Preventing errors in poker judgment

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2000) in Cardplayer magazine.

In poker, there are lots of ways to damage your bankroll. You can run short of discipline and do things that you know you shouldn’t. Playing hands that you know you shouldn’t play and making calls that you know you shouldn’t make are two common poker faults — even among experienced players. Playing games that you shouldn’t play is another fault, because you can feel lazy and fail to shop for a better place to invest your money. Playing too high for your bank- roll can take you out of the game and put you on the rail watching in a hurry. And playing when you’re tired often is unprofitable.

But those are mistakes we’ve talked about before. Today, I want to deal with a whole category of mistakes that relates solely to good judgment. I hope to talk you out of some bad habits that you may have and help you increase your profit potential. Can I really do that in just this one column? I don’t know. I’ll try, though.

So, if you’re ready, let’s examine errors in poker judgment. This material comes from the 28th in my series of Tuesday Session classroom lectures at Mike Caro University of Poker. Gaming, and Life Strategy. Originally, I talked about this on April 6, 1999. The title of my talk was…

Avoiding Common Errors in Judgment

1. Error: Raising players out on early rounds in a rake game. Oh, I know that this is controversial. There’s a whole herd of people who strongly believe — deep, deep in their hearts — that it’s better to raise in an effort to limit the field of competition.

Well, let me assure you, those people’s hearts are in the right place. It’s their thinking that sucks. As I’ve said before, even in those instances when you have a significantly strong hand and you can prove that it would be better to play against fewer players, raising may not be the answer. Why? Because — if players remain to act after you — you often “succeed” in chasing away the weak hands that you wanted to call you, but not the strong hands that you were hoping to scare away.

Many years ago, I began reporting to you that limit-the- field tactics often were less profitable when computer simulations were used than more-the-merrier tactics. Later, I was able to pinpoint the main factor contributing to this, and I’ve just told you what it is. In raising to limit the field of opponents to the right size, you’re often eliminating the wrong hands. So, the limit-the-field strategy, in itself, often is an error in judgment — not always. though. and that’s another story.

In rake games, you usually should raise only to build pots, not to eliminate opponents. This advice takes into consideration both the loose nature of typical opponents in these games and the effect of the rake. As we just examined, even in nonrake games (for example, seat rental and button pays), the thin-the-field strategy often is wrong. But in a rake game, it tends to be wrong more frequently, because the rake is split among fewer opponents. This means that when the pot is raked, you often need a bigger edge than you might expect to justify betting. This is especially true before the rake is capped.

Just to make this concept clear, let’s suppose that you have a sure winning hand and only one opponent. The rake is 10 percent with no cap. You bet $10 and your opponent calls $10. That’s a total of $20 wagered, and the house takes 10 percent (much higher than typical at most casinos, by the way). So, that’s $2 in rake. This means that you have wagered $10 in an effort to gain $8. So, the “tax” on your winnings is 20 percent against a single opponent. But suppose that there are three of you. You bet $10, Player A calls $10, and Player B calls $10. The house takes $3 of the $30 total wager (still 10 percent), but the tax now is only 15 percent on your winnings ($3 out of $20 instead of $2 out of $10).

So, the percentage of rake is reduced with every extra opponent you face. Even if the rake is capped, this concept is very important on the first round of betting, and often means that you should not raise in an effort to eliminate opponents. Violation of this concept is an error in judgment.

2. Error. Showing too much caution when the board pairs big in hold’em. As an example, if you’re holding kings and the board pairs aces on the turn, you’re often better off, not worse off. The new ace diminishes the chances that your opponent has you beat (although you might be badly beat), and often improves your chances of winning. If your opponent had an ace, you’re trailing anyway. Don’t be afraid to call, bet, or even raise in this situation.

Folding at this point, when you were willing to call on the flop, often is an error in judgment.

3. Error: Checking big hands in seven-card stud with power showing. You’re not likely to get bluffed into, so potential profit from catching bluffs is unavailable. And semistrong trailing hands seldom bet, so you too often lose the money that you would have gained had you bet. On the final betting round, though, you often should check if your power is apparent. That’s because opponents no longer have any hope of improving, so they won’t call if they can’t beat what they see.

4. Error. Letting tight players bluff you. Many tight players restrict the number of reasonable hands they play but don’t restrict the number of bluffing hands. The result is that they’re bluffing more often than you might expect. Don’t be rolled over by a rock!

You’d be surprised how many conservative players bluff too much and don’t know it. (Some do know it, but realize that they can get away with it.) Although they bluff only occasionally, they bet far fewer medium-strong hands than well-rounded quality players do. As a result, the hand that you’re thinking about calling is either very strong or very weak, and the percentage of bluffs is large. It is, therefore, a mistake in judgment to routinely lay down your hand on the last betting round when a solid-as-a-rock opponent wagers.

5. Error: Routinely folding in seven-card stud against four suited cards showing. This is a frequent bluffing situation. If you believed the outcome to be totally random (without taking other cards into consideration), that opponent will have a flush only 47 percent of the time. In reality it sometimes may even be less than that — taking into consideration exposed cards and the likelihood of hands with which the opponent may have started.

6. Error: Giving 50 percent backing on a single night. This type of “sponsorship” — in which the backer takes half the win — is silly, and almost always is skewed in favor of the player. If you give or get half or more of the winnings, the contract should be long-term. Otherwise, the player should take less and the backer should take more.

7. Error. Using tricky plays against weak foes. If they’re already giving you their money, don’t make them uncomfortable or inspire them to play better.

8. Error: Calling with 7-7 against a player who three-bet before the A-6-2 flop. This type of mistake is very common. That opponent is very likely to have either an ace or a (probably bigger) pair.

9. Error: Trying to bluff a “short” player who has less than a full bet on the next-to-last betting round. If you have absolute garbage, wait for the river, when he might fold if he misses. If you bluff on the sixth card in seven-card stud, your opponent usually will stay to see if he can get lucky and improve. But if you wait, there’s a good chance that your opponent will miss his hand and will reluctantly fold against your bluff — even though he has only a few chips remaining. So, making this type of bluff on the sixth card, rather than waiting, often is an error in judgment.

10. Error: Never taking a chance when you might have the worst of it. This applies to several situations in gambling and in life — not just in poker. The best gamblers know that it’s often worth risking a little to find out! If it’s a bad situation, get ready to back off early. lf it’s a positive situation, you sometimes can make a big score. You should have the discipline to quit if things go badly. Most of the people you bet against won’t have that discipline! — 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.

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