You must have come across the situation when you are about to raise and you get this feeling that it’s just not the right thing to do, so you pass. Sure enough, a guy was sitting there waiting to pick you off with Aces. What made you hesitate and pass? Indecision? Intuition? A tell? Or some inner part of you screaming that it wasn’t the right moment to proceed? That unquantifiable notion in your head is what could be referred to as ‘timing’.
Obviously people would claim that your timing is good when you hold Aces and your opponent holds Kings (and in literal terms it is), but I would say this is more an example of good fortune. Good timing would be where you make a play that is concealed because you know it’s the right thing to do. It’s completely different from good luck.
One thing is for sure: if your timing is good, you don’t need anything else. It’s the one thing that is so hard to get right and I think it’s something you can’t be taught. One of the best ever poker players with uncanny timing was Stu Ungar, a player 30 years ahead of his time.
Although timing is not something quantifiable and it’s no exact science (like the maths of a particular situation, where you can calculate exactly where you stand), just looking at how some of the best players in the world play may help you become more in touch with your own sense of timing.
WOLFE AT THE DOOR
A lot of the top pros have excellent timing because of their ability to read the game above and beyond normal players. A recent example of a well-timed move occurred in the Grand Prix at the Aviation Club in Paris. In one particular pot we had five flat-callers and the guy on the button raised – a classic squeeze move picked up by the small blind, who promptly moved all-in. We all knew the first move was a bluff, but the fact that the small blind came straight back at him shows balls and timing.
Someone who has mastered the art of getting into your head and knowing your every move is Roland de Wolfe. He talks to his opponents and gets info from their reactions and always seems able to spot danger. In the EPT London with just 30 players remaining, Roland had a tough call to make on a rock-solid player who had just pushed. As I watched him make his decision he was speaking to his opponent, saying: ‘I would call anyone else at this table with my hand in a flash, but you have only shown massive hands so I am wary. Do you have a pair, or maybe Ace-King?’ No response was forthcoming and Roland continued his probing questions. He eventually made the call, declaring that he believed he was, at worst, in a race with his A-Q. He was correct, as his opponent had 9-9. The flop then came A-A-x and Roland eliminated another player.
Another guy I admire for his uncanny ability in such situations is the official king of the outdraws, Gus Hansen. Having been on the receiving end heads- up in the European Open, I can tell you that while it may seem like he is always gambling with the worst of it and getting lucky, his timing is awesome. When heads-up in the Aussie Millions he won a massive final hand with Aces. Why does he get called when he has such a huge hand and the other guy has trash? It’s not just good fortune I can assure you – it’s impeccable timing and the constant thought in other players’ heads that he is playing with nothing all the time.
Don’t get luck mixed up with timing. Timing relates to when and where you make your moves to take down pots. If you break down why you made a particular move, your timing will surely improve
TRIUMPH IN ADVERSITY
Timing can sometimes be a little hit and miss, but that is just the nature of the beast. However, it is important to not be put off by those occasions where a move has been badly timed. The very best players can continue raising through the most adverse situations. When their bluffs don’t seem to work against an aggressive player, they continue to press ahead and pile on the pressure.
I happened to be on the receiving end of a master class of this style of play in the final of the Monte Carlo Millions in 2005. Phil Ivey raised on four separate occasions only to get re-raised by either Paul ‘ActionJack’ Jackson or myself. What did he do on hand five? You guessed it, he raised! But this time he put in a little more, with the result that the next sequence of raises he made got through unchallenged.
Later, when he was heads-up with Jackson (I went out in third place), came one of the best hands ever to be played in tournament poker. With a bluff and counter-bluff on a paired board (neither player having any sort of hand), Ivey eventually took down a massive pot. He declared afterwards that the reasoning behind his all-in bluff was down to his belief in his initial judgement on the hand after observing Paul’s play. His timing was impeccable, and against any other opponent I suspect Jackson’s bluff move would have been successful. Ivey went on to win the tournament and the $1 million first prize.
Remember what I said earlier about listening to your gut when it screams at you to pass? Well, I wish I could always take my own advice. Several times I have been sitting in a tournament counting my chips for a bluff, knowing full well I will get called, but still not disciplined enough to let go of the hand. It’s always down to the texture of the flop and the way the betting panned out throughout the hand.
One example occurred in the recent WSOP Europe. There was one early- position raiser pre-flop; I re-raised from position with 9-8 and got called by the original raiser. I know I have to be careful now, as the flop comes 4-A-10. He checks again and I bet three quarters of the pot and get called. The turn is a 5 and I bet again and get called. The river is another Ace, which brings the backdoor flush. My opponent checks, and as I begin to count out my third blank bullet, I know that the second Ace on the board will convince him that I do not have one. Nevertheless, I proceed blindly, ignoring my head telling me to give up the hand and making a less than three-quarter bet (trying to mask my weakness with a ‘please call me’ ruse). After a long dwell-up, I get called by J-J. This was bad play, bad timing and bad discipline all in one hand. I got a kicking and I fully deserved it.
Listen to your gut feelings. Also, just because you’ve been a victim of bad timing on a few occasions, don’t curl up in the corner. Keep trusting your instincts – they usually come good in the end.