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Dumpster Diving: A Guide to Playing Trash Hands

We’ve all run across players who refuse to put their money in the pot without the benefit of premium cards. Indeed, players who wait on suited connectors, pocket pairs, or high face cards are practicing sound poker strategy, and will almost always make deep runs in tournament play. But because of the astronomical increases in the blinds, they’re often anted out before they make the final table.

And each of us, I’m willing to bet, also know at least one player who will dive headfirst into a pot, no matter what his hold cards may be. These are the members of the boom-or-bust crowd, who either soar atop the leader board (though usually not for long) or crash and burn in an instant depending on the luck of the draw.

Both of these strategies share the same basic flaw, in that they rely too much on the cards themselves. When you’re playing too conservatively, you surrender yourself to the blind mercy of the dealer in the exact same way you would if you were moving all-in on every pot. While it may take the results a bit longer to even out, you are, in fact, relying only on luck.

The solution, as all good players know, is to find a balance between the two. Playing your opponent is much more important than playing your cards.

And so, we come to the subject of trash hands. Say you’re in a cash game, and have been stuck with an epically lousy run of cards. You’ve been blinded down to just around two-thirds of your original stack, and frustration has begun to set in. What do you do?

Before you do something drastic (like moving all-in with ace-4 suited), take some time to observe the play of your table-mates. With a little careful observation, you may find a few chances to turn your bad luck around, thanks to a little dumpster diving.

Stealing the blinds

Are there any players in worse shape than you? Have any of them been on a losing streak, or maybe just gotten back to even? If so, it may be time to practice some dumpster diving. When the blinds come around to them, kick up the ante a little bit. They may be more reluctant to play, and will fold to your raise. If they re-raise you, it’s time to abort the mission. But don’t necessarily be frighten by a flat call. They had just as good a chance at hitting the flop as you do.

Making your own luck

If there’s any better way to bring yourself out of a funk at the tables, I have yet to learn about it. The problem with waiting for an hour on pocket aces is two-fold. Firstly, the very fact that you’re in the hand will alert the opposition to your strong cards. And secondly, your desire to finally win a pot may lead you to become accidentally over-aggressive. So, if you’re having a terrible run of cards, see if you can’t limp into a few pots, maybe picking up two pair of even a set. Pick your spots carefully, however. Make sure that the players acting behind you are conservative types who like to see the flop before raising the stakes.

Pick your spots

I’ve mentioned it several times already, but it bears mentioning again. This is, unquestionably, the most important factor to consider before playing poor cards. If you’re playing in middle position and are already facing a raise, then you’re probably going to want to fold. When dumpster diving, you always want to be the first player to enter the pot (until you reach the more advanced psychological stages, that is). Know what you’re opponent’s tendencies are. Don’t raise someone who plays aggressive poker, especially if their stack is large enough to put you all-in without a second thought. Dumpster diving is best practiced on players who are either smaller or near your same size.

Read the reactions

When you win a hand through dumpster diving, watch the reactions of your opponents. You’ll need a thick skin, because many of the mid-level players at the table will berate you mercilessly. “Only a donkey would play that trash,” and so on and so forth. Players who jeer you for your creative play are obviously still stuck on the first rung of the poker ladder, thinking only about the cards in their hand rather than next step of “What do my opponent’s think I have?” But keep an eye out for the players around you who don’t say anything. They may be the ones who are operating at a higher level, and understand the play you just made.

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