Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2012) in Bluff magazine under the same title. Updated 2023-01-10: Typo fixed and several sentences added for clarity.
Henry was furious. Rick and I had been discussing poker strategy and kept using the word “concept.” It was a fashionable word for us in the 1970s and has remained a mainstay of my modern poker vocabulary.
But to Henry, a young and modestly experienced poker player with unrefined social skills, the word apparently seemed esoteric and pedantic – two more words that might have triggered his rage. In games, he frequently would scold opponents when he swept in a pot, with sarcastic questions like, “Did you read that in a book?” or “Is that supposed to be a genius play?” Henry was over-the-top obnoxious.
Nothing to do with it
So, now he fumed, “Poker isn’t about concepts, whatever that means! Poker is about outplaying everyone else. That’s the only way to win. Concepts have nothing to do with it!”
We both stared at him, somewhat shocked that our favorite term had triggered a tantrum. And then Henry continued, “Why don’t you take your stupid concepts and put your money on the table?”
“When?” Rick goaded.
“Now!” Henry declared. And so it was that Rick and Henry sat down at a table in old Gardena. I didn’t join the ego war, because Rick secretly urged me to let him handle the challenge, offering me 25 percent of his heads-up action, which I accepted.
After a mammoth back and forth (and forth and forth) struggle that took nearly half an hour, Rick sent Henry broke and blazing across the poker floor toward the exit. Henry never looked back, striding with such brisk energy that I felt the wind when he passed me.
Anyway, here’s the deal: If you don’t understand the major concepts that govern the poker universe, you’ll struggle to make money. I teach hundreds of concepts. They’re all important, but some are hard to see at first. I call these “poker’s hidden concepts.”
Today, we’ll examine two of them.
Concept 1: The coin-flip fallacy. Everyone loses when there’s an even-money coin flip. Sure, it’s okay to flip coins for small amounts of money. It’s an adventure. But let’s examine coin flipping by taking it to an extreme.
Let’s say you have roughly $1 million. It’s taken you decades and a successful small business to get to this point. It accounts for everything you’ve accumulated, real estate, personal assets everything. If you lose it, you’ll have zero. Sally has also built her financial life to the $1 million mark.
Okay, now follow along. You decide to flip a coin for $10. Sally wins. Fine. She has $20 more than you do now, being plus $10 to your minus $10. It’s hard to see the concept yet, because neither of your lives have changed significantly.
Now you ask Sally, “Wanna flip for a million dollars?”
“Don’t be stupid,” she replies. “You don’t have a million dollars.”
Has the balls
You realize you’re a dollar short. “Okay, I’ll flip you for $999,999 then. I guess you don’t have the balls,” you badger.
“Yes, I do,” she blurts, noticeably offended. “Flip the coin.” And while the coin hovers in midair, you realize that you will either be broke or have $1,999,998. Suddenly, the thrill of almost $2 million, rather than $1 million, doesn’t excite you enough to equal the fear of losing and having nothing. And that feeling is right on the money!
Doubling up isn’t likely to benefit you enough to counteract the disaster of having nothing. And that’s the concept. Unless there’s an advantage, everyone loses. You should play poker with an advantage at meaningful, but comfortable stakes. The bigger percentage of your fortune you risk beyond that, the bigger your advantage should be.
When you play poker, you should keep that in mind. The opportunity to win twice as much at a higher-than-comfortable limit, and risking double the normal loss, is seldom worthwhile unless you have a bigger than coin-flip advantage.
Concept 2: You can play twice as many hands as a winning opponent and earn the same money. Doesn’t the amount of hands you play depend on your opponents?
Not exactly. While the traits of opponents have influence, it’s possible for a tight winning player to enter only half as many pots as a loose winning player. And both can have exactly the same profit expectation. Why?
It’s because most of the hands you play in poker are marginal. Relatively few are significantly profitable. You can decide to play all of the borderline hands or none. It won’t matter much, except that in some games, you’ll have better psychological command of opponents by playing extra hands and appearing lively. This often negates the coin-flip disadvantage explained in Concept 1 above. In general, though, borderline hands are just that. You can play them or not. Your choice.
Player A and Player B
Let’s say Player A plays a broad range of mediocre hands from those that lose 3% on average up to those that win 3% on average. That’s a whole lot of hands. Player B is much more selective and only plays hands with a greater than 3% advantage. Over time, all of Player A’s additional hands will about break even. But he’ll make at least the same money on the superior hands that Player B also enters pots with.
That’s why the argument over loose versus tight play is sometimes silly. Often, it doesn’t much matter!
And because it doesn’t much matter, you should choose to play extra hands when they have the greatest influence on opponents. Remember, you’re objective is to win extra calls when you hold superior hands. Appearing loose helps that happen.
However, when your luck has been bad and opponents notice, they’re inspired and play better. Because they aren’t intimidated by you, they take advantage of small edges. Previously borderline hands can become unprofitable against observant and motivated opponents. So, hunkering down and playing fewer hands is usually the best strategy when you’re losing. It has nothing to do with superstition. It’s about how opponents relate to you.
Borderline hands are your friends. Play them or not as the situations dictate.
Sometime, we’ll examine more of poker’s hidden concepts. But right now I have to pee. — MC