed or the bettor was holding the case ace and a rag. After I called the bet the player who initially checked after me on the river re-raised all of his chips. Now I had to fold a set of aces with a good portion of my chips in the pot. The other guy called and lost to the nut flush. I was astonished by how poorly they all played the hand, all of them. I was puzzled by the fact that there were that many bad players contesting the same pot.
Then it dawned on me; the player drawing to the nut flush had actually been getting a huge price on his calls because of all the other players calling with him. Let's assume, for simplicity, that the pot contained 100 chips when the flop came out. If I bet 100 chips I'm only laying you 2 to 1 on your money, and you need at least 3 to 1 to call on a flush. After the first player, erroneously called that bet, the next player was getting 3 to 1. The next player to call, how may have been drawing to a straight was getting 4 to 1 on his call, and that is a mathematically profitable call. This was the first time I discovered the "schooling effect" and it occurred months before I ever read about it. Even though each of these players would have been making a bad call individually, they were actually getting the correct price as long as they all called. In fact, when each of them called, the best flush draw and the best straight draw where both in overlay. And that is one reason that some of you can't beat them.
The first remedy to the schooling effect of fish I would like to submit to you is the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em approach. Now, you're not actually going to become a calling station. You won't be calling with any two suited cards or any ace and you won't be playing KT out of position. What you can do, though, is take advantage of there passive and loose play by playing more speculative hands like suited aces (AXs) and medium suited connectors like 98s and JTs when you can get in cheap, particularly in the first few blind rounds of a tourney or in any cash game provided you have a substantial enough chip stack to make it worth your while. You can also take flops with small pairs, even after a small raise hoping to flop a set and "club a baby seal" for all his chips.
The reasoning is this; Stations are passive players who don't bet and raise with a high enough frequency and they also don't bet the correct amounts when they do bet. Stations have a tenancy to get married to their hands and often cannot release them even when it should be clear to them that they are beat. They have a very difficult time folding marginal hands and semi-strong hands after the flop. That means you can often get bigger value bets paid off when you do "get there" with your speculative hands. The combination of the players often giving you the correct odds to chase your draws and their reluctance to release hands when you bet your monster straights and flushes makes playing speculative hands a lucrative proposition against Calling Stations. The fact that bets are often followed by a string of calls makes it even more profitable to play your big draws. A little note here; when there are many players in a pot you should only chase draws that are reasonably close to the nuts. Avoid drawing to the idiot end of straights and weak flushes if there are other players check-calling. A check- call is a very good sign that a player is drawing so you might be wise to fold your small flushes or straight draws that could get trumped by higher straights. There is no more costly a mistake than paying to draw when you are drawing dead, especially when you get there.
The second remedy to the schooling effect is to bet your made hands much stronger than you typically would. You want to limit the field to one or two opponents when you are playing a strong hand like KK or QQ against a bunch of fish. That's one of the reasons I increase my opening bet size to four or five big blinds when swimming with the fish. If they're gonna call you anyway you might as well charge them an out of line price to draw against your hand. Your large bets should also get you to a reasonable number of opponents and might actually be able to help you put the caller(s) on hands. Many the Stations who will call 3 bb's with 54s will not call 5bb's with the same hands, but they will still give you action with AT and KJ, which is actually a better result for you when you hold a hand like AK. 54s isn't nearly the dog that AT or KJ is to your AK starting hand. In fact 54 is about 40% to beat AK, as sick as that seems. KJ is about nearly a 4 to 1 dog, and AT is in just as bad of shape; not to mention, when you both flop top pair you get to bust him.
The same concept applies to pricing out draws in multi-way pots. Instead of betting 2/3 of the pot when you flop tptk, go ahead and bet pot sized or even more. They'll pay it. And you want them to. But you have to bet enough to make it a bad call even if two opponents call. Remember to, when both players are drawing to the same flush they are drawing to two less outs and that does help compensate some for the schooling effect. Another thing I've noticed is that these players will often call very large bets on the flop when drawing (thinking they still have two cards coming) but will then fold to a reasonably sized bet on the turn because "now" they only have one card left to hit their draw. That's totally wrong of course, if they were going to lay it down on the turn if they missed they never really had two cards to begin with. Punish the draws on the flops.
To summarize, you should look forward to playing against Stations, they are the worst players and they are available in the largest numbers. Raise harder than normal with your big hands, you'll get played with don't worry about that. You should avoid the pitfalls of expecting your opponent to do what he's supposed to do, he'll call with a lot of hands that he shouldn't call with and he'll draw when he's not getting anything like attractive pot odds. Don't think," there's no way he could have made the flush, I was only giving him two to one odds". He could definitely have the flush. You can play more speculative hands against the Stations then you normally would, particularly from late position and in early rounds. They won't price you off the draws effectively and they offer you huge implied odds by not being able to fold when their hands are out drawn. Play smaller limits or buy-ins against Stations and be prepared for volatility, but always remember that the math will work itself out eventually as long as you don't play outside your bankroll. And until next time, Good "Luck!"
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