In Part 3 of this series we looked at recurring poker decisions, as well as choices that are less commonly encountered, but are costly when a wrong decision is made. Now we’re ready to examine decision trees, along with the single most important decision you’ll encounter anytime you play poker.
Why Risk/Reward Decisions are Tough Choices
Risk/reward decisions are tough because there’s no recipe to follow – in life or in poker. At the poker table it helps to reconstruct the play of the hand and betting patterns, and understand your opponents’ playing styles. Without this kind of analysis, how else can you determine if they are bluffing outright, betting hands worse than yours, or wagering on powerful holdings?
Playing correctly under these circumstances requires a great deal of judgment: the kind that comes from experience, not books. No matter how skilled a player you eventually become, you’ll never reach the point where you always make these decisions correctly. Don’t worry; that’s not important. Just be careful about the hands you decide to play, err on the side of protecting yourself from catastrophic mistakes, and you’ll be on the right track.
Some Decisions are Important Because They Influence Subsequent Actions
Choices can also be important because of their position on the decision tree. Those that are first in a long sequence of subsequent choices are always important, since those that follow are usually predicated on your initial selection. Make a wrong move up front and you run the risk of rendering each subsequent decision incorrect, regardless of whatever else you might do. That’s why the choice of which hands you start with in poker is generally a much more critical decision than how you play on future betting rounds. If you adopt an “…any two cards can win” philosophy in hold’em, or start with stud hands like 3 -3 -7 when your cards aren’t live and there are aces and faces to act after you, you have set yourself up for a disaster that even the best players can not consistently overcome on later rounds.
But regardless of how important it may be to choose your starting cards with the greatest of care, there are even more important decisions you’ll make at the poker table. They are more important because they are closer to the trunk of the decision tree.
The Single Most Important Poker Decision
Choosing the right game is the single most important decision you’ll encounter as a poker player. Choose the wrong game and little else matters. Choose the right game and you might make money even on those nights when you’re experiencing a below average run of cards. If you are fortunate enough to play in Southern California, Nevada, Mississippi, Atlantic City, Foxwoods, or anywhere else where you have a choice of games, and you routinely gravitate to the same game without taking time to evaluate your options, you just might be making your worst poker decision of the evening – even though you have yet to sit down.
Poker is not mano-a-mano competition like boxing. There’s no need to go up against the brightest and the best to prove you’ve got the right stuff. In fact, given your druthers, you ought to seek out the weakest and the worst. Poker is not about demonstrating your skills or impressing your opponents at the table. It isn’t the slam dunk competition at the NBA all-star game. It has nothing to do with winning the most pots, and there’s no rule saying you’ve got to call to keep ’em honest. You’re there for the money. That’s it. The best way to elevate your chances for success is to play against inept opponents with lots of discretionary income. If they’re ego involved fools, believe that poker is all luck and no skill, and treat the game like a lottery, so much the better.
Unfortunately, all the imbeciles don’t segregate themselves at one table, waiting for you to come along and take their money. You have to look around, assess the games and decide which one offers the best opportunities – and you have to continuously evaluate these games because what might have been a good game when you first sat down could be a terrible game two or three hours later. Monitoring the games available to you is as important as anything else you can do to maximize your chances for success at the tables.
Think about this. Would you rather be the best poker player in the world at a table with the eight other players who are ranked second through ninth, or would you prefer being a good-but-not-great player at a table full of fish? I don’t know about you, but I’d much prefer to be the good player who is up against a table full of passive calling stations. I know I’d win more money – much more, in fact – than the world’s best player could ever win against tough competition!
Here’s why. It’s sad but true that most of the money you’ll win playing poker comes not from the brilliance of your own play, but the stupidity of your opponents. Never mind that you might be the world’s best poker player. You’re not all that much better than those immediately beneath you. And none of your opponents, all of whom are world class players in their own right, will present much of a target for you to shoot at. Bad players are another story entirely. They offer huge targets. They call with weak hands. They stay in hopes of catching a miracle card. They believe that poker is like the lottery – all a matter of luck – and it’s just a little while until everything evens out and they get theirs. And their bad play costs them money day after day. Bad players simply do not realize the extent to which they bleed away money. The gap between the good player and the fool is infinitely greater than the gap between the world’s best player and that cluster of other top players behind him. It’s not even close. That mythical journeyman professional poker player – you know, the kind you aspire to be – may be a mile away from the world’s best, but he’s ten miles ahead of the fools.
This article wraps up a four-part series. The objective was to help you construct a framework for examining the kinds of decisions you’ll face in any poker game, as well as provide some insights into the kinds of choices that are critical to successful play. If you’re able to identify these critical junctures by building a warning system of sorts into your thinking, you should automatically perk up at key moments. In fact, simply being aware of critical decisions when you encounter them will go a long way toward helping you grapple successfully with them.