Brunson: Don’t let weak opponents escape

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

Not too many years ago, I was casually discussing poker with another pro. He said, “Whenever you have an edge, you’re supposed to exploit it, right? No matter how small it is.”

Not being one to engage in long-winded poker debates, I just smiled and nodded as if in agreement. But, deep down, I strongly dissented.

The truth is, there are times when you shouldn’t pursue an edge. There are two reasons for this. First, it might not be worth your while pursuing it, because you could spend that same time, resources, and energy pursuing something better. Second, there are times when by pursuing an edge you put yourself at risk of losing money you were almost sure to win. That latter point sounds strange, I know, but I’m going to explain it later.

More than my share

One time I’m quick to forego a small edge is in a poker tournament. In this regard, I think my record speaks for itself. Over time, I have won, and I expect to continue to win, much more than my share of tournaments. What if on the very first hand an opponent moves all-in, facing an almost-empty pot, and I think I have a small edge by calling. I guess that I’m going to win 52 percent of the time. Should a player, faced with this situation, call?

The answer is: Some players should call and some shouldn’t! How can the correct decision depend on the player calling when the situation is exactly the same for everyone and whoever makes the call will win 52 percent of the time? It’s your future expectations that make the difference.

A player who isn’t as good as the field of opponents should call, because he now finds himself with an overall edge just by making that call. Before this opportunity arose, he was likely to move his chips all-in at a disadvantage, not at an advantage. After all, that’s implied by saying he isn’t as good as his opponents. And an average player should also call, because he isn’t likely to get a better opportunity down the line.

But a world-class player shouldn’t put all his tournament chips at risk with a slight edge. Unless he’s getting a huge overlay, he should fold and wait for a better opportunity. Most of the best players in tournaments today have “equity” when they enter a tournament. A $10,000 entry fee will, over time, repay $20,000, $30,000 or perhaps more to them, on an average. Accepting an opportunity to go all-in with a small edge means that their equity (which may have been $20,000) has shrunk to $1,000 or so. They have an edge, but it isn’t enough, because by folding, their prospects improve. That’s why I’m seldom going to call a large bet early in a tournament  with a small edge. So, you see, poker tournaments afford an obvious example of not gambling with any edge.

Decline the opportunity

But the concept goes beyond tournaments. You shouldn’t waste your time playing poker in a game that figures to only pay, say, $100 an hour if you can use the time resting and be fresh for one that might pay $1,000 an hour. So, you would decline the opportunity to play in the $100-an-hour game, even though you had an edge.

And, here’s the strange point I mentioned earlier. You can sometimes lose the opportunity to make almost certain money, even in an everyday game, by pursuing an edge – even if you have an unlimited bankroll and aren’t worried about better opportunities coming along later or getting better use of your time somewhere else.

This concept comes into play when you’re against a weak opponent and you’re fairly certain of winning his money. Over the years, I’ve learned that as weak players get more and more embedded financially in a game, the more desperate they become to get even.

Imagine you’re playing no-limit. The most common thinking is that if this type of player is well behind for the night and bets big, you should call whenever you have an edge. But, I say you better have a big edge or you’re risking too much. What you’re risking isn’t the direct money in this pot. What you’re risking is that the weak opponent may get even and quit! You may not think that’s a worthy risk, but I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen seasoned professional players let weak opponents escape by affording them an unnecessary chance.

A big edge

Whenever I’m playing a weak player who’s desperate to get even and apt to quit if he does, I make sure to only provide that opportunity when I have a big edge. You might even consider objecting if a weak opponent wants to raise the stakes. If you agree to do it, that player will spring to life and play better, feeling he has a brand new opportunity. But if the game continues at smaller stakes, that same opponent may play even worse in hopes of making an almost impossible recovery.

I try never to let weak opponents escape easily. — DB

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  1. Doyle is right again with his evaluation on how to win. Playing against weaker players or players when they are at their weakest, keep the bet the same. Best method to keep your opponent “on tilt”

  2. "Most of the best players in tournaments today have “equity” when they enter a tournament.."  Interesting.  Could you please explain this principle further?

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