Today we’re going to discuss some of the most common mistakes cash game players make, both novice and experienced alike, and what you can do to avoid them.
The 4 mistakes in this article are mostly general in focus, which means they’ll improve your playstyle overall rather than just in specific situations.
This article is primarily for cash game players. But it will still be useful if you’re a tournament player—in fact, the first uses a tournament hand as an example.
Let’s get started!
1: Playing scared
Playing scared is far and away the most common leak among aspiring pros. It’s a leak that the most successful poker players—even Doug Polk—had to plug at one point or another in order to reach their potential. For this reason, this section will go into a bit more detail than the rest of the article.
Sometimes our decisions will make us money; other times they will result in us getting stacked. As poker players we need to accept both outcomes, because the alternative–playing scared–means reducing the edge we have over our opponents, and, ironically, expanding the element of chance in the game.
To put things more simply, poker is a game won in the margins. It’s a game of pushing small edges over long periods of time. That means in order win the most in the long run, we need to be okay with frequent losses in the short run.
Let’s look at an example. This hand was played at the WPT Rolling Thunder final table a few weeks ago between Ian Steinman and 2015 WSOP Main Event winner Joe McKeehen. There are 5 players left at this stage of the tournament, and the payouts are as follows:
- 1st – $295,128
- 2nd – $201,428
- 3rd – $131,081
- 4th – $97,510
- 5th – $69,650
This is obviously a tournament hand, but the lesson applies to cash game players just as much as tournament players.
Ian, sitting with 94BB in the small blind, looks down at K♦ K♠ and opens to 2.5BB. Joe, sitting with 54BB in the big blind, defends with Q♣ T♦.
The flop is A♥ 7♠ 5♥
Ian decides to c-bet for 2.5BB. Generally, this is a mistake. It’s better to c-bet A-high boards with lower pocket pairs like 88 or 99, as we can deny equity to non-paired holdings like KQ or QJ.
Joe, not to be outdone, makes an even bigger mistake and calls.
The turn is dealt: (A♥ 7♠ 5♥) J♣
The pot is now 11BB and Ian checks. Joe, despite his very poor flop call, now has a great spot to bluff as he’s turned a gutshot straight draw. He bets 6BB and Ian calls.
The river is dealt: (A♥ 7♠ 5♥ J♣) K♣
Ian, now with second set, makes a questionable lead for 13BB. Joe, now with the nuts, shoves for 49BB. Ian tanks, using several of his time chips, and folds.
“This is what we would teach our younger selves, if we could send info back in time.”
The Upswing Lab is a comprehensive No-Limit Holdem training course that is updated each month. It currently consists of 259 preflop charts (for cash games, live poker, and tournaments), 53 extensive sections (each covering a different poker topic), and 122 Play & Explain videos.
Ian’s fold, despite being correct in this instance, is a huge mistake.
To understand why, we need to think about Ian’s range. Assuming that he would have played AA and QT differently before the river, KK now represents the top of his range. That means that if he folds it, he will be folding his entire range. This is something we should always avoid, as it means our opponent’s bluffs will become hugely profitable.
“But wait,” you might say, “what if our opponent is never bluffing?”
This is a risky assumption, and one that amateur poker players love to make (especially in Doug’s YouTube comments). It recommends opening yourself up to exploitation based on something that you can’t possibly be certain of.
Assumptions are often wrong—particularly in poker. Take, for example, Joe’s flop call. Most players would assume that, as a respected and successful professional, he would not call a c-bet with Q♣ T♦ on a flop of A♥ 7♠ 5♥. But, alas, he did.
Now, to return to the original point. When facing tough decisions in large pots, it’s a disaster to make strategically unsound decisions just because we are afraid of losing money. It’s a mistake that keeps amateur poker players from getting better and moving up in stakes.
If, instead, we try to play the best poker we can, and avoid making decisions that allow us to be exploited, we will show profit in the long run.
2. Forgetting that not everyone always has a 100 big blind stack
Stack depth, and how it dictates our preflop re-raising strategy, is something that cash game players tend to be less aware of than tournament players. This is probably because stack sizes in cash games are usually more uniform than in tournaments.
When playing short, we should avoid using 3-bet or 4-bet sizes that don’t leave room for folding afterwards. This is because we want to have bluffs in our range, and we don’t want to be committed to the pot with said bluffs. Likewise, when playing very deep, we should do the same when 5-betting.
We should also use larger 3-bet sizes when playing deep. We don’t want to give our opponents good pot odds that allow them to call with speculative hands, such as low pocket pairs.
Stack depth also plays an important part in determining what hands we should get all-in for value. When we are playing deeper than 200BB, we should be 4-betting and 5-betting a narrower range than we would with 100BB. This is because we want to avoid facing a 5- or 6-bet shove with hands that are awkward to call with at such a depth.
For example, if we were to 3-bet AKo or JJ on the button versus a cutoff open and were then faced with a 4-bet, it would generally be better to just call rather than 5-bet, which we would almost certainly do when playing with 100BB.
Furthermore, our 3-bet bluffs when deep should lean toward hands that can make the nuts, such as low suited aces. With those hands we increase our chances of stacking our opponent in a nuts versus almost-nuts situation, and decrease our chances of getting stacked when we have the second nuts (or a similarly strong hand).
3. Not bluffing enough
Every time you value bet you should think about what hands you would bluff with in the same spot. If you can’t think of any bluffs, then your opponent can exploit you by folding to your bets much more often.
To figure out how often you should be bluffing you need to think about what bet size you’ll be using on the river and work back from there. To calculate the optimal river bluffing frequency, use the following formula:
Bluffing frequency = Bet size / (1 + Bet size * 2)
Editor’s note: By bet size, we mean bet size as a percentage of the pot. You also may have noticed this is the same formula the defending player would use to calculate their pot odds. If you’re wondering why that is, check out this article on minimum defense frequencies.
So, if we were to bet 75% of the pot on the river, we would need to be bluffing 30% of the time, because 0.75 / (1 + 0.75 * 2) = 0.3. Note that this calculation only applies to the river. We can include a higher proportion of bluffs in our range on previous streets for a couple reasons:
- Our bluffs will have at least some equity on early streets.
- Our opponent will potentially have to call another bet (or bets) on later streets.
This is why we can bluff when betting the flop much more often than when betting on the river.
Once you have an idea of how often you should be bluffing, you can start selecting hands to bluff with. The details of selecting bluffs is a topic for another day, but there are two especially important things you need to factor in when selecting these hands:
- Your hand’s equity
- Your hand’s removal effects (a.k.a. blockers)
Your hand’s equity is a much more important factor on the flop and turn, so it’s a good idea to start there when choosing hands to bluff with. However, once you’re on the river your bluffs will have zero equity, so you should pick them purely based on their blockers.
If you want to read more about selecting bluffs, these articles are what you’re looking for:
- How to Bluff with Flush Draws Like a 3-Time Bracelet Winner
- Semi-Bluff Your Straight Draws Like a High Stakes Pro
- Using Hand Combinations When Bluffing, Value Betting, and Hero Calling
4. Giving up on improvement
There isn’t a single poker player who knows everything there is to know about poker. It’s a game that hasn’t been solved, and probably won’t be for a while. So, until then, there will always be more to learn.
Lots of poker players fall into the trap of reaching a certain win-rate (or a certain stake) and settling there. Even more players fail to consistently win before they throw their arms up and declare that they “run bad,” and that nothing can be done.
We should always be striving to learn more. By improving our game, we essentially uncap our winnings, because we’ll continue to move up in stakes as we get better. This is how so many famous poker players have managed to make millions from meager beginnings.
Now, that’s not to say you need to spend hours in the lab every day. You should be playing as much or more poker than studying it (Doug recommends a 2-to-1 play-to-study ratio), as playing is the best way to reinforce what you’ve learned. But you should reflect on every session, and think about how you might approach certain situations differently next time.
These tips are broad, but they are great starting points if you want to take fast action to improve.
If there’s one that you should always keep in mind, though, it’s the first: not playing scared. Overcoming fear is one of the most important ways to improve your game, yet it requires very little in-depth studying. It’s the key that unlocks your ability to make the right decision at just the right time—something novices reliably fail to do.
That’s all for today, folks! Feel free to make suggestions for future articles in the comments below, and good luck!
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