HARD POKER TRUTH: If you have chips, you don't need cards.
And if you can read people and understand what their bets mean, then you can amass chips and wield a stack to put pressure on opponents to make them believe you have a big hand.
Jeff Mad-sen, who last year became the youngest player to win a World Series of Poker bracelet and then surpassed that less than a week later by becoming the youngest to win two, offers an example of the ability to play against a player, not against his cards.
With blinds at $50-$100 in the $15,000-buy-in Five Diamond World Poker Classic at Las Vegas' Bellagio in December, Mad-sen drew K-Q offsuit in middle position and made a standard raise of 3 1/2 times the big blind to $350. Only the player in the big blind called.
The flop came 3-6-10, rainbow, completely missing Madsen. The big blind checked, perhaps indicating the flop missed him, too, or perhaps trying to trap Mad-sen, who also checked.
The turn came the 2 of diamonds, putting three to a straight and two to a flush on the board. The big blind checked again. Madsen bet $700.
"I was just trying to take down the pot there," said Madsen, who endorses FullTiltPoker.com. "I try to win every pot I'm in, as long as it's not too expensive. It's not even about what I have. He was in the big blind and he checked twice. There's a good chance he doesn't have a piece of it."
The big blind check-raised to $1,700.
"I smelled weakness," Madsen said. "I just thought he was check-raising me because I checked the flop. Instead of re-raising him, I just called so I could bet the river or raise the river.
"I wasn't waiting for a king or a queen on the river. I was just going to bet something stronger."
The river came the 4 of spades, putting four cards to a straight out there. The big blind bet $2,100. As he had planned on the turn, Madsen raised an additional $3,400.
"I still smelled weakness," Madsen said. "Also, the river was the fourth card to the straight, so for him to bet out there was more obviously a bluff than anything. He's still betting the scare card, so I didn't think he hit it. The range of hands he might have when he bet the turn didn't fit with calling the pre-flop raise. He might've had the 5, but I thought he was weak. So I raised. He folded instantly."
Madsen was strictly playing his read of his opponent.
"That's the lesson in every hand," Madsen said. "You're going to make money in poker if you learn to read the person. The cards do matter in certain situations, but in the long run, everybody gets the same cards, so it's how you play them against certain people."
Check-raise: You pass on a chance to bet, but when it comes back to you in the same round, you put in a raise; it's a trapping move to show weakness at the start, but you risk missing a round of betting if everyone else checks. *
E-mail Steve Rosenbloom at srosenbloom