The following lecture was the 14th Tuesday Session, held December 29, 1998, and later appeared in Card Player magazine.
I posted this true story to my favorite Internet newsgroup, rec.gambling.poker, the day after it happened last month. Before we get to today’s classroom lecture, I’d like to share it with you, too.
Getting called for $150 by an eight-high in hold ’em and another classroom lecture
Last night I managed to get called for $150 by eight-high (8-3 suited) on the final (river) card in a $75/$150-limit hold ’em game. The opponent — a pleasant but boisterous man of about 50 — had been drinking, but I still think this illustrates the power of some of the psychological concepts I teach. It happened like this…
Before the flop, I call with 8-8 in middle position with no one else having entered the pot. I vary my strategy in this circumstance – sometimes raising, sometimes calling, and even rarely folding when I have a strong-acting player waiting to act – but this time I decided to call.
The man I will eventually coax into making the call on the river with 8-3 accepts a free ride in the big blind. There are no other players active. Flop is K-6-6, two-suited, giving the opponent a flush draw – which would become a likelihood that was apparent to me the second time he checked and called.. He checks. I bet. He calls. Turn card is another king. He checks. I bet. He calls. River card is an offsuit 5 — so board is now K-6-6-K-5 with no flush possible. My opponent has 8-3 – as I’ll soon discover for certain.
He checks. I bet. He starts to fold as he says, "What do you have?" I hesitate and answer, "I have a good hand," in a tone intended to be doubted. Maybe I can get an ace or even a queen to call. Then I add, as if composing on the spot and just wanting to continue with the next hand, "I have a pair of eights." The truth (which would get me a 20-minute suspension in some tournaments that have the ridiculous no-telling-the-truth-about-your-hand rule).
"You don’t have a pair of eights," he declares, spreading his 8-3 face-up on the table. He is in the process of folding, of course. Many people would just show their eights here to prove he was wrong. After all, he isn’t going to call with an eight-high nothing. Is he? Well, I sense opportunity. "Either that or I have 7-4 suited, " I muse. He hesitates, and I set the psychological trap by feigning slight desperation. "I’m just kidding," I bluster. "I’ve got that beat really bad… I think."
You need to understand that I don’t really expect to win this call, but the feeling is like having some big ol’ marlin on the line that is too much for your tackle. You’re probably not going to land it, but it’s worth a try. "Either I have a pair of eights or I have 7-4 and you’ll win," I declare, trying to bring his decision into focus for him as he begins to fold again.
But you can’t just leave a statement floating like that or the opponent will think he’s being conned and will fold. This is all in the tone of voice and the timing. I ask, "Which do you think it is? I’ve been playing poker for a long time and I don’t usually bet 7-4 in this situation, I’ll tell you that!" Now, he perceives that I’m trying to talk him out of the call, not into it. This is key to proper psychology here.
He begins to fold for a third time. But I interrupt his action with, "You don’t want to be calling with THAT hand. That’s a terrible hold ’em hand." Again he ponders. Finally, again, he decides to fold. But I interrupt this action by throwing a $5 chip across the table and saying, "Let’s not slow up the game," although this whole interaction has only taken, perhaps, 20 seconds. "I’ll give you that chip if you’ll throw your hand away." He immediately declines the chip and calls $150. Perhaps those who think of poker as a purely tactical, chess-like game where psychology plays only a secondary role should ponder that true story.
Since we’re running short of space, I won’t add much to the single-page handout that accompanied my 14th Tuesday Session on December 29, 1998. But I don’t need to, because it makes perfect sense and complements what you just read.
"Bewildering your opponents"
No opponents are immune to psychological manipulation.
"No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people." – H. L. Mencken. And no pro poker player ever went broke underestimating the common sense of his opponents.
Most opponents, even experienced ones who should know better, are easily bewildered by psychological ploys designed to make them think that you play hands you don’t. You should be aware, though, that if you’re not really as talented psychologically as you think you are, your actions risk providing more value to observant opponents than you gain through manipulation. In other words, make sure you’re actually in command and not just providing tells. Against the very best opponents, it may be better to forego manipulative actions in order to be less easily read.
Make them back off.
Get opponents to worry about what you’re going to do next. You can do this by making unusual plays that stick in their minds or by making all bets sudden and decisive. This latter trick, which is a good compromise for those who feel uncomfortable "being onstage," works very well to limit opponents’ tendencies to bet or raise with small advantages. When you can get strong opponents to stop doing that — because they’re worried about you — you’ve taken them off their best game and diminished their profit.
You’re the one.
Try to become the one force to be reckoned with at your table. You know you’ve achieved this when you often see players sneak a peek in your direction before betting, raising, or calling.
A better image.
If opponents think that you’re dangerous, but that you know what you’re doing, you’ve gained some psychological leverage. But, you gain much more psychological leverage if your opponents think you’re dangerous and you don’t know what you’re doing. Opponents predictably run for cover and hold their fire against a "loose cannon."
You need to put your ego aside and allow your opponents to think you are playing poorly or are just lucky. I’m often telling my opponents how badly I play – that I’m just having fun – to help them falsely conclude the one or two bizarre plays I make are indicative of my overall game plan. I even say, "Don’t criticize me or tell anyone else I play like this. It would ruin my reputation! If you want me to play good, I will, but then I might take your chips." This psychology usually leads to me taking their chips anyway, and it has another great benefit. It empowers opponents to play poorly. If I’m asking them not to be critical of my play, they believe I’m not likely to be critical of theirs. And that means they can get into action by playing substandard hands without embarrassment – which, deep in their souls, is really what most players really came to the casino to do.
One of my favorite tactics is to raise the blinds (or just raise from a late position if there are no blinds) without looking at my cards. The maneuver makes it look like you don’t care much about money and makes opponents think twice before they attack you. They become predictable and you become the force to be reckoned with. And, actually, you’re not sacrificing much profit, since you would have raised with many hands anyway, and the substandard ones are not huge underdogs.
If the small blind has the habit of almost always raising my big blind heads up, I will frequently reraise without looking. How much of a disadvantage is this to me? Not much at all. Since my opponent almost always raises, his hand is almost random from my point of view. Theoretically, I am almost raising a random hand with another random hand, and I will have a positional advantage – being last to act – through all remaining betting rounds. This reraise without looking provides large psychological returns for a little cost.
A daring reraise.
When a fairly aggressive opponent check-raises me on an early betting round, I often raise again with hands that would normally take slightly the worst of it. This makes me seem more bewildering in the future, and the cost is minimal. It’s likely that if I don’t have the best hand, I’ll be checked to on the next round, and – if I’m still trailing – I might even recover the "lost" bet by checking and seeing a free card.
Select your audience.
Tend to select weak opponents for advertising plays. Your stronger foes tend not to realize that they are being excluded from the "giveaway" money, and they call unprofitably on future hands.
When to advertise.
Tend to advertise when opponents seem to have weak hands. You’ll still get full psychological value, and you often stumble into a winning hand! – MC