What Is A Cooler In Poker

The year: 1855. The place: an opulent riverboat heading up the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis. It’s a couple of hours before sunrise and you’ve been playing draw poker all night. The air is heavy with cigar smoke and whiskey.

The dealer flicks the cards around the table. You look down at three Kings and open the pot. Only the well-dressed man in the black hat calls you. You discard two babies and pick up… the fourth King! You decide the danger of your opponent checking back is too high to trap, so you fire out a bet. The man in the black hat looks at you through narrowed eyes. And pushes all his chips and bills forward.

Before you make the obvious call, you notice something that has been gnawing at your mind since the deal. The cards are… cooler. Yes, for this hand the previously warm, slightly tacky playing cards have somehow cooled down.

You return the squinting stare of the well-dressed man in the black hat. And you fold!

Even for a Vegas nit, this line seems totally bonkers. Indeed, it’s doubtful whether anyone on a Mississippi riverboat did ever fold in this spot, but the signs are there that it may be the right play.

It’s the suddenly cool cards. Playing for hours with a single deck ensures the cards are warm, so a sudden drop in temperature either means the Grim Reaper joined the table or a new deck has been switched in. Why would a deck be changed without any announcement to the table? To break you! The deck has been set, and it’s pounds to pennies that when you call with your four Kings, you’re going to be shown the one hand that can beat you. The cooler cards were the sign you were about to get coolered.

While the origin of the term “cooler” comes from being cheated, it has found its way into the modern lexicon to mean a situation where a big hand loses to an even bigger one. Let’s look at a well-known televised hand that’s often held up as an example of this phenomenon. It features Gus Hansen and Daniel Negreanu.

PREFLOP

Hansen (5♦5♣) raises to $2,100 and Negreanu (6♠6♥) 3-bets to $5,000. Everyone else gets out of the way and Hansen makes the call.

FLOP ($11,700) 9♣6♦5♥

Uh oh. Set-over-set in a heads-up pot. Looks like Hansen is going to lose some money here. Hansen checks, Negreanu fires out $8,000, and Hansen check-raises to $26,000. Negreanu elects just to call.

TURN ($63,700) 5♠

Apparently Gus has been living right, as he manages to spike the one-outer. The action goes bet and a call.

RIVER ($111,700) 8♠

The river card means any stray 7 makes a straight; not relevant to either of the actual hands in play, but possibly a factor in the subsequent action. Hansen checks, Negreanu bets $65k, and Hansen raises $167k all-in. After listing all the hands that beat him, Negreanu calls and gets the bad news.

There is no doubt that Negreanu got extremely unlucky in this hand, but is his river call the correct play? It turns out this question is important if we are to accurately describe this hand as a cooler.

To explain the point, here are Red Chip co-founders Doug Hull and Ed Miller getting to the root of what a cooler actually is. As you’ll hear in the clip below, this is more than a semantic point. Indeed it is central to the question of whether Negreanu’s call was correct here.

(This clip is taken from the PRO video “Is It A Cooler?” that PRO subscribers can access through this link or their dashboards.)

Doug has a particularly nice definition of a cooler in this clip. It’s a hand that we lose when we “play correctly versus our opponent’s range, but tragically wrong against their actual hand”. So it’s important to emphasize that this is more than simply getting unlucky.

To develop this key point, suppose we flop the second nut flush. If there is not much money left to play (in other words, a low-SPR situation), we are always getting all-in with the second nuts, so if we lose to the nut flush we clearly got coolered. However, if the pot is $50 on the flop in the same scenario, but we now have $1,000 behind, it’s conceivable that we may get away from our hand before committing all our chips. Taking the idea further, if we got all-in here with a small flush against a tight opponent holding the nuts, we did not get coolered; we simply played the hand poorly, even though one could argue we still got unlucky to find ourselves in this spot.

Let’s look at another famous televised hand that is frequently cited as a classic cooler. This one involves Tom Dwan and Phil Ivey.

PREFLOP

Dwan open from the button with 7♥6♥ and Ivey 3-bets from the SB with A♣2♦. Note that the hand begins 3-handed, so ranges are going to be much wider than in a full-ring game.

FLOP ($49.5k) J♣3♦5♣

Both players flop a gutshot, with Ivey also having backdoor clubs. Ivey c-bets for $35k and Dwan makes the call.

TURN ($119.5k) 4♥

Commentator David Tuchman secures his credentials as a sicko by correctly calling the action card ahead of time. When it peels off, both he and Robert Williamson go nuts, since both players make their straights. Ivey leads for $90k and Dwan makes it $142k more. Ivey moves all-in and discovers he is drawing dead.

So is this a cooler? Did Ivey play his hand correctly versus Dwan’s range, but tragically wrong against his actual hand? I think in this case we are clearly dealing with a cooler. Dwan can make the turn raise with sets (assuming he is doing so for value), as well as combo draws involving clubs and a 6. Heck, it’s Tom Dwan, he might be doing this with air. So Ivey’s all-in move is perfectly sensible against Dwan’s range; he just happened to run into the stone cold nuts.

Bringing all these ideas together, did Negreanu in the first clip also get coolered? As we’ve already concluded, he definitely got unlucky, but is calling Hansen’s river shove correct versus his range? I think it’s less clear. Sure Gus is known for a wild style of play, but it’s also the case that his loose-aggressive preflop approach gets more tempered when big money is on the line deeper in a hand. As Gabe Kaplan asks rhetorically in his commentary, is Hansen ever really check-jamming the river with a hand Negreanu is beating?

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading.

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  • George

    56 would shove there. 78 might also. Not a bad call. Cooler.