Tuesday Sessions 18: Mistakes by skillful players

Index to Tuesday Sessions

The following lecture was the 18th Tuesday Session, held January 26, 1999, and later appeared in Card Player magazine

How Long-Time Poker Players Make Bad Decisions

In poker, experience isn’t always the best teacher. Sometimes players begin their careers doing bad things out of inexperience, and – just through plain luck – these bad things succeed at first. This reinforces that bad tactic or habit. The players fail to reexamine their strategy as the years go by, believing that they are on a solid poker foundation, while – in reality – it is cracking and sinking slowly, unnoticeably.

This doesn’t mean that these players all lose. Many win despite their mistakes. And that makes those mistakes even harder to correct. That’s because, when things are going well, you don’t tend to seek corrective action. You just suffer the diminished profit. You take the hit.

Let’s not do that anymore. Let’s listen to a lecture I gave at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy in January. The topic was…

Costly Mistakes Made by Experienced Players

  1. Mistake: Not raising enough on early rounds in last position.
    If ever there was an opportunity to establish your image at the same time that you gain a real tactical advantage, it’s when one, two, and sometimes even three remaining opponents have checked to you on an early betting round.

    The advantages of betting are that you’re likely to make your opponents “behave” and check to you on the next street (often when the limits double), and you can take control by (1) continuing to bet (for image, for value, or because your hand improved) or (2) checking and taking a free card. The more timid your opponents are, the more often you should bet. Simulations show that the times you knock potential winners out plus the times you win outright by betting is pure profit. The play is profitable even without this, and it is image enhancing.

    This doesn’t mean you should always bet if everyone checks to you on the flop in hold ’em or checks to you after the fourth card in seven-card stud. Sometimes you have a very weak hand and you should accept the free opportunity to improve, knowing that you would have simply folded had anyone bet. Sometimes you will just check along with the crowd for deceptive reasons. Sometimes you will check because you’ve been betting too often and your strategy has become transparent. And sometimes you check because the opponents who have already acted are deceptive and tend to check-raise with great frequency. Those are not the ones you should bet into.

    Against them, usually take the free card graciously.

    But, in general, try to maximize your positional advantage on early rounds quite often. The more you can do this without stepping over the line and becoming a victim of your own aggression, the more money you’ll make.

    Mistake: Letting the weakest players feel left out.

  2. When new recreational players come to your game, make them one of the group. From their perspective, they feel uneasy – and are less likely to gamble – if you talk only to other regular players.
  3. Mistake: Discussing strategy with opponents.
    This might make other opponents realize that there is strategy. Nothing makes weak foes less willing to gamble poorly than making them think you might be critical of their decisions.

    I never talk real strategy in a poker game. I babble, I mislead, I amuse, I laugh at jokes. I never, ever want opponents to think that they’re being scrutinized. I want them to have my “permission” to play poorly.

  4. Mistake: Check-raising a timid player on your left.
    This is like crawling into a cave and waking up a hibernating bear. Why do it? The person on your left has a positional advantage, and as long as he remains timid, he isn’t using that positional advantage to its full potential. Check-raising is often seen as an act of war. Why start it?

    The truth about check-raising is that it is compensation for the disadvantage of having to act first. It should be used, but it should be used sparingly.

  5. Mistake: (Hold ’em) Just calling the blind in a late position when everyone before you has passed.
    Despite what I’ve taught you about the pitfalls of playing very small pairs in hold ’em, this is the time you really can play them profitably, and the most profitable way is to raise. Then players often will check to you on the next round, and you can take control. The additional chance that you’ll chase potential winners out, plus the chance that you might win right now, make raising the right play most of the time.

    Additionally, you should know that a small pair is often significantly more profitable against one opponent than against two opponents. If you flop three-of-a-kind, you probably want the extra opponent. But if you don’t, you can sometimes win heads-up with that unimproved pair, whereas you would have been much more likely to lose with that pair against two or more opponents.

    If you play a small pair from early position (which, by the way, is not always a good idea), you should be hoping either for a lot of callers or just one (or, of course, none at all). You should not be hoping for two callers. That’s why the correct play – if you do decide to play a small pair – is usually to just call from an early position and invite players into your pot. But in a late position, you want to either win the blind money right now or end up against just one opponent, not two. So, a raise is often the better choice.

  6. Mistake: Failing to bet medium-strong hands against non-threatening “calling stations.”
    Players are afraid of overusing this tactic. Don’t be. Stop fretting and keep betting! Weak callers make your bets with medium-strong hands profitable, especially when you act last. Usually bet.

    But make sure you understand that “non-threatening” was a key word in this mistake. If the players you’re betting into are deceptive and apt to raise you back – thereby getting maximum value when they have you beat – you should not routinely bet medium-strong hands into them.

  7. Mistake: Asking to raise the limits when opponents are losing.
    This gives them new hope, and they tend to “start over” and play better. Also, if the limits are bigger than is comfortable, your opponents will tighten up. Remember, most profit in poker comes from opponents who play too loosely.

  8. Mistake: Splashing chips when bluffing.
    The more lively you bet, the more apt opponents are to call. In general, make you bluffs as unobtrusive as possible.

  9. Mistake: Not bothering to change seats.
    A lot of poker profit comes from positioning yourself to the left of loose players and, also, to the left of knowledgeable-and-aggressive players. Sometimes you can become glued to your seat and too lazy to make a change that would dramatically enhance your profit by allowing you to gain positional advantage against the correct players. Always be alert for a profitable seat change.

    And, of course, this has nothing whatsoever to do with superstition. You should never change seats for superstitious reasons, because everything I teach about poker – and everything that really works in poker – has nothing whatsoever to do with controlling luck or appeasing the poker gods. It has to do with powerful, proven strategy, psychology, and statistics. And it’s all you need to win. – MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

3 thoughts on “Tuesday Sessions 18: Mistakes by skillful players”

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  1. Hey, Mike! Craig here…it’s been awhile since our heads up match at Twin Oaks. How are things?

    I have a question on #9 w positioning yourself to the left of loose players. I know you say money moves in clockwise motion around the table so to be to the left of a loose player makes sense in that manner. But, I find myself enjoying them to be to my left. With having first action before them the majority of hands if they’re to my direct right, I like to extract max value from them by leading all 3 streets on strong hands. I feel that if you’re behind them, a raise can slow them down where they might be able to find the fold button. For example, let’s say we’re deep stacked in a 2-5 game w $800 effective stacks and we’re holding 8s vs his 10s on an 842 rainbow flop w a raise to $20 pre from him. If he’s first to act, he’s c-betting here and a raise from us is going to look scary w the uncoordinated flop. If we’re the one leading out though let’s say for $30 into the $47, he’s probably raising to get our pot nice and bloated and we can assess how we want to extract max value w his sizing right there and on later streets.

    Also, let’s say you spike a set of 10s on a very coordinated flop of something like 10hJh8d w 4 to the flop. Leading out in front of the loose player who is drawing and calls can sometime make others feel priced into calling when in fact they’re drawing really thin which is what we want. If the loose player is to our right and leads out followed by a raise from us, that will likely scare off people w hands like KJ, QJ, A9, 9x, & Jx.

    Thoughts? I look forward to hearing your response to give me some insight.

    1. *With having first action before them the majority of hands if they’re to my direct LEFT*

    2. Hi, Craig —

      I remember our charity match. Good to hear from you.

      It’s true that in some situations, with some hands, you might fare better acting first. But you simply can’t deny the power of acting last, overall. So, when you analyze all hands played over time, using sensible strategy, there’s always an advantage to acting after an an opponent. If you drill down, you’ll find examples like the one you provided where it’s arguably better to act first. But, even in the case you described, it’s debatable whether you’d make more money acting first or second, even though the tactics would be quite different.

      Also, remember that if you’re playing an aggressive, winning strategy, you’re apt to eliminate those weak players on the first round of betting when you raise in front of them. If you let them enter pots first, you can then raise and trap them for extra money with your better hands. — MC

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