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Avoid These 3 Mistakes to Keep Your Poker Journey on Track

If you want to be a successful poker player in 2019, you need to prioritize your fundamentals.

(That’s what I explained in part 1 of this article series. If you missed it, you may want to check it out before reading on — click here to read part 1 now.) 

In this article, we will continue going over fundamental concepts that satisfy the following properties:

  • Bedrock: Elementary, not dissectible further. Foundation of more complex concepts.
  • Ample: It shows up in practice at all levels and in high frequency.
  • Simple: It is rather easy to describe (although potentially hard to perfect).
  • Efficient: When used properly, it will lead to profitability.

This time, however, we’re going to focus on 3 fundamental mistakes made by many poker players as well as some concrete examples to illustrate the points.

Don’t forget to drop any questions in the comment section at the bottom of the page! Practicing your craft is a big fundamental concept in itself, and being engaged in a thoughtful conversation with other poker minds certainly falls under that category.

1. Don’t be a Hero

It is probably safe to assume that everyone who has spent thousands of hours playing the game has, on occasion, fallen victim to what is known as the “hero’s complex.” I know I have!

Simply put, this is the often ego-driven desire to pull off brilliant moves against our opponents. I am referring to uncharacteristic plays such as folding monsters (hero folds) or calling with J-high (hero calls). In reality, these are attempts to put a villain on a specific hand (or segment of hands) in his range, effectively over-narrowing it.

For instance, if Alice hero calls against Bob’s bet, she basically believes Bob is at the very bottom of his range. Similarly, when she hero folds against Bob’s bet, she puts him at the very top.

Needless to say, the vast majority of the time, the one who has the last laugh in such circumstances is our opponent. Putting someone on a precise location within their range is a fool’s errand. That’s because if they did something to indicate that they have a specific segment of hands (rather than their whole range), we should have calculated that already when formulating their range.

We are of course allowed to “discount” or “boost” certain holdings to account for such actions, but the moment we conclude a range, we should stick to it and treat the entire distribution equally (accounting for weights). The point is, after all pattern analysis is done, attempting to further pinpoint the exactness of villain’s hand falls outside the scientific method. Thus, unless one has developed a sixth sense on top of the accessible patterns, they are otherwise prone to guesswork and grave errors.

Do not get me wrong, there are some players with great instincts that go beyond betting patterns and tendencies. Unfortunately, for every one player who does have those instincts, there are probably dozens of others who think they do. This is, of course, understandable since chance is so complex and unpredictable that it is often easy to conflate good fortune with a good read.

As humans, we are not generally wired to deal with uncertainty. As a result, our untrained instincts are initially very unreliable. A much better alternative would be to first learn the appropriate pattern-based methods independently of our intuition. That way we can train our instincts accordingly and base them on solid foundations. Then and only then, are we in a position to trust them!

To be fair, staying away from the “hero’s complex” mentality can be tricky, especially since one must protect oneself against two undesirable polar opposites: “Stationism” and “Nittiness” (“overcalling” and “overfolding“). Besides, how can one avoid giving up too much equity when one also needs to avoid giving away too much action? Again, the answer lies on proper non-results oriented range analysis.

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For example, when Alice plays her A-game, she always tries to incorporate into her strategy every piece of information she has and then to make decisions based on that. Whether she does it correctly or not is beside the point, however (or at least it is secondary). What really matters is that she sets up the puzzle in a way that has a unique answer. This often requires that she fill in the blanks with arbitrary assumptions. If she’s wrong, great! She can improve upon her incorrect assumptions! However, if she is ambiguous or tries to be a hero, she learns nothing.

To use a very simple example, consider a pre-flop decision where Alice (holding QQ) faces an all-in from Bob. It is pointless for Alice to say that “Bob’s range is usually {99+, AQ+} but I have a feeling he has {KK+} here!” His range is either {KK+} or it isn’t, and she should choose decisively which one she thinks it is. That way, if she puts him on {KK+}, folds, and Bob turns over AK, she learns a valuable lesson.

Similarly, it is of no value to Alice, to say, “I have no idea what Bob has, therefore I call/fold,” because, again, there is no lesson to be learned about her deductive reasoning as there is no incorrect decision to improve upon. The point is:

A bad assumption is better than no assumption at all.

2. Don’t Mismanage Your Bankroll 

As an honorable mention, I would also like to take a moment to list the number one thing that makes or breaks poker players: Bankroll Management (BM).

Although less a poker strategy and more a “meta”-strategy, BM is the only thing that can ruin an otherwise perfectly winning strategy and put a profitable poker player out of business. The sad truth is that, although proper BM does not guarantee profitability, poor BM almost certainly guarantees the opposite (this is one of those “necessary” but not “sufficient” conditions for success). This is because – as the Kelly Criterion suggests – no amount of positive edge versus the rest of the field is enough to protect against the inevitable ruin that comes with reckless risks.

Once again, this is not to say that proper BM alone can guarantee profitability. A long list of other parameters need to fall into place before success ensues. That being said, it is worth repeating that proper BM is absolutely necessary to protect us from ruin.

3. Don’t be Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

Last but certainly not least, Poker Fundamentals are essential for another subtle reason. Not only do these basic principles lie at the core of most winning strategies, but at the same time they represent the most typical scenarios. This brings us back to our hanging fruit analogy from part 1:

high, mid, and low hanging poker fruit

Low-hanging fruit are the rule, not the exception. This means that if we neglect them in favor of higher hanging fruit, we run the risk of potentially “winning the battle but losing the war.

Think of the drummer of your favorite band. Say they have been working on this crazy difficult drum-solo at the end of the song. All that while neglecting the “boring” early parts. As a result, during the concert, the beginning of the song feels off because the rhythm section is not doing its job. Guess what happens when it is finally time for the crazy solo at the end? Nobody cares because the song is ruined.

The same is true in poker. Say Bob has been obsessing with advanced poker concepts. Then the next hand comes up in his local $5/$10 NL full ring cash game with $1200 effective stacks:

UTG+2 raises to $40 which is called by the CO, BTN, and SB. Bob decides to call too from the BB with 8♠ 5♠ and we get to the flop:

FLOP ($200): 7♠ 6♠ 2

SB checks, and Bob, who’s been working on a balanced donk-betting strategy, decides to lead out $130 on this flop, as he also leads out with some sets and two pair hands. Only Charlie in the CO calls. (Initial raiser folds.)

TURN ($460): 7♠ 6♠ 2 A♠

Bob sees the good news, but then quickly realizes that the A likely did not help Charlie’s range as he cannot have many Aces that call on that flop (other than perhaps A7). The fact that the A is also a ♠ is relevant as it removes a ton of flush combos from CO’s range. This blocking effect shifts the speculative part of Charlie’s range towards straight draws. On top of that, Charlie did not raise on the flop so he must be capped. All in all, Bob thinks he crushes his opponent’s range which is full of lesser pairs and weak draws and very rarely a monster.

With that in mind, Bob bets only $150, partly to induce and partly for range manipulation. Charlie calls.

RIVER ($760): 7♠ 6♠ 2 A♠ J♣

The river is pretty much irrelevant, other than the fact that all the straight draws missed (Charlie may occasionally show up with JJ, but that’s about it). Also, Bob blocks some of the straight draws. Besides, Charlie seems to have more weak pairs (like 88-TT or 7x) than busted draws. Bob thinks that such a range is much more likely to either call a small bet or to turn a pair into a bluff-shove representing the flush.

For these reasons he decides to bet tiny: $200, to induce. Sure enough, Charlie shoves all-in for $880 and now Bob happily calls as he thinks he is near the top of his own range. Charlie shows K♠ T♠ and scoops the pot. “Oh well,” Bob thinks. “Bad luck!” Besides, he did bump into the top of Charlie’s range. That is all true, and Bob’s post-flop analysis – although nowhere near perfect – was on the thoughtful end.

That being said, if Bob wants to be involved OOP with hands such as 8♠ 5♠, he should be ready to play near perfectly post-flop and also even consider folding some of his flushes when the situation dictates it. The problem is that hands like these are marginally profitable even for strong players, meaning that they can easily turn unprofitable even when the slightest error occurs.

Bob is walking on a tightrope here, but he doesn’t have to be. He should rethink his study habits and disregard complex concepts are relatively inconsequential – at least for now. After he nails down his fundamentals, he can always move on to working on thinner spots like defending with a mediocre hand OOP against a 4x raise.

In closing, a quick comment on luck.

Luck (both good and bad) does exist in poker but it should only refer to situations beyond our control, like getting it in with KK vs AA pre-flop. Setting ourselves up, by voluntarily getting involved OOP with a low-tier hand that carries enormous reverse implied odds and that we may not necessary be ready to defend properly, is not “bad luck.” It is asking for trouble!

Besides, let’s not forget that unless one is competing at the highest level (where every little edge counts), the money in poker is usually not in marginal situations. Or as Michael Jordan would likely put it:

You can practice playing marginal spots all day and you will get better at playing the game wrong…

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About the Author

Konstantinos "Duncan" Palamourdas

Duncan is a math professor from UCLA who specializes in the mathematics of poker, as well as in poker education. He currently teaches poker classes at UCLA extension that always fill up early and have long waitlists. In his book Why Alex Beats Bobbie At Poker, he uses simple language to scientifically explain how and why money flows from poker amateurs to professionals. Preorder the book here!

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