Independent Pursuits: Poker

CREATIVITY IS an elusive concept. It means, I suppose, making the kind of play which is not simply out of the ordinary and beyond an ordinary player's range - it means seeing into players' minds and exploiting a situation so as to make an unusual and, hopefully, winning play.

Here is a simple example I saw the other night at Omaha, the four card version of Hold 'em. Larry showed me his cards, so I could see what happened. The pot was raised before the flop which came down K-Q-10 off-suit. Larry had A-J-9-7 for a top straight. First to speak, he checked. Tom, who was a strong player, but fairly cautious, then bet the pot, pounds 40. It's pretty obvious he's got a top straight, too. The other players folded. Larry did not raise back but just called.

The turn card was an insignificant 4. Again Larry checked his hand, and again Tom bet the pot. Larry just called, though he had another pounds 250 in front of him and (so I thought) could well have raised back, to put the question to Tom.

The river card (as the final card of the flop is called) paired the board, another 4. Now Larry chose to bet his top straight!

The implication was obvious - he had been stringing along with trips and had now hit a full house. And Tom without hesitation folded. I thought, watching Larry, that this was a very neat play. He ran virtually no risk, he judged that with each of them having a top straight, the pot would be split. But he played the hand in such a way as to win it outright. Only a small coup, but the beauty of it was that his opponent, Tom, hadn't the faintest idea that he had been outplayed in the process.

Creative play may occur over a long range of hands rather than in one coup. Here is how TJ Cloutier, one of the best-known pros on the Vegas circuit, busted his challenger in a big no-limit Hold 'em tournament. He had been chipping away, winning a succession of small pots, and had reached the point when he knew that his opponent had to make a stand.

Next hand the flop came down J-9-4. T.J knew his man would bet it if he had any sort of hand. He only held a 9 himself, for second pair. But interpreting the previous pattern of play, he read his opponent's mind. When a 3 came down on the turn and the man bet $40,000 at him, a serious bet, he called. And when another 3 came on the river, and the man bet $50,000, TJ was so sure of his opponent's hole cards, he named them - Q-10 off-suit. Is that creative play or what?