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Playing Irrational Poker Players

You've been there, we've all been there... a good session. It was a bigger deal early in your playing career; you played, and you won, and you felt good.  All the practice and study really felt like it was starting to pay off... or was it?


Looking back at a night or weekend's worth of play, you had a nagging doubt about whether poker fundamentals and theory are really what led to your win. What about those quad 4's last night, that got paid off HUGE by a flush and a fullhouse?  What about the 2 pots you were able to steal uncontested when you were on a hot streak?  Take away those 3 pots, and suddenly your profitable trip is in the red...


But, oh well, you'll take it.


The next day, you tell your friends about the trip, and brag (just a little) about your skills and your theoretical applications and your mad genius, and how it all stands as proof positive that you're just a notch away from being a world-class player. You let your win stand as evidence of this, and leave out the part about your entire profit being encapsulated by the result of 3 fortunate hands.


But you believe what you read, and you believe what you're telling them. You re-convince yourself that when all is said and done, despite the 'getting lucky' and the crafty bluffing, that playing a solid, disciplined poker game really was the key ingredient in your success yesterday, today, and tomorrow.


Recognize this thought process?


Poker theory is fantastic and we're all indebted to the writers, statisticians and players who have brought it to us.  If you're a winning player, then good, sound poker 'education' has gotten you (and kept you) somewhere between inches, and miles ahead of the average competition... Good theory equals better long term expectation.  Fine.


And then there's Luck. Everyone has luck, good and bad, so I won't try to take anyone down that road. Sometimes you'll do better than 'expected' on account of good luck, other times you'll do worse than 'expected' on account of bad luck, and in the long run it'll balance out and you'll do as 'expected'. Fine.

But what about those pots you were able to steal?  After all, those constitute close to 400 dollars of your weekend profit... Was that dumb luck, or something else?  Were they random bluffs (like, you use game theory and decide ahead of time that you'll bet 1 out of every 7 poor hands as if they were kings) or timely, situational bluffs?  Did you keep statistics?  What percentage of your bluffs worked?  How many were picked off?  On a scale from one to ten, how confident were you in each of your bluff attempts?  Unless you're David Sklansky, there's a good chance you don't know.


I haven't been playing for very many years, but at this point in my playing career, I'm unable to ignore the perceived reality of 'poker tides'.


Scenario: Mid-Limit Holdem


In my city, the local 10-20 games have a modest rake and are actually pretty easy to beat; by playing fewer, better hands than the table average, and paying attention to the 'tides' (the win-lose patterns that really have a strong, irrational effect on your opponents, and on your table reputation; the difference between your bets being respected or not) and timing your infrequent bluffs accordingly... Sufficiently bankrolled, you can make about 20 bucks an hour with a rather uncreative game.

I use the term 'irrational', because the fact is, your luck during the last hand or 2 has nothing to do with the present; poker hands are independent trials.  Yet players subconsciously, irrationally pay a LOT of mind to past hands when making a play here and now, in the present.


I think it's possible to look into a player's eyes at the beginning of a hand, and immediately, accurately, determine whether it's possible to bluff him this time.  It also may be possible to use psychological/communication techniques to 'anchor' calling and folding responses, and trigger them in fickle opponents at appropriate times; but this is another matter. (Sidebar:  Is this what they mean when they talk about 'the calling reflex?')


I'll say it again:  as the chips move around the table, even a 'good' player's behavior will change.  Their faith in their top pair holding up, is directly related to the size of their stacks, ABOVE ALL ELSE.  Theory is constant, but it's almost TOO constant to be the immediate consideration for many players, who are experiencing the rush that accompanies gambling, and are willing to throw theory out the window (or at least make an exception) because they have a hunch.


Case in point: A player who's shown down monster hands for 3 consecutive hands has a lot better chance of getting away with a bluff than a maniac who has raised with nothing, or a bottom pair for 3 consecutive hands in a row.  The 'lesson' learned from the hands played in the past 10 minutes just FEEL a lot more important than the theoretical, universal odds of such and such.  As educated players we know better.  But you take a fickle player, and give him an iffy situation, and you can't help but notice that he'll almost always consult his gut, as opposed to his mental calculator.


As Mike Caro wrote:


(pp. 48-49, Caro's Book of Tells)


  • -Most hands your opponents play are at whim!  That's because there are
    relatively few overwhelmingly strong or weak hands that dictate an exact
  • -Your opponents' habits of playing a large spectrum of hands at whim is not
    necessarily bad for them!  Sometimes it can be closely in tune with game
    theory, and can cause them to 'randomize' their decisions effectively.
  • -When you try to analyze poker strategy, you need to realize that you simply
    can't say how most opponents would play a hand or--in many cases--IF they
    would have played a hand.  They often don't know this themselves until the
    very last second!
  • -If you're an accomplished player profiting from the flow of the game, many
    of YOUR play-or-don't-play decisions are made by whim at the last moment!




... Poker tides.  The distribution of money, the rhythm, all the subtle factors that strongly affect the players' ability to bluff or semi-bluff with confidence, that will cause a player to fold or call with a marginal hand, etc, etc.   Basically, the types of scenarios that you encounter over and over again, every time you play poker... but seldom know how to exploit on a regular basis.  Unlike other gambling games, a poker game (and to an extent, your expectation in the game) is -defined- by spontaneous decisions made by the other players.


It makes me wonder; have learn-able strategies been published, with this type of creative approach?  It's too big a deal for there not to have been. While there definitely are a lot of players who play like 'rocks'... the overwhelming majority are emotionally, swiftly pulled by the poker tides and feel an irrational attachment to the notion of 'streaks'... successful poker players, religious in their theory, are a rare breed because they keep their oars in the water, regardless of where the current is pulling them.


Perhaps its human to believe in luck and streaks.  Almost all of us feel compelled towards either heads or tails when a coin is tossed, despite knowing that it really doesn't matter what we choose.  Maybe it's just more fun that way.  I rarely gamble besides blackjack and poker, but when I play roulette, I refuse to bet on anything other than red.  As the wheel is spinning, I'm absolutely positive it's going to be red this time.  Luckily, it's a lose-lose situation, so it doesn't really matter.  This is irrational, but human.

The Basics of Value Betting

Short Term EV

5 Mistakes When Playing Pocket Aces

Playing Irrational Players

Thinking Through Your Poker Hands

Playing Your Draws Aggressively

Basic Bankroll Management

Common Beginner Mistakes in Poker, Part 1

9 Reasons You Lose At Cash Games

NLHE Table Selection

Playing Middle Suited Connectors

Playing OverPairs

Avoiding Tilt

6 Tips for Beginners

Playing The Turn in NLHE

Tournament Play - Playing The Shortstack

Common Beginner Mistakes in Poker, Part 2