Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.
I know what we’ll do today. Let’s talk about mind meltdowns in poker. Right away, you’re probably preparing for a discussion of poker discipline, self-motivation, anger management, and tilt avoidance. I do a lot of teaching on those poker topics, but not today.
In this column we’re going to discuss mental malfunctions common to large numbers of poker players. And each of these malfunctions is based on a misconception — a predetermined notion that causes players to make poor decisions and lose money. Let’s visit the first one…
The pot is too big to fold
You’ve probably heard an opponent utter those exact words when throwing chips into the pot in an almost hopeless situation. Thinking that the size of the pot in itself influences your decision is a mental malfunction. It’s like looking at the price of a house and saying “I’ll buy it because it’s cheap,” without knowing anything about the location, square footage, or quality. A big pot might be a bargain relative to the small amount it costs to call, but that information isn’t enough to make a decision. Just as the value of a house cannot be determined by its price — because it might be overpriced, underpriced or just right — any call you consider making can’t be determined by the size of the pot and the bet alone. If the pot is 10 times as large as the cost of your call at the river, then you’ve got to ask yourself whether you have one chance in 11 of winning. If you expect to win once in eight times, assuming you could make the same call over and over forever, then you’re getting a bargain. But if you expect to win only once in 14 times, then you’ll lose money making that same call forever. A pot is never, by itself, either too large to fold or too small to pursue. The pot is what it is, period.
This “too big to fold” mentality amuses me so much that I’ve devised a poker weapon that incorporates it. I once watched a player throw $10 into an approximately $200 pot with the words, “the pot’s so big, I’ll just give you $10.” It’s unlikely that he would have won one time in a hundred — and even though he didn’t really mean it, he was almost giving away that money. This inspired me. And today you’ll sometimes see me throw $50 into a $500 pot, blurt, “The pot’s too big — so I’ll just give you $50,” and then immediately throw my hand away. This tends to amuse opponents, but it’s also does something psychologically significant. It’s cheap advertisement that makes opponents think I’m playing recklessly. And they’ll often reward me by making extra-loose calls in the future when I hold winning hands. I usually embellish this act with, “When I say I’m giving you $50, I really mean it.”
Another mistake players sometimes make is to play low-quality hands before the flop when many players have already entered the pot. You might assume you’re getting good odds, but think about this: Everyone can’t be getting good odds, so someone must be taking the worst of it. If you’re playing 8-7 offsuit, that someone is you.
Too much invested
Another common mental meltdown is to consider how much you have invested in the pot when making a decision. When you hear someone say they “have too much invested to fold,” you’re witnessing illogical decision making. Once money is in the pot, it no longer matters who put it there. If you took over my seat in the middle of a hand, it shouldn’t matter to you how much of the pot was previously “invested” by me. The only logical considerations would be how much money is in the pot right now, how likely the hand is to win, and how much it will cost to keep playing to the conclusion. How the money got there has no bearing on your decision whatsoever.
Sure, the betting sequence matters when estimating how likely you are to win. But “investment” is never a valid factor to consider.
Even experienced players let themselves be governed by streaks in poker. Are streaks real? Absolutely. But whether you’re on a winning streak or a losing one, there’s no reason to expect that the next hand will be either better or worse than it would be at random on the first hand you sat down. You can change your style of play relative to streaks, though. That’s because opponents tend to be more timid when you’re winning and more confident when you’re losing. But other than that, you shouldn’t alter your game to accommodate a streak. Believing that streaks are likely to continue can cost a lot of money.
Anyone who tells you that you should strive to protect hands by betting or raising in a regular poker game is nuts. In percentage payout tournaments, where first place wins a percentage of the prize pool, second place a lesser percentage, and so forth, the benefit of survival often changes your decisions. You sometimes need to diminish risk in pursuit of profit. But in everyday ring games, this isn’t a factor. If someone advises you to raise with aces to protect them, quietly scoff. A raise sometimes might be the right choice, but it has nothing to do with protection.
The concept of protecting hands is flawed in itself, because protection isn’t an element in poker. Poker is a game of taking chances when they’re worthwhile. In life, when you don’t want to take risk, you buy insurance. Insurance companies make money because you pay more than the predicted cost of covering possible disasters. But in poker, you don’t want to reduce your risk — that isn’t even a factor in winning strategy. You only want to maximize your profit. Let me say that again, so you have it clear: Poker isn’t a game of reducing risk; it is a game of maximizing money. Think about it that way and you’ll be on the path to profit. — MC