Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper.
People are watching poker pros on television playing worse and worse by the minute. We need laws keeping the young and impressionable from viewing this type of poker. Where are the senate subcommittees when we finally need them for something useful? Why isn’t 60 Minutes exposing this? Think of the harm that’s being done daily. Think of the poker careers shot down in their infancy.
Isn’t there a next-generation Ralph Nadar out there who cares about the people of poker? I just got a hand shot down on the Professional Poker Tour (the invitation-only, 100-percent-prize-money-and-no-entry-fee, spinoff of the World Poker Tour). And it happened at the featured, televised table.
And the hand I got eliminated with was disappointing to me. Maybe I could have easily avoided this one. Now, to be sure, I’m not someone who goes around second-guessing his poker actions. I’m proud of how I play, dedicated to the decisions I make, hand after hand, day after day. I’m just too good to criticize, so I don’t do it. I’ll get back to that hand later.
I’ve made a lot of TV appearances and am getting a bunch of sympathy. Yes, I’ve suffered some awful draw outs, but so what? Happens to lots of people. Happens in regular games all the time; there just aren’t the cameras there to document your misery. But there will be those wise viewers who are neither tempted to sympathize nor to be joyous about those who draw out. They just reflectively judge the strength of a player on the quality of the poker decisions.
Fine. I hope I’ve made them proud. But there aren’t many such viewers. The truth is, most are influenced by outcomes, not by correct choices. And the outcomes they’re seeing are just this side of the Twilight Zone. They’re seeing seasoned pros enter pots in way-too-early positions with 10-7 of different suits, marry these hands to flops of 9-7-Q, bet it all, be called by a pair of pocket jacks, and catch a 10 on the river for two glorious pair. Ah, the triumph! Ah, so that’s how poker is played at the highest levels! Ah, but it isn’t! Not even close!
The dirty truth about poker on TV
Here’s the thing to remember: Most telecasts of tournaments are edited after the fact. They predominantly show key hands. OK, fine. Why do so many key hands involve terrible plays? Why do they center on rotten hands that even many beginners know better than to play?
Now, listen closely. It’s because there isn’t always any “one right way” to play a hand. In my forthcoming book Caro’s Professional Hold ’em, Play by Play, I provide guidance on good and bad ways to play hands, but some of the bad ways can be good under certain circumstances. Furthermore, some of the “bad” ways can be right if used a small percentage of the time, with many more hands in similar situations played the “good” way. It sounds strange, but it’s true.
In order not to be predictable, you sometimes should play a hand differently than the obvious best-choice would dictate. So, over time, if you have 100 full houses against astute opponents in similar situations that seem worthy of a raise, you might raise 73 times and call 27. Sometimes sacrificing use of the best strategy isn’t necessary, and that happens specifically when you’re playing against foes who aren’t observant.
No routine decision
I haven’t forgotten. We’re talking about pros playing weak hands on TV. And I’ll get back to that in a minute. Right, now, please continue to follow along. OK, now I’m telling you that you can vary your decisions somewhat against aware opponents, just so you won’t be so predictable. Is there any other time you would vary your decisions?
You bet! There is no routine decision for most hands. You need to take into consideration more than just the hands themselves, the sequence of bets, and the probability of winning. You even need to consider more than who your opponents are and their style of play. You must delve even beyond their moods right now that might modify the way they usually play. All that is essential. But, you need to do something else. You need to consider how your presence at the table may affect the way they play this hand!
Pros do this. And occasionally, by doing this, they choose to play an unusual hand. Today, I want you to realize that all those factors go into the decision-making of quality players. And often the players you see on TV are quality players. Yet, they’re seemingly barging into pots with hands that you wouldn’t play. What gives?
OK, I’ll tell you. Here’s what gives. What you’re seeing is an illusion. Those superior players don’t really play often the hands you’re seeing them play often with your own eyes. What’s happening is that the video is edited to show you mostly key hands. You won’t see big confrontations involving the 14 out of 15 times that a skillful player threw J-8 away, because – well, because nothing happened. If you look closely, you might see hands like that folded routinely while other hands get involved in the war for the pot. And you won’t see a lot of hands involving small confrontations that contribute little to the outcome of the tournament, even when a weird, weak hand is played.
What you will see are the rare times when strong players chose to play these weak hands and got lucky. You must understand that if they didn’t get lucky, the hand would normally end early. No big deal. Not TV. You’re likely to see only hands where 10-7 connected on the flop and, perhaps, added more strength on the turn or the river. Good luck can makes that happen.
So, let’s look deeper. Now we know that strong players aren’t really playing a lot of weak hands (despite how it seems on TV). Now we know that even on the times that they do play weak hands, you’re only likely to see it if they get help on the flop. And here’s another key: You’re mostly going to see these weak starting hands up against strong opposing starting hands. That’s because those strong hands are the ones most likely to call the initial bets. And, so, put it all together and what is the anatomy of this illusion?
More draw outs
It is that you see more weak hands entering pots than actually happen. And you see more big hands drawn out on than should mathematically take place. No draw out, no big confrontation, no TV. Those times the weak hands are played and don’t get lucky, you’re unlikely to see. No meaningful exchange of money. Next time you watch pros battle on TV, remember that they probably are playing much more sensibly than you think.
So, now I’ll get back to my TV hand I told you about in the beginning. When I played my A-10 from a late seat, saw a flop of 10-6-4 and found myself all-in against K-K, I had every reason to re-examine my decision. Normally I would have just called the medium bet on the flop – or even folded – rather than raise large, as I did. And I wish I had been more cautious that time.
But, as I left the table, eliminated from competition, a spectator said, “What could you do? Everyone’s winning these things with terrible hands, and you get a great hand like that beat!” I realized that nobody was going to second-guess my decision. If it happened to survive the TV edit, it would look like a bad beat with a strong hand, surrounded by a bunch of other less-sensible TV hands played by others. Nothing to worry about on the PR front, true, but it proves the illusion.
And there’s a reason I’m telling you this. I believe that many would-be winning players are taking the games they see on TV into real-world and online casinos and getting destroyed. They need to play much more conservatively. Poker for money is serious and real. TV is an illusion. — MC