Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2006) in Poker Player newspaper.
Can you have too much discipline to win at poker? Oddly, yes. In some games, it’s easy to beat lively opponents by simply being ultra-selective about the hands you play. But many players who approach poker with the correct attitude, take the game seriously, and are motivated by profit actually out-think themselves when making laydowns in popular limit poker games.
By trying to stay disciplined, they actually fold too often on later betting rounds. What this seemingly prudent trait can do to your bankroll is dramatic. It can consume it all and leave you broke and begging – all because you were too cautious.
Years ago, I delivered a lecture to serious students on this precise topic. To help you get 2006 off on the right track, I’m sharing this key lecture with you today. Listen…
In a minute, I’m going to tell you one reason why so many people who try to play limit poker seriously fail to win. It isn’t that they lack discipline, but that they have too much discipline at the wrong times. You’ll see what I mean.
Profit is a good thing
First, you have to understand: Most players aren’t all that serious about poker. They come to socialize, to gamble, for the thrills and the camaraderie. And the giggles. Did you know that many of the biggest losers in poker have great expertise in other fields? Perhaps they’re too dedicated to their own professions to find time to study poker.
To these recreational players, our obsession with serious poker may seem silly. Always remember, you should respect your opponents for the people they are, not for how well or how poorly they play poker. If you play seriously and they play poorly and, as a result, they provide you with profit, that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t belittle them for that. You should be grateful and you should respect those opponents who provide you with profit.
But that’s not my main topic today. My main topic is about you.
Too many reasons to fold
Because you take poker seriously, you take pride in throwing away hands that weaker opponents would lose money by playing. And that’s good. You should be very selective before you commit any money to a pot. But be careful.
Don’t out-think yourself. Many serious, thoughtful, conservative poker players actually lose money by finding too many reasons to fold in limit games. This doesn’t happen as much in five-card draw poker. That’s because, in draw poker, there are only two betting rounds – one before the draw and one after the draw. The first round is the one where you decide whether to play a hand. And that’s where you’re supposed to be selective, so there’s seldom any significant error in being conservative. But the danger of outthinking yourself and not calling enough comes in games with more than two betting rounds – games like hold ’em with four betting rounds and seven-card stud with five. That’s where, if you’re very analytical and conservative, you can think yourself right out of a pot. Why? Simply because you have more chances to do it. From your opponent’s perspective, if you enter a pot and don’t fold on the second betting round, then maybe you’ll fold on the third, or the fourth, or the fifth betting round. If you’re evaluating each of these decisions too critically with a bias toward folding, you might find that you’re not arriving at the showdown often enough to make a profit.
Strangely, this happens to very many poker players who are trying as hard as they can to win. What they don’t realize is that you should have a decreasing bias toward folding as the pot grows. Because we’re talking about limit poker, your call is always smaller than the size of the pot – usually much smaller. And as the pot builds, the size of the pot relative to the amount of your call gets bigger and bigger. That means you have more to gain by calling and more to lose by folding.
Calling two out of three times isn’t enough
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fold even if you’re looking at the biggest pot in history. You should still fold if the rewards are less than the odds against you winning. Did you know that if you always call two-thirds of the time by whim and you have four betting rounds to reach the showdown, mathematically you’re only going to see that showdown one in five times. Think about it. You’re calling two out of three times at whim, so you might fold three times in a row or call seven times in a row. You’re only choosing to fold one in three times that you’re faced with a bet. But, at random, you’re only going to reach the showdown 20 percent of the time. And believe me, that’s not going to be often enough to win against players who start firing into you, realizing that if you don’t fold right now, there’s a good chance you’ll fold on their next bet.
Of course, it matters how strong your hand is relative to your opponents. We’re talking about hands with fair prospects of winning, neither horribly weak nor terrifically strong. In those cases, if you’re too vigilante about identifying reasons to fold on each betting round, you might be folding yourself right out of your bankroll, even though you understand poker better and play more seriously than your opponents.
If that sounds like you, remain selective about the hands you enter pots with, but once you enter, shift your bias toward calling.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC