Strength of the all-in

June 21, 2009

 How strong is the power of the “all-in?” I’ve been asking myself this question lately as someone who’s regularly been on both sides of the equation in recent weeks. It has the ability to just stop a game dead in its tracks like nothing else. You could have two people jabbering over an argument that sparked from a play 20 hands ago, but if someone at the table makes that infamous move, all falls silent…and then all hell breaks loose.

I love, absolutely love watching the all-in unfold in poker tournaments on television. It can happen one of a few ways.

1) The quick response: This is great, because it means either the reacting player was trapping the other players the entire time, or he’s acting rashly off pure emotion. Either way, it’s going to make for great television and reactions once the call is made. You know what I’m talking about. Player 1 makes a huge deal and production about going all-in, and then almost before he or she can finish pushing their chips into the middle, the next player calls. “Call.” Usually it’s in a nice, casual, soft tone, as if to say “You don’t scare me. Bring it on.” It’s at this moment, if you’re watching the player who made the original bet, that you can tell if the first all-in was a bluff or a weak bet to buy the pot. The bet is down, there’s nothing left to hide – all but the best of them will subconsciously let their guard down and give you a clue as to what they’re feeling. It’s a great time to learn about your opponents, whether you’re in the hand or not.

2) The long delay: This is painful for all parties involved except the one making the decision, who is experiencing a whole different type of pain. If it were any other bet, the long delay would give everything away well before the call or fold. You don’t hesitate that long, get up from the table, do whatever it is you do, with a made hand. We’re not talking 20-30 seconds here, we’re talking minutes. We’re talking enough time for someone to call the clock on you – right or wrong (that’s a discussion for a different article). Anyway, this is the guy who, when presented with an all-in, obviously wasn’t prepared to be faced with this decision. He throws his hands up, goes to the bathroom, walks around the casino, goes across the street to get a hot dog…etc… he just can’t commit to putting all his chips in the middle, but apparently has a strong enough hand that keeps pulling him back to the wager. Most of the time this plays out the same way, and you wonder why it took so long to come to the obvious conclusion. He’ll call, see a stronger hand flipped by his opponent, and then almost like clockwork come out with “I knew it. I knew it.” All the while shaking his head. This is a perfect example of when the draw to the idea of being a big winner can overcome your logic and common sense as a poker player. Statistics, situational betting, reading somebody..they all tend to go out the window when the emotions take over.

3.) The accusation: You’ll see Phil Hellmuth and other professionals do this from time to time, and their motives behind the actions will differ. Someone will go all-in, and they just hate having to be put to a decision. So instead of delaying forever, they’ll go on the attack – verbally. “Why are you going all-in? I know you don’t have this or that. Bad bet. Bad move.” Like he just knows for sure what the other player is holding in his hand. Oftentimes, including when Hellmuth does it, it’s to goat the player into giving something up, which is fine. I accept this as a tactic. But other times, it’s just someone unable to control their frustration, and it turns into an outward complaint, obviously misdirected and certainly ridiculous. You’re in a battle of the minds, the last thing you need is an infant throwing a tantrum because he wanted to limp in and catch something on the turn or the river. Tough luck, sucker. In or out?

In any three of these scenarios, there’s a common thread. And that’s the ability to draw the attention of anyone in the room, especially if you’re deep into a tournament, regardless of the size. In fact, the all-in could be between two people who are down to their last half-stack of chips, and it would still be interesting. The idea of someone betting everything they have left is just incredibly appealing. And it’s my favorite part of being a poker enthusiast.