This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
In my last two columns, I shared lists of things I’d always done, sometimes done, and never done in poker. Here are two new lists of poker things that make me happy and poker things that make me sad.
Although this may sound like a whimsical or just-for-entertainment column, it’s not. Woven within some of these happy and sad things are powerful concepts that will help you build your bankroll. You’ll see. I’ve been adding things to these two new lists over the past few days, and they quickly exceeded 50 items each. Who knows how long they could have gotten. I have made no effort to prioritize these items, but we’ve got to start somewhere, so here goes …
Some Poker Things That Make Me Happy
1. Telling opponents truthfully that I hold a hand that beats them, then betting and getting called, anyway. This is, perhaps, my favorite poker ploy. I’ll say something like, “This is really close. You have ace high and I paired sevens on the river. Now that we know what we both have, I’m betting.” Usually, you’ll get called by that ace high – assuming you were right in your assessment.
The trick in getting this call is all in the delivery. You don’t want to sound hostile or arrogant. You must sound playful and loving. If you can do that, and you’ve attained superior skills that allow you to sometimes know with high probability what your opponents hold (by gauging their demeanor as well as their decisions during the hand), you can use this tactic effectively. Getting those bonus calls and having my opponents respond by giggling about the loss is one of the happiest things in poker.
2. Opponents who giggle along with me. I’ve been saying for years that opponents who giggle are good, and players who are grumpy or silent are bad. You, also, should be glad to hear giggles. That’s where the profit is.
3. Shorthanded games. I don’t know why so many players fail to realize this, but you can make a lot more money faster in shorthanded poker games. That statement assumes that you know how to correctly liberalize your game. The reason is that you’re involved in many more pots. Superior decisions are what make money in poker, and shorthanded, you’re playing many more hands and capitalizing by the volume of your decisions. It’s true that advantages in shorthanded games are not always as overwhelming as they are in full-handed games, but there are so many small advantages that overall, a skillful player should make much more money in the long run than he would in a “ring” game.
4. Value-betting into loose, timid opponents. If they call you with the best hand, don’t be embarrassed, but say that you are. I’m quick to say, “How embarrassing. I bet all the way and wasn’t even close. Now I’m humiliated. Don’t tell anyone.” This praises the opponent and keeps him friendly and more ready to supply you with future profit.
How different the result is if you bark the unconscionable, “Why didn’t you raise?” This may alert the opponent to his shortcoming and cost you money in the future. Usually, these loose-timid opponents will be calling all the way through the river with hands you can beat – so, overall, you have an edge despite occasional “embarrassments.”
5. Shootout tournaments. These are tournaments in which tables are not merged to fill empty seats. Instead, each table is actually a separate tournament to determine a single winner. That winner advances to compete against the winners of the other tables.
This is excellent for two reasons: (a) You get to play your best everyday poker strategy, because only the winner is rewarded, and he doesn’t have to give away money from opponents he’s already conquered to pay close finishers; (b) You need to be able to play skillfully against various numbers of opponents.
You begin with a full table, end up heads up, and need to have an understanding of how to compete against all numbers of foes in between. Of course, the final table is still problematic, from my point of view. The winner at that table doesn’t keep all the money; everyone will start with the same amount of chips, and first place will win them all but will not take home all the money.
This means he will have to surrender money he’s already won to pay second, third, and other close finishers. The practical effect of this is that, in order to make the most money, you need to sacrifice tiny edges in order to survive.
Close finishers are irrationally rewarded and the champion is irrationally punished, so it pays to survive rather than shoot solely for the championship. It would make me happier if shootout tournaments paid the first table winners a lot more and had one additional large prize (maybe 30 percent of the prize pool) that went only to the final-table winner and no one else. But, despite this, shootout tournaments go on my “happy” list.
6. A fumbled-but-recovered bet. Whenever an opponent puts his chips into the pot in an accidentally sloppy manner, watch closely. Players are aware that animated or irregular bets are more likely to make their opponents suspicious and, therefore, more likely to be called. That’s why it’s what happens after the messy or fumbled bet that matters.
A player who’s weak or bluffing and doesn’t want to be called is much more likely to try to “correct” the bet by straightening it up. A player with a strong hand is not likely to make that “correction.” So, whenever I have a medium-strong hand and an opponent fumbles a bet and then tries to correct it, this makes me happy, and I call.
7. People who fidget. There’s hardly anything in poker more profitable than an opponent who fidgets naturally. That’s because when they’re bluffing, they’re afraid that their fidgeting will trigger your call and they stop! This makes them extremely easy to read – and that makes me happy.
8. People who breathe loudly. The previous tell can be extended to players who breathe loudly or visibly. When they’re bluffing, they stop, too. They’re afraid of triggering your call and they freeze. This, also, makes me happy.
Poker Things That Make Me Sad
1. Ten-handed hold ’em games. For me, ninehanded is barely tolerable. Spreading 10-handed games often costs clubs money, because the number of times that the extra player will trigger more rake is offset by the times a hand takes longer. Therefore, you get fewer deals per hour and less income.
Besides, there’s one less potential customer per table available to start new games. Also, the action is sometimes worse, because players attracted to these games are rewarded for playing tighter, which can spread bad PR about your games. Additionally, it’s less comfortable sitting at a 10-handed table.
And seven-card stud games should be only sevenhanded, for mostly the same reasons, plus the fact that you might run out of cards. Think ninehanded and sevenhanded. Tenhanded makes me sad.
2. Tight players who won’t go with the flow. Nothing messes up a playful, profitable game more than a newly seated, alien, tight player who just doesn’t fit in. He will often spoil the game, because everyone becomes self-conscious about playing poorly, whereas previously, they were all doing it by mutual consent. When players all tacitly agree to play poorly, you make extra money by loosening up, giggling, and going along at least halfway.
Why go to Disneyland if you don’t want to ride the rides? But here’s a powerful somewhat off-topic concept: Excellent players can actually make slightly more than I do in my own games if they don’t contribute their fair share to the advertising. That’s because I’m unfairly paying all the expenses. But they won’t make nearly as much if we each sit in separate games of the same texture. That way, they don’t get the benefits of my advertising and need to pay for their own or accept the game for what it is (rather than what it can be).
3. Big fields of players in tournaments. There’s nothing much to say about this. I hate big fields. That’s another reason why I play fewer and fewer tournaments these days. I like trophies, which are easier to win with fewer opponents, and one trophy is just about as good as another. It looks intimidating, and hardly anyone asks, “How many opponents did you beat?”
4. Old-style Vegas, serious-looking, analytical players who make everyone else self-conscious. A new breed of Las Vegas player is on the horizon, and in some cases has already arrived. I believe he will gobble up the conservative players who sit studiously and make it uncomfortable to make an analytical mistake. Within two years, most old-style, too-serious pros who can’t adapt will have been thoroughly chewed over and spit out – and it will be good for poker.
5. When a loose player takes a seat to my left. This typically happens when the player has seniority on the seat-change list. Now I have to change my strategy so that I slow-play many hands by calling that I would otherwise like to take command with by raising. Or else, I must sacrifice a great deal of the profit I could make by having the loose player in more pots with me. I’m going to be chasing him out too often if I continue my normally most profitable, aggressive style of play.
6. People who think you should alternate the use of “he” and “she” in poker columns. I believe if a poker reader really wanted this concession to political correctness gone mad, he would have let me know.
7. Players who go broke bluffing and think they’re making a profit. In fact, almost all serious players seem to make money on their bluffing attempts, if you chart their bets. I said “seem to” make money. But in limit poker, where most opponents err by calling too often, most bluffs are unprofitable. Sure, you can point to statistics that apparently show profitability, but the statistics lie. Why?
It’s because a huge portion of the times that you think the bluff succeeded, the resulting fold was actually from an opponent who couldn’t beat you. I’ve said this before, but nothing drives this point home as much as looking at online data in which actual players undoubtedly thought they bluffed and then opponents folded. Time and again, these bluffers had reason to believe they were attacking a stronger hand, but – in fact – were attacking a hopeless hand even weaker than their own.
When this portion of outcomes is factored in, it becomes clear that bluffing isn’t as profitable as you’d think, and probably losses money except when used selectively or against sophisticated opponents (who go against the trend of calling too often).
By the way, if you are going to attempt a bluff, especially heads up, it’s often better to do it when you’re first to act. This has the additional benefit of preventing an opponent with a weaker hand from bluffing you! It’s also more risky to attempt a bluff after being checked into, because many players tend to check mostly hands they intend to call with or check-raise with. They bluff with their weakest hands and bet stronger hands for value. With this type of opponent, it’s very destructive to bluff after he checks. He is overwhelmingly likely to call, because if he had a weak hand, he would have bluffed already.
Anyway, players who overrate their bluffing success make me sad.
8. High-low games. Almost everyone plays these games like bingo and ignores my talk. They aren’t even amazed when I play bad hands for advertising. In particular, Omaha high-low is hell on earth for The Mad Genius, although it’s one of his most profitable games. It just isn’t enjoyable for him as a “people” game, and therefore it makes him sad.
In preparing these last three columns, I’ve enjoyed making these lists for you. I hope they made you happy. — MC