The embryonic part of this week saw me playing like a dream. I put this dreamlike state of affairs down to the stop-and-breathe.
It works like this: when it comes to your turn to act you don't act rashly, no matter the cards and how close you might be to tossing them away. You breathe deeply, think, exhale, act.
An example. I'm in the early stages of a tournament on a table dripping with experienced regulars. I'm holding Kd-10s in the big blind. A hyper-aggressive button raises three times the big blind and I flat call. The flop saunters down Q-Q-4 rainbow. He makes a pot-sized bet.
Often I would insta-fold here because I'm a cowardly thicko. Not this time though. I breathe deeply, think, exhale, and act. My act is a call. He's not betting a queen or a pair of fours here. The turn is a nine. He bets two-thirds of the pot. I stop-and-breathe and call, with a vague plan to steal the pot on the river if he checks. The river is a five. He checks. I bet around two thirds of the pot. He folds.
This style of play against cunning, fearless regulars saw me - prior to the worst hand I've ever played - get up to third in a tough field and heading towards the final table in a deepstack tournament. I would simply play in position against aggressive regulars who were delighted to automatically two-barrel but would often give up by the river, allowing me to take the pot away from them.
Then, disaster. I pick up two sexy red aces in the small blind. The blinds are 400/800. Although the table has been almost exclusively min-raising pre, I make it 1900 to go. A semi-decent player in the big blind flats. The flop is a lush but could-soon-turn-ugly As-Js-9d. I bet three-quarters of the pot and get called. I want a low, non-spade. I get a low, absolute spade: a five.
This malignant spade could, I suppose, slow me down. But I don't want to give this increasingly annoying reg a free card on a pretty wet board. I bet two-thirds of the pot again and am called. The turn is a brick.
Now, I still have a fairly playable stack. I could check-call or check-fold or check-run-out-of-the-room-and-pray. I could do the stop-and-breathe. But I don't. Within a second or two I convince myself that he could call a shove with two pair or a lower set and that the only thing that could beat me is an unlikely - although, is it? - flush and so I stick my remaining chips in.
He calls with Qs-6s for the flush and I ghost out of the tournament. Then I write a few childish words in the chatbox. Then I sulk. Then, after a bit, I examine the hand and realise that it's one that I can get away from. A stop-and-breathe on the river may have saved me.
Is it really the worst hand I've ever played? Probably not, I've played some real stinkers. But it might be the worst in the circumstances. I was playing well: composed, commanding, slick, feared. And all of those qualities evaporated over the following days and I spewed a ton of money like the boneheaded plum that I sometimes am. Stopping-and-breathing became a psychological relic.
And now? Now I realise that before every major decision that I make at the poker table I need to breathe deeply before acting. So, you know, at least that's something. Try it, and let me know how you get on. And watch out for punks playing Q6s.
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