In an increasingly competitive world, most of us stick to our strengths and do what we know best. Unfortunately, a singular focus can prevent you from developing a well-rounded skill set.
I have seen this phenomenon with dozens of struggling poker players since the explosive growth of online casinos in the early 2000s, as droves of mathematically inclined enthusiasts joined the tables and began looking at poker through the lenses of statistics and game theory. Many of them overlooked, or even chose to ignore, a simple truth: Poker is still a psychological battle, no matter how much math you throw at it.
Consider a hand I recently reviewed with one of my students – a hand with two crucial emotional themes. It was an online no-limit hold ’em tournament with a $200 buy-in. In an early level, the blinds were at 200-400 with a 50 ante, and action folded to our hero in the cutoff with Ac Jc. He raised to 850 and was called by the player in the big blind.
The two players saw a flop of Qh 8s 6s. The big blind checked, and my student made a continuation bet of 925. The big blind quickly called.
On a 2c turn, the big blind checked again. Our hero fired once more, betting 1,875, and again he was called without much thought.
On the river, a 10d stopped the action, as both players checked. Tabling 8d 9d, the big blind raked in a pot of nearly 8,000 with a meager pair.
My student explained that he thought the big blind might have a weak hand when he just called preflop and on the flop. However, my student thought that after he was called on the turn, it did not make sense for his opponent to be weak, so my student gave up. That seemed logical, but there were two psychological points, one about him and the other about his opponent, that I wanted him to consider.
First, if our hero had decided to go all-in for his remaining $6,000 and change on the river, he would have been painfully anxious about it. Just imagining the situation made his heart race. If he was feeling such adrenaline just in a chat with me, could he really say he had given that option fair consideration? Not likely. When we expect intense emotional situations, I explained, we run from them first and make up a justification later – that is human nature.
Second, I reminded him that most people at the poker table respond to the pressure of dollars and situations more than cards and hand strengths. When you put a scared player to a huge decision, he will convince himself to fold a monster hand. An impatient player may call off an enormous sum while holding garbage.
With a little emotional perspective, we saw how my student was too nervous to put an opponent to the test. Even if that opponent had a strong hand, he may have folded to an all-in bet anyway.
I drove home the point that it is critical to think psychologically first and do the math second. Never let your skills with numbers and logic prevent you from using your basic people-reading talents as a human being.
Corwin Cole is a poker coach whose instructional videos can be found at CardRunners.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.