How FPS and Occam’s Razor affect your poker profit

Note: A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Poker Digest.

One day in 1975, I was playing poker at the Rainbow Club in Gardena, California. The game was five-card draw, and at my same table sat a guy I was trying to teach to be a winner. His name was Sam. Well, actually, I chose that name at random so as not to reveal his true identity. And, because the name “Sam” was chosen at random, there’s a slight chance that it actually was his name, but probably it wasn’t.

Anyway, everyone at the table knew each other. And everyone knew I was teaching Sam to play poker. This wasn’t one of your typical easy-to-beat draw poker games. This was a war of egos, if ever there was one. Sam fit right in, and I believe he had the potential skill to earn a profit, even in that tough game.

But, I watched aghast as he tried, and failed, to bluff me three times consecutively. After the third time, when I called his pat hand with two kings, he spread queen-jack-seven-four-deuce of three different suits and sighed, “I was sure you wouldn’t call me that time. You should expect me to have a big hand sooner or later.”

Friendly demoralization

“I do expect you to have one sooner or later,” I teased. “And when that happens, I’ll fold.” When you have an opponent demoralized in a poker game, always be friendly. Teasing is all right, but mean-spirited sarcasm will work against you. The trick is to make sure your opponents know you’re someone to be feared without making them angry. Make them think twice before they target you in the future. You should be the one with the psychological leverage, not them. So, keep your opponents in awe of you, whenever possible.

In fact, on that day, my psychological warfare worked in my favor and Sam began playing a very predictable game against me, thereby making himself easier to beat. But against everyone else, he was determined to put on a show. He was dealt a pat full house and a pat straight back to back. He raised on neither hand, managing to win a meager amount from hands with which he should have scored big. He then put in maximum raises with two pair, stood pat and got bluffed out of the pot by an astute opponent.

Sam suffered from the worst case of FPS I’ve ever seen. That’s Fancy Play Syndrome, the bankroll-eating poker disease that devastates one-and-a-half million players each year. The symptoms are easy to spot. The afflicted player will usually choose the most creative play, rather than the most profitable one. That’s because he wants to impress his opponents with his cleverness.

But, poker is a game where you’re only rarely able to impress opponents. Much of your profit comes from making the most profitable and most obvious decisions consistently over a long period of time. If you do that, you’ll impress your opponents. You’ll impress them with the realization that you have their money.

Occam’s Razor

Don’t choose sophisticated strategies when simpler ones are better. And there’s something we need to talk about that’s closely related. Let me tell it to you the same way I did in a recent audio lecture. (You can listen to the lecture for free here at Poker1. Go there.) It goes like this…

In order to understand how silly some poker advice gets, you need to understand William of Ockham – a 14th century English philosopher. Well, maybe you don’t need to understand him. He might have slept with goats, for all I know. But you need to understand how today’s scientists have reinterpreted one of the concepts that William of Occam (so spelled today) popularized. I’m talking about Occam’s Razor. It has come to mean that when there are competing theories that can explain an event, the simplest one is usually better. That’s important, and I’ll repeat it.

When there are two or more ways you can explain why something happened, the explanation that’s simpler is more likely to be right.

Let’s say you see a carton of milk that stayed on the kitchen counter overnight. The milk is supposed to be in the refrigerator, but it isn’t. As far as you know, you’ve been alone in the house. Now you could theorize that some unknown enemy broke into your house, drank some milk, then poisoned it, and left it on the kitchen counter hoping you’ll drink it and die. Or you could reason that you probably forgot to put the milk back in the refrigerator.

Either is possible. But, guess what? You and I are both gamblers at heart, and you know which way we’re going to bet – that you forgot to put the milk back in the refrigerator, right?

Shaving away complexities

Anything is possible, but simpler is better. It’s Occam’s Razor – you shave away all the unnecessary complexities and make the most obvious explanation the favorite.

Now, what does this have to do with poker? Well, I just read some advice from a serious poker player, posted on the Internet, that says that in a pot-limit hold ’em game, you should come into a pot with 8-7 suited behind two callers and a raiser, realizing that he holds a big pair, then if the flop almost completely misses you, showing an ace and two other cards and no one-card out for a straight or flush, call the player who holds that big pair. The theory is that this surprise call on the flop with nothing will make the bettor sure that you have something and put you in a position to steal the pot sometime on the next two betting rounds.

Anything wrong with this? Plenty! This is an example of creative play. I teach variations of this myself, and it belongs in your poker arsenal. But, it’s a play that you should use only rarely. Here’s where Occam’s Razor comes in. You can take any poker situation, add complexities, argue how players will respond until they’re just right to fit your conclusion, and make practically any bizarre decision seem like the most logical.

But, it remains that the simplest conclusion is that you shouldn’t play that 8-7 suited at all most of the time and that, when you do, you should fold willingly when you miss and the original raiser bets into the flop. The simplest choice of strategy is usually the best. Exceptions are exceptions for a reason.

Another example

And, here’s another example. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about advice that you should bet on the flop in hold ’em with an inside straight draw. Had this been presented as a rare exception, it would have been profitable advice. But, by using more-complex arguments to make it the main tactic, the experts are violating Occam’s Razor – ignoring the obvious explanation of what you should do – check.

The reason I’m telling you this today is, once you become skilled at poker, it’s easy to justify doing the unusual. But the most obvious decision is usually correct. You should make occasional exceptions to keep observant opponents off-guard and to earn extra profit.

But, if you stray too often from what are the simplest and most obvious decisions, you’re sure to sacrifice profit. Remember Occam’s Razor next time someone justifies a poker decision with a complex argument when a simpler argument leads to different decision. Complex is sometimes right, but usually it isn’t. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


9 thoughts on “How FPS and Occam’s Razor affect your poker profit”

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  1. Is there ever a scenario in a tournament when it is advisable to check the nuts when last to act in a NLH tournament?

    1. I can’t think of any probable reason not to bet. It’s theoretically possible that there may be contrived situations in which you could benefit by keeping a short-stacked opponent alive if it’s down to, say, three-handed. Or maybe the tournament ends by rule when two players remain and you would have the second largest stack if you eliminated the third opponent. Or maybe I might do it for showmanship purposes or to annoy (and cause bad decisions from) the opponent with the largest stack (but I try never to annoy opponents). It’s even possible that I have determined that the opponent won’t call my bet and that I can psychologically influence him or her to fold to a subsequent bluff by showing compassion now. All that is far-fetched. I’ve personally never seen a situation in which it would be correct to check. Many tournaments penalize you for not betting the nuts when last to act on the final betting round.

  2. Mike- Possibly this is not a proper question- as all the details are not apparent. Recently on championship Poker- player A had a Ace high flush on the turn. On the river the board paired – player B went all in and A called. Phil HEYMOO- the champ from Wisconsin – get it hay moo- was highlighted on his analysis of the play- and his take was that it was an easy fold for the ACE high flush hand. I say you must call that all in – in possibly every case! The outcome was that the ACE flush lost. What say you? I think that Phil H. was biased – as he was concentrating only on the last round of betting – and more or less to the side of the winner. In fact you made an essay on the subject of making a biased observation. Nelson Briefer

    1. Hi, Nelson —

      I really can’t comment intelligently. I would have had to be there to gauge the psychological elements.

      Moreover, it makes a great deal of difference what the action was up until the all-in move, how much the all-in bet was relative to the pot, whether the flush used both cards in the hand (making it less detectable), whether the ace was in the hand or on the board, and much more.

      By the way, I don’t advise that you should automatically call in that situation. I advise that you shouldn’t automatically fold, though. You can think yourself out of many pots by assuming opponents play more logically than they do.

      In this case, keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for large trips to move all-in, hoping to prevent an opponent from calling and making a flush — and retaining a chance to draw out, even if the opponent already has one.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

    2. I folded King Hi flush, yes he had ace high
      I did not fold King hi flush, yes he had Ace high

      so it depends.

  3. “You can take any poker situation, add complexities, argue how players will respond until they’re just right to fit your conclusion, and make practically any bizarre decision seem like the most logical.”

    You see this on 2+2 and other forums all the time. Sometimes, no matter how much they argue the probability of some guy calling with some worse hand X amount of times that would make you .17% of BB profit over 100k hands, seriously guys, just fold the dam hand.

    They also do the opposite. Once in a while, the non-standard play is the best choice because of the specifics of play at that table at that time, but they will argue on and on that it’s bad play justifying their position with illustrations of hands that have nothing at all in common with the one that generated the less usual action.

    Sometimes I think they just want to win the arguments.


  4. To restate, the obvious solution is almost always the right one. That’s how I learned it what, 30 years ago now. Good to know it has a poker application. Had I known that then… ;)

  5. I must admit, I watch all the TV poker and see the fancy plays and some that are over my head and think, I will never be able to play like that. Then I wonder if a straight forward style with optimal bluffing, proper hand selection and folding when you are more than likely beat wouldn’t get the money in the long run?
    I also see kids (people younger than me which isn’t hard to be) who I think would be just as well off to check and fold on the end make big bluffs in low limit NLH only to have their effort snapped off by someone who has no clue or one who completely has a clue.
    On an unrelated subject, I am beginning to think that 100 X the BB buy-in in NLH is not quite deep enough to do some poker playing on a hand with out getting nearly all in. Perhaps I am doing it wrong but it seems to be how the game is being played in AC. I think 200 X buy in would give a little more lee way. Am I right or wrong?

    1. Hi, Rick –

      I think 100 times the big blind is an adequate amount for a buy-in. That’s $1,000 in a $5/$10 no-limit hold ‘em game. I said adequate, but I’m not sure if it’s ideal. It’s tough to decide.

      Most games have a buy-in cap these days, so you can’t buy anything you want, as I’m sure you’re aware.

      When I programmed Orac (my artificially intelligent poker player) for no-limit heads-up matches decades ago, I used a single blind structure (1 unit) with 100 units as a the starting stack for each player.

      Note that heads up with two blinds of $100 and $200 is exactly the same conceptually as one $100 blind with each player anteing $100. To me, that means the structure is a bit flawed, because if you were playing with just one $100 blind and someone suggested also anteing $100 each, you might think twice.

      The advantage of truly large stacks is that they allow for more opportunities to escape after there has been significant betting. With just 100 big blinds, you’re likely to quite frequently be priced into calling after a raise and a reraise.

      But it really doesn’t matter how much you buy in if no opponent can cover it. Your stack is never theoretically bigger than the player with the next-most chips.

      In short, I really have no solution. There are advantages of buying more chips and advantages of buying fewer chips. In the latter case, the advantage is that you can’t get bet out of a pot so easily, and you’ll sometimes win with weak hands you otherwise couldn’t have justified playing.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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