Beginner Mistakes – Backwards Poker

Beginner Mistakes, No Limit Texas Holdem

March 19, 2008

I’ve become convinced that the most common mistake beginning poker players, and in particular NL holdem players, make is playing what I call ‘backwards poker’.

Backwards poker is when a player refuses to put money in the pot when he knows he has the best of it, but is all too willing to put money in the pot when it’s very possible he may have the worst of it.

Now, it should be obvious that backwards poker is a really bad idea. The whole point of playing poker is to wager a lot of money when you have the best of it, and not to make wagers where you have the worst of it. So why would anyone choose to do just the opposite? Good question. I don’t know why players do it, but I see it every time I play. Consider the following NL holdem hand taken from low stakes online play:

I’m in the cutoff (one from the button chair) and I’m dealt 9h 8h. My stack is about 180BB deep, and most of my opponents have 100BB+ stacks. Action folds to a middle position player who limps. I raise to 5BB (4 + 1/limper). The button calls. He has a deeper stack than me. Both blinds fold, as does the limper.

The pot is 11.5BB and we see a flop: Th 6s 5d. I continuation bet 7.5BB on the semi-bluff (I have a gutshot draw). Villain calls.

The pot is 26.5BB and we see a turn: 7c [Th 6s 5d]. This makes me the nuts. I bet 25BB, villain raises to 75BB, I move in, villain calls. Villains shows Ah As and is drawing dead. I win 180BBs off him.

Now let’s look at villain’s play here. He had the opportunity to re-raise preflop when he had the nuts, and passed on it. He had the opportunity to raise on the flop, when it was probably 90% likely he had the best hand (unless I have a set or 65 he’s good) , and he passed on it. But on the turn, when most of the available draws hit, he’s suddenly willing to put his entire stack in the pot. He’s playing backwards poker of the worst kind!

There are two major problems with playing backwards poker.  The first is that you only get your money in in marginal or bad situations.  That’s horribly destructive to your bottom line.  The second problem is that playing backwards poker keeps a player ignorant longer about the strength of his opponent’s hand.  In the example above, villain had no clue what I held except that it was worth opening for a raise up until I re-raised on the turn – and at that point villain had already put almost 90BB into the pot.  With the stacks 180BB deep to start, he was committed at that point.  Had villain re-raised preflop, or raised on the flop, he would have won the hand.  Even if I had a different holding, and say hit a set on the flop, he would have found out he was beat far sooner by raising the flop – he would be about 30BB into his stack when I made the first move indicating real strength, rather than almost 90BB in like happened in the real hand.  The point is that backwards poker keeps you ignorant of the strength of your opponent’s hand far longer, and that causes you to make mistakes.

So next time you lose your stack at NL holdem, analyze the hand and see if you’re playing backwards poker.  If you are, you have no one to blame but yourself when you lose.

This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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