Playing Winning Poker: Part 3

In Part 2 we discussed whether strategic knowledge by itself was enough to assure winning play at the poker tables, and how the information explosion has affected poker. We also learned why some things in poker are critically important, and others aren’t. Today we’ll discuss poker decisions that arise all the time, as well as those that are not encountered anywhere near as frequently, but come with big price tags attached. You’ll also learn how similar decisions occur every day away from the poker table.

Some Decisions Come Up Frequently
Decisions that occur all the time are important. Even though the amount of money attributed to a wrong decision may be small, it eventually adds up to a tidy sum if that error is made frequently. Always defending your small blind in hold’em, for example, is a good example. You’re faced with determining whether to defend your small blind every round – and that’s frequent. If you always defend it, you are investing part of a bet even on those occasions when it is wrong to do so. At the end of a year, those small mistakes tally up to big numbers.

Suppose you’re playing $10-$20 hold’em, with $5 and $10 blinds, and you decide to always defend your small blind, even when you’re dealt hands like 7 -2 . Just to keep this simple we’ll assume that your small blind is never raised. Based on the random distributions of cards, you’re probably dealt a throwaway hand about one-third of the time. If you are dealt 30 hands per hour, you’ll find yourself in the small blind three times every 60 minutes. If you always call, you’ll wind up calling once each hour when you really shouldn’t have. That’s only $5 each hour, but after 1,000 hours of poker, you’ve lost $5,000. It adds up fast, doesn’t it?

Costly Decisions
Decisions that cost a significant amount of money when they occur, even if they don’t happen too often, are also important. If you can’t decide whether to call or fold once all the cards are out and your opponent bets into a fairly large pot, that’s an important decision. If you make a mistake by calling when you should have folded – that’s an error, but not a critical one. It cost only one bet. But if you fold the winning hand, that’s a critical error, since the cost of that error was the entire pot.

Now I’m certainly not advising you to call each and every time someone bets on the river and you’re unsure about whether you have the best hand. But I will urge you to err on the side of calling, since that’s a one-bet mistake. Throwing away a hand that would have captured a pot is a catastrophe. If you’re a winning player – one who averages winning one big bet per hour, and you fold a hand that would have garnered eight to ten bets had you called – it will take one entire additional day of play to recoup the cost of that mistake. Deciding to call instead of fold doesn’t have to be correct too often to render it the error of choice. If the cost of a mistaken fold is ten times the price of a mistaken call, you only have to be correct slightly more than ten percent of the time to make calling worthwhile.

Even so, it is still frequently an easy decision to fold on the river. Suppose you flopped a straight or flush draw and your cards do not appear on the turn or the river. If your opponent bets on the end, you can only beat someone who is bluffing with a hand worse than yours. You’ll probably fold under these circumstances unless you have good reason to believe your opponent is bluffing. And when you suspect him of bluffing, raising is a better choice than calling, since it will cause him to release his bluff hands – some of which might have beaten yours in a showdown. But if you believe he has a legitimate hand, your best option is to fold.

Realizing that you’ll usually have to call with your legitimate hand when an opponent bets all the way to the river should make you stop and ask, “Just what is a legitimate hand?” Since it is usually correct to call on the river with legitimate hands because the cost of folding in error is catastrophic, deciding whether to see the flop, or deciding to continue beyond the flop are both critical decisions. You need to decide early – before the price of bets double – about whether you intend to keep playing your hand.

Most seven-card stud players are aware of the old adage that if you play on fifth street, you have purchased a through-ticket to the river. That philosophy, however, is not as well understood in hold’em. As a result many beginning hold’em players play weak hands, and are committing two critical errors as a consequence: Their first error is playing weak hands they should have folded. Then they compound this mistake by folding those very same hands when the size of the pot warrants calling, once all the cards are out and their opponent bets on the river. Does this ring true? If you responded “yes” you need to be more selective about the hands you play.

Folding on the end can also be a problem for good players, but for an entirely different reason. Some top-notch hold’em players pride themselves on the ability to laydown good hands, but sometimes the laydowns they make are too good. After all, you don’t have to catch too many bluffs to justify the price of calling on the river.

Risk/Reward Decisions in the Real World
Similar decisions also occur away from the poker table. They usually revolve around evaluating risks against rewards. These kinds of decisions are characterized by a choice of two or more alternatives – each offering some probability of success, but a cost, or risk, is associated with choosing incorrectly. Risk/reward decisions can become quite complex, so much so that we commonly find ourselves paralyzed by the very magnitude of the question. Like the proverbial deer in the headlights, we become prisoners of our own inaction – unable to choose. Sometimes we vacillate, first approaching one choice, then the other – almost choosing but never really committing to a decision. We want to keep digging, looking for a way to tilt the balance toward one side of the equation or the other.

This is usually when we take out our trusty yellow pad, draw a line down the center and list the pros and cons associated with each alternative. While better than nothing, it is not enough to ensure a good decision. The pros and cons, risks and rewards, costs and benefits, all need to be valued. Real life is a lot like poker. Certain life decisions can be much more valuable or costly than others. The drawback in making a list is that each item takes on the same degree of importance, when that’s seldom the case. Some factors are virtually “throw-away” items, while others might be crucial. In any decision-making process isolating and concentrating on those few but significant factors is critical. So, too, is learning to ignore factors that are relatively insignificant.

Next time you’ll learn why decisions closest to the trunk of a decision tree are generally more significant than those encountered along the extremities, and we’ll also discuss the single most important decision you’ll have to make at the poker table.