AT THE BEGINNING of March, the World Poker Tour held its annual event in my back yard - at the Bay 101 in San Jose, Calif.
I came in my customary 90 minutes late and began my day using extremely tight tactics. Why not play a super-patient strategy, especially up here in Nor Cal, where they're known to play big pots with weak hands?
Another reason to play patiently: This was a bounty tournament, and I was a bounty, meaning that whoever knocked me out would win $10,000 in cash. This led more players to play more pots against me.
As the day progressed, I steadily built up my chips in a risk-free manner - running my chips up while playing small pots and keeping myself out of serious risk.
I finally got tangled up in a big pot late on the first day. With the blinds at $500 to $1,000, I raised it up to $2,800 with A-K on the button. The player in the small blind then raised it up $5,200 more, making it $8,000 to go.
When I first saw my A-K on the button, knowing that I had been raising it up a lot of pots over the last hour, I hoped that one of the blinds would raise me again so I could move all-in and they could fold their hand - game-set-match.
The game plan was set, or so it seemed. However, as I reached for my chips to move all-in, the guy in the small blind flinched.
I asked him, "You have pocket aces, don't you?"
He replied, "Do I need pocket aces?"
This threw me off a bit, but my initial reaction was that this was exactly what he had. I hit the parking lot a few minutes later - after I busted out of the tournament, after I moved all-in, and after he called me and showed me what I knew he would show me: pocket aces.
Was I super unlucky to pick up A-K on the button and run into A-A in the small blind? Yes.
Was it even more unlucky that I had been raising it up before the flop quit of 10 over the last hour? Yes, because that meant that another player would raise me again with a relatively weak hand, thinking that I was weak.
Still, I could have simply folded my hand.
One thing all the great poker players have is the ability to "know" (have a super-strong read) when an opponent has the best-possible hand. There is no other situation quite like it in poker, and the great ones can smell it a mile away.
I smelled it, but I didn't believe it! So instead of making a great fold, I moved all-in.
I want to talk for a minute about the tactics I frequently employ in championship-level poker tournaments. Why do I often play super patiently before the flop? Simply because it makes my life a lot easier after the flop.
When I play hands like Jd-8d, or 10h-9h, or As-3s before the flop for a raise, I find myself in a lot of unfavorable positions after the flop.
For example, I may have the 10h-9h, the flop comes down J-10-4, and my opponent bets out big. Now what do I do? I may be in bad shape if, for example, my opponent has a jack in his hand, or an over pair, or a 10 with a higher kicker (that's ugly).
The worst-case scenario is that he may have trips. Even if I have the best hand here, my opponent may have K-Q, where I'm only a small favorite to win the pot.
Another example is when you have As-3s, and the flop comes down A-10-9. Yes, you have hit the ace, but you cannot play a really big pot from here on out and expect to have the best hand. Now what do you do?
Playing these types of hands puts your reading ability to the test repeatedly.
On the other hand, many top players play these types of hands successfully, and when they hit the 9-6-5 flop to their 8-7 and win a huge pot, they look like geniuses. (Some of these guys are geniuses!)
Patrick Antonius, Daniel Negreanu and a few others seem to play this style of play and win big while using it. So if you do want to play high-level poker and play these types of hands, expect big swings. But the rewards may also be huge. It's just not my style of play. *
Phil Hellmuth is a 10-time World Series of Poker champion and the author of "Play Poker Like the Pros" and "Bad Beats and Lucky Draws" (both published by HarperCollins).