Poker players say the strangest things


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2009) in Bluff magazine.


A great share of stuff I’ve learned about poker comes from other players who declare themselves to be experts. Before you conclude that I’ve evolved into a more humble Mad Genius, let me clarify.

Yes, I’ve heard occasional whispers of wisdom from those players. But mostly their assumptions and assertions have been dead wrong. What I’ve learned from them is to analyze their misguided poker beliefs and, in the process, gain greater understanding of poker truth. But wait! Now I’m sounding egotistical again. For this I humbly apologize.

Here are three poker fallacies from experiences players.

Fallacy #1: Missing bets

Let’s begin with something I overheard in a casino coffee shop years ago. At an adjoining booth, one young player was telling another, “You’re missing too many bets. You’re losing a lot of money every time you check a hand that’s probably the best.” He speculated that the main difference between winners and losers was that winners weren’t afraid to bet.

In his mind, it was a disgrace to show down best hands without a wager when you could have bet and been called. If you want to win, he told his underling, you needed to take command and you should try never to “miss a bet.”

Nowadays the don’t-miss-a-bet philosophy has become dogma for many. And it’s just totally stupid. The only part that’s even salvageable as science is that you should bet whenever betting is profitable. But don’t bet as a poker lifestyle choice whenever you think your hand is the favorite. That’s wrong.

At the moment

Each decision you make in poker — folding, checking, calling, betting, or raising — has a specific value at the moment you implement it. It might be a negative value, a positive value, or break-even.

Your only job is to make the decision that has the highest value. Now, very often checking has a greater value than betting. That’s true even when you think your hand has an advantage.

In order to justify a bet from the standpoint of power, you usually must have a significant advantage, not just a tiny one. Why? It’s largely because your $100 bet might be raised, forcing you to surrender the pot or call because the size of the pot justifies that reluctant action.

It’s also because you won’t always be called. It’s also because your opponent might do your betting for you if you check. And there are many more factors you need to consider before blindly betting, just because you don’t want to miss a bet.

Squandered

“You missed a bet,” is meant to deride an opponent who is perceived to have squandered an opportunity to wager. And this failure to bet carries such stigma with some players that they will squeal on themselves first, so as not to suffer the ridicule, “I missed a bet!”

The fact is, you should miss many bets. Check out of caution. Check to deceive. Check to see what happens. There’s no shame in it, despite what some others may imply. Many hands that seem best aren’t “best enough” to merit a bet.

The most faithful followers of the don’t-miss-a-bet religion are easy to beat. You just need to invite bets by checking both medium-strong and ultra-strong hands into them. They’ll hang themselves — although they’ll die proudly, never having missed a bet.

Fallacy #2: Most chips

I’ve encountered this next bit of advice so many times that I don’t even remember when I first heard it: “In no-limit, you should always have the most chips on the table.” It turns out that there are both advantages and disadvantages to having the most chips.

Obviously, if you have an unbeatable hand, you can cover all bets, and you’ll make more money, on average. But, by having the most chips on the table, you’ll sacrifice opportunities to call and see the showdown in situations where you’d otherwise be forced out of the pot.

In fact, if we measure profit on the basis of return on investment, then about the best thing that can happen to us is we can be all in for an ante in a draw poker game (as an example). If there are eight players competing, then we’ll be getting exactly fair odds if everyone is predetermined to see the showdown.

Exit

But, of course, most players will voluntarily exit the pot, deciding not to pay the price. That gives you a better chance of winning, because some hands that might have gotten lucky and beat you are absent, and you will win with some hands you wouldn’t have played.

The same concept applies anytime you’re on short money. Once you’re all-in, or nearly so, you get to see the showdown. Often, others with equally good chances can’t afford to do that. That’s an advantage you don’t have with the most chips on the table.

So, should you buy more chips than anyone else or not? Not unless you have a clear advantage against most of your opponents. Even then, it’s up to you. Consider how plentiful your bankroll is and the nature of your opponents. There’s nothing wrong with buying a lot of chips, but there’s no clear advantage in always having the most chips, either.

Fallacy #3: Big loss for small game

“Give it up. You’re not good enough to beat the other players if you’re losing $15 an hour in a $3/$6 game online for that many hours.” I’m sure this advisor meant well, but he was wrong. I can provide even more information. Sam, the player being advised, had been competing in a short-handed, six-player-maximum, limit hold ’em game. Let’s run these numbers.

I don’t know how many hours he played, but let’s pick 400 for this example. At Sam’s $15 an hour loss rate, he’s now behind $6,000. Not good. But online it’s not unusual if there are 120 hands per hour dealt in a short-handed limit hold ’em game. Of those, most will proceed to the flop and be raked by the house.

Let’s say the rake is the typical $2 and 95 hands each hour are raked at $2 each. That’s $190. Seats aren’t always filled, and an average of five players participate per deal. So, we divide $190 by five and get a $38 hourly loss. That’s how an average player would fare if the game were transported to your kitchen table with no rake.

Better than expected

So, the average per-hour loss is $38 and Sam is only losing $15. That means he’s doing $23 an hour better than expected.

Sam has demonstrated considerable potential. He shouldn’t be told to give up. He should be told to fine tune. He should think of himself as a $23 an hour winner who still has a way to go to overcome the rake. But rake policies vary. Sometimes the first $1 rake isn’t taken until the pot reaches $20, and average hourly rake would be less for the game described.

Remember, just being better than your opponents isn’t good enough in a casino poker game. You need to be a lot better. The first thing I would advise Sam is to play tighter. Hands that are only a 50-cent favorite without considering the rake should be folded. Don’t give up, Sam!

So, listen to what other players say about poker. Then think about what you’ve heard. This sometimes will result in great insight, often because the advice was terrible. We all learn from each other, right? — 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.

8 thoughts on “Poker players say the strangest things”

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  1. MC, I’m a huge fan of your work and I study it often. It truly is a gift of profound proportions. I believe that whole-heartedly. I don’t favor tournaments over cash games. However, while playing a recent low stakes NL hold ’em series I heard the following “advice”: “If someone is all in, you should always call if it costs you 10% of your stack or less, regardless of what you hold.” Frankly, I thought it was crazy. Any thoughts on this? Another Mike

  2. Mike, I know I've said many times I love your articles and that you are brilliant… well, I don't want you to get a big head so I won't tell you again, but I will say I don't take it back. :-)
    And thank you again for sharing your insight and understanding. It helps a lot in both poker and life (hey, where's the line between those two, again?)

  3. The high-priest of the don’t-miss-a-bet religion must be Angel Largay, author of “No-Limit Texas Hold’em” Page 145, 1. Checking When You Should Bet. “The most common example of this mistake is checking a powerful hand in the hope of eliciting a bet so that one can check-raise.” Also on page 207, Angel Largay says: “Check-raising, along with slow-playing, shares the title as the most overused tactic in poker” … “The most common use of the check-raise is when a player wishes to get more money into the pot when he wants a call. This goal would be better served in most cases by betting the hand out directly”.

    Of course, Angel gives an example of how betting is better than checking when your opponent calls your large bet and so creates a larger pot! That of course ASSUMES that your bet is called or raised, but just as likely a large bet will scare him or her just enough to fold a weaker hand.

    I have to go with Mike Caro on this one. Checking not only can induce a bet when you want one, but also can be used to keep the betting small when you MIGHT have the best hand at the river.

    Besides that, we are disciples of Mike Caro!

    1. One thing to keep in mind is that Angel is writing about 1/2 and 2/5 NL hold ’em specifically. In many other places on this site Mike says that you should save the tricky plays for tricky players and that often the best strategy is the most straight forward one. Also in 2+2’s low limit hold ’em book, they give similar advice about making the most straightforward play because, on average, at those stakes in a casino, most players are not going to be aware enough to know the odds they do or don’t have to make a call. Or they just don’t care because they are out to have a good time.

      I play in a home game that doesn’t have huge stakes, but where you can play because the players are, on average, pretty good. When I make a run to the casino and play at the low stakes games, I often make the obvious move because either a) people call the bets because they want to see your hand or b) Somebody read an article or book saying you should always bet and you should be aggressive so they will happily re-raise with their flush against my quads under the assumptino they are doing the “right” thing.

      And on this site Mike talks about several instances where check raising, while technically correct, may be less profitable in the long run.

      I don’t mind missing bets (in the games play in check-calling seems to work better anyway), but depending on the game you are at and the oppenents you are facing, checking to be tricky can backfire.

  4. It’s a pleasure to read. “Miss a bet…” especially. If you challenge them, they tell you that you don’t “understand poker theory.”

    These kids need to read a book, not just a post in a forum from someone who’d be playing and rich if they were so good instead of posting on a forum.

    Seb

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