Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.
Some people look disdainfully on poker opponents who play poorly. I don’t.
Instead, I try to encourage bad habits and bad decisions. And, by coincidence, today’s word is “encourage.”
This self-interview discusses why bad play should be encouraged, rather than ridiculed.
Question 1: You say you shouldn’t be disdainful of poor play. But isn’t that a natural reaction for a superior player?
Being contemptuous of the way others play poker shouldn’t be a natural reaction.
What should be natural for winning poker players is to have a clear understanding of where their profit comes from. Suppose everyone knew everything you do about poker and played the same way you do. Now what?
I’ll tell you “now what,” but it isn’t pretty. Now everyone would have exactly the same expectation of winning or losing over the long run. Everyone would eventually break even if play continued forever in a game where there were no rakes and you didn’t tip dealers.
Even in that unrealistically favorable scenario, you couldn’t make a profit. And the reality is much more challenging, because there are rakes and dealer tips to overcome. Let’s say the average rake on a pot comes to only $3 and the average tip you give is just $1. That’s $4, on average, every time you win a pot.
Let’s suppose you win half the pots you play, which turns out to be about normal for many quality players, who select hands carefully. Some of your hands will be won without a fight, when everyone folds. You’ll win all of those. Some will be heads-up. You should win more than half of those, assuming you play hands more selectively than your opponents and usually have an advantage. Some will be multi-way pots, with three, four, or more players contending. You’ll win less than half of those, although you should win a greater percentage of them than weaker opponents. Put it all together and it turns out that winning half the pots you play is pretty much on target.
Fine. This means that you’re paying $4 every two hands you play. That’s $2 per hand.
Interestingly, if everyone played equally well, you’d probably win less than half the time, and your per play cost would be less than half of $4, so you’d get a break there. But you’d have no way to earn a profit through skill, so whatever the per-hand cost – say $1.75 – you’d lose almost exactly that, averaged over a long time.
If you are a skillful player and the $2 cost per hand applies, you’ve got to recover that somehow or you won’t win. This means you should, on average, play hands only if they have at least a $2 advantage in the long run – at least in the simplified example we’re using.
You can’t have a $2 advantage if your opponents play as well as you do. And, so, there’s the truth. You need opponents to play poorly. That’s what you want to happen.
To win at poker, you need to find opponents who play worse than you do, and it makes no sense to be scornful of them. That would be like opening a store to sell furniture and thinking of your biggest buyers as fools.
You should be grateful that you have poker customers. That’s what’s natural. They may play poorly and sometimes beat you, but that’s good. They’re the ones who make winning possible.
Question 2: Haven’t you ever criticized an opponent for playing badly?
Only players I’m teaching or whose hands I later analyze, away from the table, to help myself and others win. Anyone else is totally exempt from criticism, and I honestly feel happy that they play the way they do.
Question 3: You say you encourage your opponents to play badly. Does that mean you tell them to “keep playing bad hands”?
Of course not. That’s a form of ridicule and is usually said sarcastically. I never do that.
I’ve heard players make a weak attempt at encouraging opponents who’ve won a pot to continue playing poorly by saying, “Hey, I’d rather be lucky than good.” That sort of psychology sucks. You should never say anything to indicate an opponent played wrong.
Question 4: I don’t get it. How do you encourage opponents to play poorly without insulting them?
If an opponent plays 7-6 offsuit in hold ’em and sweeps in a big pot, I’ll say something like, “You’re not going to believe this, but I won with that same hand three times yesterday. I think we’re onto something!”
That makes the opponent feel okay about the bad play, because you’re not saying it’s bad and you’re stating that you do the very same thing. Additionally, you’re making weak hands seem fun.
Another thing I do to encourage poor play is to choose a few outrageously weak hands and play them. The weaker the better. I just giggle if I win and try to find a way to show the hand if I lose. I don’t want to invest a lot of money with weak hands, so I’ll choose situations that give me a good shot of being able to show a hand without paying a big price.
Sometimes, I’ll connect with a weak hand and pulverize my opponents. That’s good advertising, too. The point is, when you do something truly bizarre, like entering pots with hands that even weak opponents know better than to play, you’re giving them “permission” to continue playing their routinely poor cards without ridicule. After all, they aren’t playing as poorly as you are, in their minds.
What goes unnoticed is that you’re almost never playing substandard hands. The few you do play are incredibly weak, and that invites others to talk about your recklessness. Those hands are worth recounting for them, because they’re amused. And that’s free advertising. And cheap.
Telling opponents you played the same weak hands and won with them and demonstrating that you play even weaker ones – those are two things that will encourage opponents to continue their poor play.
Question 5: Anything else?
Well, it might improve your attitude to take a moment to give silent appreciation to the poker players who make mistakes. Without them, how can you win? — MC