Brunson: Don’t soft play opponents

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

Sometimes inexperienced players get the notion that they should be nice to their friends in a poker game. This can mean just showing down a flush on the last round of wagering, rather than betting in hopes of gaining extra money.

In poker circles, we call that “playing soft.” It means that instead of going after every last dollar you can win (playing hard), you’re letting your favorite opponents slide easily without paying the full cost of their misfortune.

That’s the wrong way to play poker. In a poker game, it’s everybody for themselves. You’ve got to be selfish. The nature of poker is that you’ve got to target every chip on the table, no matter who it belongs to.

Years ago I wrote about the contrast between the wrong way of playing poker and the right way. To illustrate the wrong way, I described a loud quarrel I’d witnessed away from the table. A mother and daughter were arguing. The mother chastised her daughter saying, “You’re not supposed to bet three aces into your own mother! You need at least a flush to bet! Otherwise I might lay down a straight, thinking you have me beat.”

Poor conduct

Apparently the two had developed a soft play agreement. Such agreements run contrary to the soul of poker. I said nothing and walked on, but that example of poor poker conduct remains in my mind to this day. Another example remains, too. It’s about a meek man who stood his ground and played poker the right way.

His name was Joey. He was frail, quiet, friendly. We all liked him. But he had made someone angry. And it was a man 6’ 7” tall and all muscles. We called him The Giant. Now this giant had left his seat in this small-town Texas game and was trembling in rage.

“You’re a rotten sandbagger!” he screamed at Joey. Checking and raising is sandbagging. It’s an intricate part of poker, but a few players don’t like it. The Giant was one of those few, and his dislike was apparently extreme.

He paced menacingly and we thought he was going to attack Joey at any moment. Oddly, Joey looked unperturbed — a demeanor I’m sure he was feigning rather than feeling.


The Giant continued to pace, ranting, “How could you do that to a working man? Sandbagging is like stealing!”

Then he returned to his seat, still standing, and crumbled his cards slightly as he turned them face up. “That’s what I have,” he announced, pointing to two queens and two sixes. “Now show me what you have.”

“You’ve been raised,” said Joey. “You need to either call or throw your hand away.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was sure Joey was about to get himself pummeled. It didn’t seem worth antagonizing the Giant to win an extra bet. Finally, The Giant just said to take the pot and we all exhaled in relief, but as Joey was folding, he deliberately flashed me his cards.

That’s when The Giant demanded to see them, too. And so it was that Joey turned over his bluff. Now we were certain that there would be punishment for Joey, but surprisingly, The Giant merely said, “Thank you,” and returned to playing.

Joey had played hard, as you should in poker. For the rest of the night, there were no more squabbles. But nobody sandbagged, either. — DB

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