Most poker players do not want to be winning players. Instead, they want to be seen as poker players. If they truly wanted to be winning poker players, they would embrace being different. The vast majority of the poker field is comprised of losing players. If you are playing in a style that escapes their notice, then you have successfully gained the approval of losers. To be a winner, it logically follows that you must ruffle the feathers of the losing players. There is no reason they should be understanding what you’re doing. If you play in a style that escapes their notice, then there’s no logical reason for you to believe you should be winning. They should complain you’re too tight. “You’re so predictable,” they should whine. Or they should complain you’re too loose. “Another three-bet huh?” What they shouldn’t do is approve of you. Yet, that’s what most poker players play for: approval.
The Hunt For Approval
It is hard to blame players who strive for approval. We live in a world which defines 22-year-olds as having started billion-dollar “disruptive” companies. And they speak five languages. And they’ve started building wells in Africa. That’s when they’re not on the red carpet. That’s the average 22-year-old, if you believe magazines and television. Remember when detectives on television used to be ugly? They would look haggard and would rattle off hilarious one-liners? Now, every one of them is a GQ model. Their hair is perfectly coiffed. You’ve never seen the guy work out once on the show, but every time he takes his shirt off he has a perfect six-pack. It stands to reason that most people feel insecure about themselves now. That’s why they look for approval in other arenas: their workplace their family their church their recreational soccer league, and their weekly poker game.
The Fear Of Being Labeled
People want to belong. Poker feels like a safe space for them. It is quite the collection of weirdos and whack-a-doos. Poker also feels like an opportunity. You can be winner! You can be rich! Finally, you can be an all capitals SOMEBODY! But if you do one stupid thing and everybody at the table sees it…the mystique is gone. You aren’t somebody, ha! You’re a poseur! Look at you! Trying! For this reason, most poker players play the same way. Facing a big decision, they will take a long time before they act. That way, it will look like they thought through everything. They can’t be accused of making a hasty decision… but they will always call. If you call, and the guy shows you the hand, you can quietly muck and no one has to see your hand. No harm. No foul. You gave it serious “thought.” But if you fold and the guy shows you a bluff, oh my Lord! We feel terrible about ourselves now! Did everyone else see that?!
Poker players never want to be accused of folding a big hand that “anyone” could play. Then they look like their worse than everybody. That’s why they’ll never fold two pair or better as the pot gets big, even when it’s plainly obvious their opponent has a better hand. But there’s the rub. If everybody plays those hands the same way, then how can that be the correct strategy every single time? Is every single person who always gets it in with two-pair-or-better a poker millionaire? Once you start looking for these insecurities in yourself, that is when you will become a better poker player.
Breaking Down Examples
This was a hand I played at a big tournament recently. Tell me how it makes you feel. The tightest player at the table opens from early position to 2.5X. It folds around to me in the big blind. I have AQs. To give you an idea of how tight this player was: I have seen him play exactly four hands in five hours. And they were all premiums. Alright, that’s the only info we have. Continuing. I call out of the big blind. The board comes Q-6-2. I check to my opponent. The second it’s on him he overbets the pot, with a look like, “damn it, you’re not going to out draw me now.” He has 11 big blinds back. They are going in. 99% of the time here, I get it in. Maybe once a year I’ll fold in this spot. But playing this hand, it just hit me like a rock that this player had aces or kings, and he was tilted. He’d had big hands cracked before by BS holdings at this table and damn it he wasn’t going to take it anymore! There was no way I saw this guy opening K-Q from early position, given he’d played about 0.8 hands per hour up till this point.
The reason you call here preflop is because nits will tell you exactly what they have postflop. They might c-bet small on this board with AK or JJ when they miss, but they’ll check turn. They sure as hell will not overbet jam effectively 4X pot with those hands unless they’re seriously seriously tilted, which I wasn’t getting from this guy. He’d patiently waited for this spot for an hour. He hadn’t started cold calling and limping hands he wasn’t playing earlier, hoping for a lucky pot. He wasn’t verbally complaining. He wasn’t raising more preflop. I think he legitimately opened aces or kings, hoping for one of the overly aggressive “professionals” to three-bet him, and once he got heads-up he wanted to take the pot down right away.
I ended up folding here. I hardly ever do that, but that time a sinking feeling hit my gut, and I trust my gut more than I trust the peanut gallery’s opinion. “If you get it in here Alex, you’re going to really regret it,” is what that gut said to me. And I trusted it. In a way, this is the most obvious fold in the world. Everybody knew how to play this guy in 2004. You’d go to a cardroom, and there’d be old leather ass at the other end of the table. For hour after hour you’d only see him play aces, kings, or queens. When he got postflop, he’d bet big with his premiums so you couldn’t suck out on him God damn it. When he missed the board, he’d check and complain later about none of his hands holding up.
It’s an obvious fold versus old man coffee who honestly gave away his hand and could’ve suckered me for a lot more, but in his defense, this play works against a lot of people. Why? Because if you fold top pair to a single c-bet and you’re wrong you look like a moron, and no one wants to feel that way. If you get it in there, however, no one on Earth will blame you. But are you playing for everyone else on Earth? Or money? When a guy plays 5% of hands there preflop, what exactly are you beating? He’s not doing that with JJ. He didn’t open KQ. What exactly are you beating?
Facing A Nit
You’ll make a mediocre two pair on the turn and the nit will double barrel. There will be a flush draw on the board. You have not seen the tight player double barrel since the Bush administration. He opened from early position to start the hand, which makes his range even tighter. His first c-bet was into multiple players, making his range even tighter, since he’d never bluff there and he’d actually probably pot control a lot of solitary pairs.
So, you’re on that turn, and you know the tight player in front of you is not bluffing when they double barrel. You also know they pot controlled most pairs on the board, because it started multiway. So, their range on that turn is top pair with top kicker, combo draws, superior two pairs, and sets. You will see so many guys in this spot raise, and you wonder “why?!” You’re not getting value from top pair top kicker…that will just fold. The combo draw is like five combos, and if they call you, you’re not in great shape versus them. And versus the vast majority of his range (two pairs and sets) you’re dead in the water and maximizing your losses. It makes much more sense to call here, because most nits will check their solitary pairs on the river and missed combo draws and call with them because “you could be betting a missed flush draw” and they’ll fire through with the hands that beat you.
Yet, time and time again, you’ll see a guy just raise on that turn to maximize their losses versus the nit and get value against absolutely nothing. He’ll do it because if he calls with two small pair and the draw comes in he’ll never forgive himself. He knows that if he gets it in he can always say, “I had two pair, what could I do?” Again, the human emotion for wanting to belong and be recognized is not a bad emotion. That’s what makes us kind to our neighbors, our families, and our communities. But at the poker table you’re going to need to overrule that emotion with cold hard logic. “Is he doing this with a hand that I beat? Can I not come up with a single hand that he does that with that I beat? Okay, then fold.”
“Okay, if I raise here with my weak made hand, what am I getting value from? Absolutely nothing? Okay, that seems like a pretty bad raise then.”
Carry on like this and you’ll be blamed a lot more for your failures by people who don’t understand the game, but you will make much more money.