This lecture took place on March 30, 1999 and was the 27th in the series. This article appeared in Card Player Magazine December 15, 1999. It was updated on October 17, 2021.
It’s hard to be a poker hero without the profit. Maybe you know enough to pummel others into poker powder. Just dust. Worthless little winless weasels without a prayer against you. Fine. But in order to do that, you’ve got to actually take their money. Just being good enough to take their money won’t win you any awards. Nobody notices that.
And one big reason most knowledgeable players don’t actually take home the money over a long period of time is leaks. Michael Wiesenberg’s Official Dictionary of Poker, the definitive work on poker terminology, lists the first of three definitions of “leak” this way: 1. (n) Flaw (in one’s play). “I can’t win; there must be a leak in my play.”
Usually, leaks in experienced players’ games are not centered on what they don’t know but, rather, on what they do wrong that they know they shouldn’t. They lose because of bad habits. Bad habits and leaks can be the same things.
So, today, let’s investigate this problem. This material comes from the 27th in my serious of Tuesday Session classroom lectures at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. Originally, I talked about this on March 30, 1999. The following is from the handout that accompanied the lecture and has been specially enhanced for Card Player. The title of my talk was…
Plugging some leaks that cause big losses
1. The water tank analogy. For years, I have asked students to think about their bankroll in a way I’m going to teach you today. Once you get this analogy into your head, it’s very hard to get it out. It’s probably one of the most useful motivational techniques I know. Here’s how it works…
Think of your bankroll as precious water in a world of drought. The more you have, the richer you’ll be. All the water you will ever acquire is kept in an above-ground water storage tank, like those used by some cities. Imagine that you acquire water, climb up a ladder and add it – one bucket at a time – to a huge holding tank. When you first start playing poker, your tank is empty. You need to spill a little water into the tank to get the process started. As you continue to play poker seriously, you hope your tank will get fuller and fuller.
But what if there are holes in your tank? Then you have leaks, right? I believe it’s just plain silly to compensate for these leaks by working harder and harder – playing more hours and learning more sophisticated strategy. Working harder should add extra income, not compensate for income lost. So, the first thing to do is plug the holes.
2. Threats to your water supply. But it’s not just leaks we need to worry about. Leaks are our topic of discussion today, and they are problems you can fix; but there are other things that can damage your bankroll. Remember, your bankroll is like your water supply, and it can be threatened in these ways:
(1) Through evaporation (living expenses);
(2) Dry spells (your luck is temporarily bad);
(3) Extravagant use (spending your bankroll on things you don’t need);
(4) Leaks (problems with your game that wholly or partially defeat all your hard work).
3. Your ability to improve. You can’t do much about evaporation and dry spells, but you can cut extravagant use (of water or of your bankroll) and you can plug leaks.
4. Filling the tank. Imagine learning everything you can about poker. You play well in most aspects of the game. This is like working hard to fill your water tank. But as you put water in, water spills out through the holes.
These leaks can be enough to cause you to go broke or, at least, to limit your wins. In either case, fixing these leaks should be done before you spend any more effort learning more poker strategy (or struggling harder to fill the leaking water tank).
5. Some major leaks. In today’s lecture, I have chosen to tell you about 12 leaks that you should correct, if they apply to you. They are:
(a) Trying to impress weaker opponents.
It’s very frustrating to know you’re better than your opponents but not able to prove it to them or the other players in the short term. That’s the way poker is, though. Profit is long-term. For mere minutes, hours, days, even weeks or months, you can suffer bad luck. Remember, this is a dry spell, during which water evaporates from the tank holding your profit. At these times, your weaker opponents seem stronger, and you can get frustrated.
It’s human nature to want to choose tricky plays designed to impress weaker opponents. Unfortunately, poker isn’t a game where it’s easy to impress them in the short term. There’s just too much short-term luck in poker. Instead, you should strive to impress yourself with long-term profit. One of the biggest leaks that experienced players have is soothing their own egos by trying to impress weak foes.
(b) Playing more aggressively when you’re losing.
When opponents see you lose, they’re often inspired and they play better. All the marginal bets that you normally make for value suddenly become unprofitable. You need to tighten up your game, simply because your opponents aren’t as timid or predictable. Failing to do this is a major leak.
(c) Raising too aggressively when you have to act first next round.
Always be aware of your position. If you are going to have to act first on the next betting round, you don’t have a positional advantage, and you need to be very careful about raising or reraising. Overaggressive raising from bad positions is a leak you should plug.
(d) Folding too frequently on late rounds.
Strangely, some players who are disciplined and otherwise play credible poker actually fold too often on later betting rounds. The bigger the pot grows in proportion to the size of the bet in a fixed-limit game, the more you should call. The same concept applies in no-limit games whenever late-round bets are small. That doesn’t mean you should always call. But thinking yourself out of calling on a “he probably has it this time” basis is a leak.
(e) Reluctance to settle for a small loss.
Many players treat poker like each session is a separate ballgame. They want to win for that session. This makes no sense at all. I teach that you are always exactly even when the next hand is dealt. Your objective is to make the best decisions right now, resulting in the best chance at profit or the smallest loss. Anything else is a leak.
When you refuse to settle for a small loss, you’re playing a meaningless mental game of win-loss. You are apt to play poorly in pursuit of a victory – and that’s not what poker is about. It’s about long-range profit, not daily wins.
(f) Playing a bigger-limit game when a smaller game is more profitable.
Egos can cause some players to enjoy bigger limits. Unless you’ve decided that honing your skills against tougher opponents is beneficial, don’t play in a higher-stakes game if there’s more money to be made at a lower-stakes one.
(g) Making marginal raises against deceptive foes.
This is one of the biggest leaks in poker. Save those aggressive, daring raises for opponents who are intimidated and easy to predict. Doing otherwise will cost you money. Deceptive opponents are terrible targets for aggressive raises.
(h) Bluffing with hands that can only chase away weaker hands.
Be careful about trying to bluff opponents who will usually call if they have you beat and will usually fold if they don’t. If you “bluff” and win the pot, success might be an illusion. It’s likely you had the higher-ranking hand anyway. It’s often better to check and see the showdown or even check and call. These attempted bluffs have no value (unless it’s psychological and planned, usually for advertising purposes).
For instance, anytime you hold a weak ace without a pair in hold ’em on the river against a very loose caller, you should not bluff. You will almost always get called if you’re beaten (often by a better ace!) and almost never get called if you have the better hand. This is a terrible bet, but not an uncommon one. It’s a leak.
(i) Complaining about bad luck while at the table.
Opponents don’t sympathize; they just become inspired by your revelations of bad fortune. They think, “Hey, there’s someone unluckier than I am! I can beat him!” And they play better.
(j) Making others self-conscious about bad plays.
This is an ugly leak. When you make opponents feel bad about the way they play, you’re making it painful for them to supply you with profit. You’re also taking their fun out of poker. Encourage bad plays. Let your weak opponents have fun. If it’s in your nature, you can even giggle when you get beat. Chastising opponents for playing bad is stupid. In fact, in every case ever recorded in the history of poker, it’s a whole lot more stupid than the play being chastised.
(k) Bringing a serious winning image to the poker table.
The last thing you want to do is look like you’ve come to take your opponents’ money. This can be your attitude, but you shouldn’t convey it to anyone else. Look like you’re there to have fun and you’ll make the money for which you came.
(l) Betting marginal hands after bluffers check.
Big, big leak here. Habitual bluffers tend to check when they don’t have hands worthy of a bluff. A disproportionately large percentage of what remains are calling hands. Remember, many bluffs that seem to succeed actually win with hands that would have won in a showdown, anyway – garbage versus garbage. This is why most players think they do better bluffing than they actually do. They tend to give themselves credit for each bluff, whereas many times they would have won even without betting.
Sometimes, by “bluffing,” you’ve taken a situation where you would have won about half the time in a showdown and made it into a certain win. In fact, one of my biggest secrets is that occasional correct “bluffing” can mean turning fifty-fifty showdown chances into sure wins. But when a habitual bluffer checks, you probably don’t have this opportunity and you are seldom getting correct pot odds for the bluff.
6. All these leaks (and hundreds more) keep you from filling your tank and growing your bankroll. Plugging leaks should be priority one!
Oh, by the way, merry Christmas, happy holidays, and whatever else would be appropriate for me to say should I ever develop social graces. I mean that from my heart. – MC