Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2009) in Bluff magazine.
A great share of stuff I’ve learned about poker comes from other players who declare themselves to be experts. Before you conclude that I’ve evolved into a more humble Mad Genius, let me clarify.
Yes, I’ve heard occasional whispers of wisdom from those players. But mostly their assumptions and assertions have been dead wrong. What I’ve learned from them is to analyze their misguided poker beliefs and, in the process, gain greater understanding of poker truth. But wait! Now I’m sounding egotistical again. For this I humbly apologize.
Here are three poker fallacies from experiences players.
Fallacy #1: Missing bets
Let’s begin with something I overheard in a casino coffee shop years ago. At an adjoining booth, one young player was telling another, “You’re missing too many bets. You’re losing a lot of money every time you check a hand that’s probably the best.” He speculated that the main difference between winners and losers was that winners weren’t afraid to bet.
In his mind, it was a disgrace to show down best hands without a wager when you could have bet and been called. If you want to win, he told his underling, you needed to take command and you should try never to “miss a bet.”
Nowadays the don’t-miss-a-bet philosophy has become dogma for many. And it’s just totally stupid. The only part that’s even salvageable as science is that you should bet whenever betting is profitable. But don’t bet as a poker lifestyle choice whenever you think your hand is the favorite. That’s wrong.
At the moment
Each decision you make in poker — folding, checking, calling, betting, or raising — has a specific value at the moment you implement it. It might be a negative value, a positive value, or break-even.
Your only job is to make the decision that has the highest value. Now, very often checking has a greater value than betting. That’s true even when you think your hand has an advantage.
In order to justify a bet from the standpoint of power, you usually must have a significant advantage, not just a tiny one. Why? It’s largely because your $100 bet might be raised, forcing you to surrender the pot or call because the size of the pot justifies that reluctant action.
It’s also because you won’t always be called. It’s also because your opponent might do your betting for you if you check. And there are many more factors you need to consider before blindly betting, just because you don’t want to miss a bet.
“You missed a bet,” is meant to deride an opponent who is perceived to have squandered an opportunity to wager. And this failure to bet carries such stigma with some players that they will squeal on themselves first, so as not to suffer the ridicule, “I missed a bet!”
The fact is, you should miss many bets. Check out of caution. Check to deceive. Check to see what happens. There’s no shame in it, despite what some others may imply. Many hands that seem best aren’t “best enough” to merit a bet.
The most faithful followers of the don’t-miss-a-bet religion are easy to beat. You just need to invite bets by checking both medium-strong and ultra-strong hands into them. They’ll hang themselves — although they’ll die proudly, never having missed a bet.
Fallacy #2: Most chips
I’ve encountered this next bit of advice so many times that I don’t even remember when I first heard it: “In no-limit, you should always have the most chips on the table.” It turns out that there are both advantages and disadvantages to having the most chips.
Obviously, if you have an unbeatable hand, you can cover all bets, and you’ll make more money, on average. But, by having the most chips on the table, you’ll sacrifice opportunities to call and see the showdown in situations where you’d otherwise be forced out of the pot.
In fact, if we measure profit on the basis of return on investment, then about the best thing that can happen to us is we can be all in for an ante in a draw poker game (as an example). If there are eight players competing, then we’ll be getting exactly fair odds if everyone is predetermined to see the showdown.
But, of course, most players will voluntarily exit the pot, deciding not to pay the price. That gives you a better chance of winning, because some hands that might have gotten lucky and beat you are absent, and you will win with some hands you wouldn’t have played.
The same concept applies anytime you’re on short money. Once you’re all-in, or nearly so, you get to see the showdown. Often, others with equally good chances can’t afford to do that. That’s an advantage you don’t have with the most chips on the table.
So, should you buy more chips than anyone else or not? Not unless you have a clear advantage against most of your opponents. Even then, it’s up to you. Consider how plentiful your bankroll is and the nature of your opponents. There’s nothing wrong with buying a lot of chips, but there’s no clear advantage in always having the most chips, either.
Fallacy #3: Big loss for small game
“Give it up. You’re not good enough to beat the other players if you’re losing $15 an hour in a $3/$6 game online for that many hours.” I’m sure this advisor meant well, but he was wrong. I can provide even more information. Sam, the player being advised, had been competing in a short-handed, six-player-maximum, limit hold ’em game. Let’s run these numbers.
I don’t know how many hours he played, but let’s pick 400 for this example. At Sam’s $15 an hour loss rate, he’s now behind $6,000. Not good. But online it’s not unusual if there are 120 hands per hour dealt in a short-handed limit hold ’em game. Of those, most will proceed to the flop and be raked by the house.
Let’s say the rake is the typical $2 and 95 hands each hour are raked at $2 each. That’s $190. Seats aren’t always filled, and an average of five players participate per deal. So, we divide $190 by five and get a $38 hourly loss. That’s how an average player would fare if the game were transported to your kitchen table with no rake.
Better than expected
So, the average per-hour loss is $38 and Sam is only losing $15. That means he’s doing $23 an hour better than expected.
Sam has demonstrated considerable potential. He shouldn’t be told to give up. He should be told to fine tune. He should think of himself as a $23 an hour winner who still has a way to go to overcome the rake. But rake policies vary. Sometimes the first $1 rake isn’t taken until the pot reaches $20, and average hourly rake would be less for the game described.
Remember, just being better than your opponents isn’t good enough in a casino poker game. You need to be a lot better. The first thing I would advise Sam is to play tighter. Hands that are only a 50-cent favorite without considering the rake should be folded. Don’t give up, Sam!
So, listen to what other players say about poker. Then think about what you’ve heard. This sometimes will result in great insight, often because the advice was terrible. We all learn from each other, right? — MC