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This is the third installment of Pocket Quads, my bi-monthly column on poker for Cardplayer India. It appears in the issue dated March-April 2011.
Poker is a beautiful game, but one poignant truth about it is that the vast majority of poker players are losers: in the long run, they put more money on the table than they pick up. The element of luck in the game ensures that they have a few winning sessions, and many memorable hands, that serve as oxygen to their hopes of becoming poker sharks. But in the end, just a few people end up profitable. What do all these losing players have in common that separate them from long-term success? In this column, I’ll tackle a few common leaks that I’ve observed in local cash games (and have tried hard to eliminate in my own play).
1. Losing players play too many hands.
There seems to be a common misconception among poker players that the game is about winning as many hands as you can. It is not. It is about winning as much money as possible. In a recent Cardplayer column, Dusty Schmidt cited a study by Kyle Siler of Cornell University, which analysed 27 million hands played online and found that “the more hands you win, the more money you’re likely to lose.” Losing players typically enter many pots, win many small hands, and lose a few really big ones. This is the exact opposite of the formula to poker profitability.
Television is partly to blame for this. Televised poker gives edited versions of long poker sessions, or tournament final tables with relatively high blind structures, and to the casual viewer, there is action every hand, and any two cards (’ATC’) are playable. Thus, we have players in my local game who call 10x BB raises with 79o or 36s, with no grasp of the situational nuances that prompt top players to play them once in a while. Occasionally, they’ll flop two pair or a straight and bust aces with them, which will make them feel like Rambo, so they’ll try it again and again. But with two random cards, you will flop two pair or better once in 34 hands. (And even then you may be behind.) In the long run, such holdings are simply not profitable.
2. Losing players don’t know how to fold.
Besides not folding enough preflop (see previous point), losing players also don’t fold enough after the flop. If they see a flush draw, they will chase it to the end, regardless of whether the pot odds offered to them are profitable or not. If they play suited connectors (say, TJs), they will overplay their hand if they hit top pair, which misses the point of playing suited connectors. There is an old poker jungle saying, “Never go broke on one pair.” They will do exactly that, especially if that pair is pocket aces or kings. They will fall in love with their hand, and will indulge in wishful thinking about what their opponent might be up to.
This is why flopping a set is the most profitable situation in poker against your average donk. If he has hit top pair, he will simply refuse to put you on a set. The thought of winning that pot is too precious to him to accept the possibility of someone having a better hand. He. Will. Not. Fold.
3. Losing players ignore the math.
You’ve reached the turn, are chasing a flush, and are offered 2 to 1 odds to play on. Do you do so? You’ve raised to 1200 in a 100-200 game with TJs, a short stack has gone all-in for 3200, you are sure he has AKs, and there’s no one else in the hand: do you call him? You’ve missed your straight draw at the river but a third heart has hit the board, you think there is a one-third chance that your opponent may fold to a bluff bet of 75% of the pot, should you make it? Every decision we face in a poker game is a mathematical one at its core, once we account for our reads and the psychology of the game. Losing players ignore the math, and go by their feelings, their intuition or their ‘judgement’. It works for them a few times—but in the long run, they cannot win if they ignore the numbers.
4. Losing players don’t build big pots with their monster hands. (And vice versa.)
It is a fundamental axiom in poker that you must build big pots when you have a big hand, and keep the pot as small as possible when you have a marginal hand. Too many players, I have seen, will flop a monster (say, trips or a set), and will check the flop, and check the turn, and perhaps value bet the river and moan when they don’t get paid off. This is crazy.
When you have a monster hand, you need to calculate how to get as much of your opponents’ stacks in the middle as possible. Start building the pot right away. Make them pay for their draws (even if they’re drawing dead, they may not know it). Monsters don’t come around often and you need to maximise them.
Sometimes, of course, slow-playing works, especially if you’re up against a compulsive c-better who will certainly bet if checked to. But in general, betting your monsters is a good idea. Don’t take it too far, though, such as I did once when my pocket aces turned into quad aces on the flop, and I c-bet because I surmised that a check from a compulsive c-better like me (as I was at the time) would seem suspicious. Everyone folded.
5. Losing players make too many moves.
There are few things more satisfying than a successful bluff at the river to win a large pot, or a check-raise at the turn with a gutshot draw to make two pair fold. But, carried away by youth and the dopamine rushes that characterise gambling addiction, many players make way too many moves. They may not build monster pots when they have huge hands, but they sure make small pots huge in their urge to steal them with tricky plays. They make ill-timed squeeze plays, throw out large bluffs on the river without first telling a plausible story about their hand on preceding streets, and lose more money on stone cold bluffs, for pots that were tiny till they pumped it up, than they win with pocket aces.
This does not mean, of course, that you make no plays at all. If you sense weakness, it is your duty as a poker player to exploit it. But it’s easy to stretch this too far. One young man in my local game plays every pot, always bluffs if checked to, and once called himself the “Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala”. He drops, on average, five buy-ins per session. Dwan would cringe if he saw this guy invoke his name. To be a successful loose-aggressive player, it is not enough to be loose and aggressive—you also have to be successful. If you do not have the incredible psychological and situational skills of a Dwan or Ivey, it is better to keep it tight, and keep it simple.
6. Losing players let the game get to their emotions.
They lose a big pot, and they steam. They play perfect poker for five hours, get a bad beat in the sixth, go on tilt and give away their stacks away in the next ten minutes. They get tired and play hands they wouldn’t otherwise have played. They take the game personally, and let their ego drive them into wrong decisions.
These are all traps I’ve fallen into myself. (Indeed, at some phase or the other, I’ve committed all the mistakes I speak of in this column. Who hasn’t?) And I have come to realise that more than technical ability or mathematical skill or psychological acuity, poker is a game of character. It demands great discipline, patience and self-control. If you have these qualities, the rest will come.
Click here for the earlier installments of Pocket Quads.