What am I doing wrong?

Let’s be real. Poker can be infuriating at times. So much so, that most of us who have played the game for a considerable amount of time likely have our fair share of moments where we were forced to question our own sanity.

The question below comes from a student of mine who is also a highly successful chess player. Their question arose near the beginning of their poker career when they tried to take the game seriously and make some money at it. You can hear the despair in my student’s question:

I can’t understand what I’m doing wrong. If I have a super strong hand they have a stronger one. If I wake up with QQ they wake up with AA. If I have a boat they have a better one. I know I’m at least playing equal with these guys but I just keep losing money. What am I doing wrong?

What I like about the question and the process of answering it, is that it feels as if I am responding to myself. This is perhaps because I had these same inner conversations myriads of times when things got tough, and I tried to make sense of it all. Honestly, I do not think it will ever make perfect sense but it does get closer over time.

A deep dive into what you’re doing wrong.

Poker is a highly complex game, both in terms of strategy but also in terms of the proper mindset required for success. Throw in randomness of cards dealt, hidden information and variability in your options and bet sizes, and it’s tough to objectively figure out what you’re doing wrong. In the face of this non-objective uncertainty, it is understandably difficult for most players – especially beginners – to answer this question.

Poker is unlike the game of chess, where the correct moves and the skill differential are tied to transparent logic (like understanding that a Grand Master can calculate longer and more accurate variations than the average club player). Poker is full of subtleties which are very difficult to spot by the naked eye.

A core example of this would be that fact that in poker it is often the case that the correct play is different than what we would have done had we known our opponent’s hand. This is why it is often wrong to fold KK (the second preflop nuts) even if our opponent happens to have AA. Think about how “crazy” this sounds. Imagine that you are a new player and you just learned that AA is the best starting hand, yet it is “correct” to run your KK against their AA and be happy with your decision! (Of course, the point here is to think in terms of ranges as opposed to specific hands, but that is even more confusing, which is exactly the issue. Poker is hard!)

QQ vs AA

As another example, take the QQ vs AA hand that my student mentioned: Say a tight Villain opens from UTG in a live low stakes game. Everyone folds except for Hero who now 3bets from the BB. Villain 4bets and Hero 5bet shoves, only to realize that Villain has AA. This is far from a cooler!

3betting with QQ versus the tight CO player. A good move versus CO’s range, but bad if Hero knew he held AA.

Nine times out of ten, the worst hand the typical TAG will have when open-raising then 4betting from UTG is AK or KK+ (as they would just call or fold to Hero’s 3bet with the rest of their range). So Hero’s 5bet shove is a mistake against 90% of these opponents. Same goes with overvaluing hands like TPTK versus check raises, especially on later streets.

Although, “wrong” is a relative word tied to what one is trying to achieve, it is useful to come up with a list of typical mistakes that are costing people money. As far as I can tell, they come in three broad categories: Strategy, Metastrategy and Mindset:

  • Strategy refers to anything within the rules of the game
  • Metastrategy is about the mechanics around the game
  • Mindset is related to the necessary human arsenal required to succeed

 

Strategy Mistakes

1) Most players overplay their hands.

It is not a secret that most players do not like to give up, especially when they have what can be described “objectively” as a decent hand. However, poker is about “relative”, not “absolute” strength. A hand as weak as A-high (or weaker) may win when there is no action on the board, while huge holdings like sets, straights or better may be second best in the presence of serious action.

As a result one of the most consistent ways to make money in this game is by “saving it for a better spot” especially when we have credible evidence to believe we are behind. This is also regardless of how much potential our hand seemed to have at the beginning. Money saved is money earned and it is very difficult to “save” when we get married to our hand. That includes monster holdings like the QQ above, when the situation dictates that it is likely no longer the best had.

A hand is only as good as the action indicates, not as good as we would like it to be.

Another subtle issue with overplaying is that it takes the skill out of the game. If we rarely fold a certain hand on later streets, we are simply not taking advantage of the full spectrum of all the available options the game has to offer (folding being one of them!) and thus we become more predictable and exploitable.

 

2) Players do not value-bet correctly with medium-strength hands.

This is the opposite of not folding enough. It is not betting enough. In direct symmetry to what we saw above, when the evidence suggests we are likely to have the upper hand, it is time to pounce and pounce hard! Instead, most players avoid betting when they are afraid of flushes, straights, sets or even better kickers.

Hero missed out on river value with his 8-high winning kicker

As a result, they leave money on the table. Facing an actual monster hand in poker is like finding a needle in a haystack. It can happen but it is reasonably rare. Thus, by trying to save this one unfortunate pot where they are behind, the Hero misses the profits of tons of others in which they would have been ahead.

There is a poker adage that encapsulates this principle very elegantly: “If you don’t value-bet with the 2nd best hand sometimes, you likely don’t value-bet enough” (value betting the 2nd best hand means sometimes they call with better and you lose. Similarly – and this is tied to mistake #1 from above  – “If you don’t fold the best hand sometimes, you likely don’t fold enough

How does one deal with the mistakes of overplaying their hands and not value-betting correctly? One needs to be aggressive until they face aggression, in which case they should seriously consider getting out of the way. This is essentially the “go big or go home” mentality. To tie this idea to our previous example, we can 3bet with our QQ vs the UTG open if we think that UTG will defend with worse by calling (as many opponents will) although we should be ready to jump ship if the opponent happens to click it back and 4bet us. Basically, we should not worry until our opponent gives us enough (credible) evidence to do so.

 

3) People get involved too much out of position (OOP).

Playing in position is one of the most important money generators in poker. At the same time it is surprisingly tricky to make a strong case for it to anyone who has no experience at the tables. Symmetrically, it is equally detrimental to be involved OOP especially without the initiative or very strong cards.

No wonder he’s losing, he’s VPIPing more in the worst position (SB) than in the best position (BTN) and he’s playing way too many hands in all the other positions.

Most players do not see the harm in being involved when they are not last to act. However, as surprising or controversial as it may sound to some, it is often advisable to let go of playable hands OOP, even when one gets great odds. This includes speculative hands like A2o that are worse than most people think. This is not because the odds are not right (sometimes they are) but it is because it is very hard (even for good players) to play as accurately as necessary to realize those odds. Case in point, in a starting hand database published in tightpoker.com the hand A2o performed equally bad with the likes of 94s, 83s and 72s. This is not because it is as bad as the other hands, but rather because most players overestimate it and thus overplay it.

Playing OOP is tough!

The reason why position is so important relates to the fact that poker is a game about information. All else being equal, those who have the most information tend to perform better compared to those who do not. As a result those who act last gain information about everyone else before they must act. This is a major advantage. Conversely, it is a major disadvantage to act before anyone else.

 

Metastrategy Mistakes

4) People underestimate rake.

This list would not be complete without at least mentioning the factor that has enough power to potentially turn everyone into a losing player. By that I mean that if the rake is high enough it is possible that the only one who makes money in that game is the house. Incidentally, it is very important to remember that poker is not a zero-sum game. Instead, it is a negative-sum game which means that it is theoretically possible for everybody to leave the table with less money than they started with. This is often the case in very low stakes and low cap cash games with a fixed drop. Even if one is crushing those games, they may not be able to catch up to the rake. It is hard to profit when every hour, the rake alone eliminates 1-2 players.

 

Mindset Mistakes

5) People play too much when they are tired or tilted.

Phil Ivey himself has said that he doesn’t play well when he’s losing, so how do the rest of us expect to fare better? The same should be true for any form of human condition that prevents us from performing at our best, such us fatigue, hunger, sleep deprivation, intoxication and so on.

This is a rather controversial topic for some, as there are voices of opposition who argue that since poker is not a physical activity one is not required to be in top shape. Although I hear the argument loud and clear and there is some merit to it, I would counter by saying that the brain is also a physical part of our body and as a result it needs the proper nutrition, rest and exercise to perform at its best.

On a related note, it is known that professional chess players burn an average of 6,000 calories in a span of a long chess session. Poker may or may not be equally taxing on the brain, however we do have evidence that our bodies are under a tremendous amount of stress during tenuous brain activity. Poker unquestionably qualifies. This is something that anyone who has played the Main Event and its brutal 12-hour sessions can attest to.

 

6) People are too emotional.

As much as emotions are incredibly important in arts and other aspects of life, they can be a huge disadvantage at the poker table. Especially in cash games, where the losses can be uncapped! Variance is so unforgiving and inhumane, that makes it so poker players cannot afford to react emotionally to the inevitable swings of the game (whether positive or negative).

This is of course easier said than done and why so many serious players spend a considerable amount of their time working on the mental aspect of their game. It is a necessary skill for long-term viability and for maintaining one’s sanity. One little “heuristic” that I personally find helpful is to consciously limit my excitement when I win, so that I do not get too disappointed when I lose. This is essentially an attempt to inhibit the emotional response on either side. Granted, this “apathetic” behavior may not be for everyone, but for some it is exactly what helps us survive the brutality that is variance. When I look at some of the top players in the world (Ivey, Antonius, Dwan, Galfond, Polk) I see that this is exactly what they all have in common: an almost zen-like control of emotions, at least on the felt.

As an honorable mention, I should point out that sometimes it seems as if the luck of the draw is “rewarding” one’s bad plays while “penalizing” their good ones, simply by going the wrong/unexpected way. This is exactly why it is so difficult to assess one’s performance and why other non-results oriented metrics are necessary.

Conclusion

So to answer my student’s question: I do not think you are doing anything wrong beyond perhaps possibly underestimating how complex and deep this game is. I know I did when I first started out. This is obviously nothing to be guilty about. However, like Aesop would argue, the first step towards progress is to embrace the fact that the grapes are not sour and that the jump required to get them may be a tad harder than we had initially anticipated. This can get us in the proper mindset for the necessary work required to get in shape for the goal we are trying to achieve.

 

Duncan Palamourdas
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