May 8, 2020 | Last update: May 8, 2020
Many players who study and play poker seriously share a common problem. They play scared poker, especially in no-limit games.
They look for large advantages before risking big money. Unfortunately, bankrolls are often built from small advantages. And many of those advantages come from big-pot confrontations offering small-to-moderate per-hand profit, averaged over months of play.
Remember, scared poker always loses. You might still be able to eke out a profit in the long run, but you’re losing the additional money you left on the table over the course of a year.
Small edges add up
What these cautious players usually do right is call, bet, and fold correctly in small pots. And they choose the right hands to play. Fine.
Then they’re confronted with a big bet — for instance $150 on the final betting round into a $120 pot in a small no-limit game with $1 and $2 blinds. Maybe it’s a bluff. Maybe they hold the winning hand. If they analyzed this rationally, they might decide that, yes, folding is correct. That’s fine, too.
But, because they are conservative players with a bias toward having big advantages, they fold more often than they should. Let’s say this bet could be fully analyzed, including the opponent’s nature and all strategic factors. It might turn out that a $150 call will win 40 percent of the time.
A risk too big?
To these seemingly sensible players, that’s too big a risk. They’ll lose perhaps a day’s profit 60 percent of the time. But folding for that reason is what I call scared poker.
For every 10 times you make a call like this, on average you’ll win $270 four times (the original $120 pot, plus the large $150 bet). That’s $1,080. By calling, you’ll lose $150 six times. That’s $900.
If this were the case, you should obviously call, because over 10 hands, you’ll average a $180 profit — $18 per hand. If you estimate that in a normal session, situations like this happen seven times, that’s $126 in lost opportunity right there. Multiply this by a week, a month, or a year of poker. It’s scared poker.
The personalities of too many otherwise skillful poker players cause them to avoid risk. And, really, this weakness is much greater than what I just described. The money forfeited on calls they should have made is often in chunks larger than $18 per decision. It can be $100 or more on each poorly calculated fold, even in small games. And that usually overwhelms their careful play in smaller pots, battling for small edges.
This doesn’t mean you should make reckless calls with a losing expectation. To the contrary, winning players fold more often and more wisely than their opponents. It’s just that the psychological need of sensible players to avoid risk — risk that can cost hours worth of slowly gathered profit — causes them to fold irrationally. They do this when competing for large pots when they could add the most to their bankrolls over the long term.
Profit is profit, and sometimes it comes at great risk. It’s not just calling, either. It’s also avoiding opportunities to make large bets or bluffs into big pots. It’s scared poker.
The damage is so great that thousands of sensible players who take poker seriously fail to win. Some do win modestly, despite their no-gamble natures. But they don’t win nearly what they should.
The identifying signature of too-cautious poker players is that their daily results are more stable. They rarely suffer big losses or score big wins. That may be comforting, but the result over a year’s play is significant loss in profit. In the worst cases, these otherwise winning players lose overall.
It’s a common belief among poker professionals that “scared money” is easy to beat. That belief is valid. When you play scared poker, you’re allowing opponents who are too aggressive to win against you. You’re turning their mistake of betting too often and too much into an advantage. You’re letting their poor poker strategy succeed. It’s scared poker.
So, yes, fold appropriately. Call less than your average opponents. They make the opposite mistake of calling too often
Use good judgement, but don’t fold or fail to bet just because the risk is great. As I’ve often stated: “Poker isn’t a game of avoiding risk. It’s a game of inviting risk with an advantage.” — MC
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