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,
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
- -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!
There it is again... IF
YOU'RE AN ACCOMPLISHED PLAYER, PROFITING FROM THE
FLOW OF THE GAME....
... 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.