It can be good sometimes to mix up your play against aware opponents
I think “mixing up your play” is one of the most overused and misplaced concepts in live poker. Below the $10-20 no limit level you certainly do not need to “mix up” your play to be a big winner. In fact, the smaller the game and the more restricted the buy in cap the more straightforward, solid fundamental play achieves the highest winrate.
A lot of players try to get too FPS (fancy play syndrome) in many different spots and do not realize that actually playing their hands fast early on will often get the most value. People also do not realize that live players have a hard time folding what they perceive to be big hands because the pace of the game is so slow which should cause you to bluff less when you think your opponent is strong. At the end of the hand players bet an extremely polarized range on the river and their opponents rarely make the correct adjustments to this, going for things like check raises, not sensing when their opponent could be bluffing and not value betting thinly enough themselves.
Even though most of the money that I make from playing poker comes from beating up on the bad players it can be nice to sometimes play against another player that is capable of folding hands, is capable of bluffing correctly, value betting thinly, etc. The situation can sometimes be challenging and can lead one to changing up a standard line and playing creative. That is exactly what happened in a recent $5-$10 hand that I played at the Commerce Casino last week.
In this particular spot, a Commerce $10-$20 reg was sitting directly to my left. Often times there may only be two or three $10-$20 games running at one time and while someone is waiting they will come to the smaller side of the casino and play $5-$10. At this point in the session my image was very good, as I had built up from stack from $1500 to about $4000. The villain in the hand started with about $1900. I opened J♥ J♦ to $35 preflop UTG and the villain called UTG +1. We saw the flop headsup and the board came out A♣ J♠ 4♦ giving me middle set. Now in this situation against most of the players in the $5-$10 player pool I would just come out and bet and hope that my opponent would have an ace. I also would not think that my typical opponents would be good enough to try and bluff me on this board as checking this flop usually makes it look like I have some sort of medium show down strength hand like QQ-KK. However, I knew that this player was much more advanced. Not only did I think he might be capable of bluffing but I also knew that he would try to get max value with an ace so I decided to check. He quickly checked behind. The turn brought out the 5♦ bringing in a backdoor flush draw. This time I led for $50 and the villain quickly called. The river was a 4♣, pairing the board. I thought that this was a very interesting card for a number of reasons. Firstly it bricked out all of the backdoor draws like diamonds or 67. And second and perhaps most importantly it made the jack play as the kicker for anyone with an ace in their hand. I thought that this would make it much more likely that this player would bet a weak ace that he may have checked back on the flop like A5, as he only would lose to AK or AQ and chops with everything other ace.
The real key to our optimal river play is evaluating an accurate range through the action of the entire hand. After my opponent checks back the flop and calls the turn I think that his range consists of mostly weak aces, very few jacks (because I hold three of them) and backdoor draws. I find it rare that he would have any other weaker made hands than that range, because if he were a thinking player he would figure out that my hand is rarely a bluff when I check such a favorable board on the flop as a preflop raiser. Most people would bet their KQ, KT types of hands to take the pot down. So, if he had a hand like say pocket eights and he did call on the turn it is very rare that he would call a river bet. With a weak ace we already concluded that he would bet for value if checked to since we made our hand look like a jack, QQ-KK and with some of his backdoor draws with no showdown value he would bluff. So I think that it is pretty clear here that checking is the correct play. Against weaker competition, however, players that are not thinking anywhere near this level, I do not like to chance this spot and check because people check back medium strength hands too much, like an ace. Players also might call wider if they are inexperienced with the weaker parts of their made hand range, hands that certainty would not bet if checked to.
So after pondering for quite a while, I checked. Much to my delight my opponent bet out $215 into what was a $175 pot. This was a slight overbet and I thought it was designed to be polarizing. It made no difference if he was bluffing with a draw, as he was not going to call anyway, so I needed to concentrate on him having an ace and select the right raise sizing. Having middle set here versus top pair is great as sometimes you will confuse your opponents as they block the type of hand that you are representing in top set. I also thought I had made my hand look super weak so when I suddenly woke up on the river it may look strange. So, I decided to check raise to $750. My opponent snap called and obviously I was good with my jacks full.
This type of hand is really where I have stepped up my game over the last few years. Here, I tailored a line to a specific player and situation. In the past, I probably would have just went bet-bet-bet, which in most games is the correct way to play. But here I actually got made more by “mixing” it up and taking a non standard type of line that lead to me getting hundreds of dollars in additional value.