Beginner Mistakes: Giving Up Won Money For No Good Reason

Beginner Mistakes, No Limit Texas Holdem, Psychology

November 13, 2008

I’ve seen this happen a million times:

Beginner Bob has just absorbed the sage wisdom of Play Holdem Pretty Darn Good, NL Edition and sits down at a small stakes NL game to try out his newfound knowledge.  He knows his opponents will be playing far too loose at these stakes, and as such resolves to wait for big hands he wants to show down and then bet them for value.  Sure enough, 30 minutes into his session he flops a set, bets it, gets called down, and stacks someone.  Now Bob is sitting in front of a nice big doubled stack.  Then something funny happens an orbit later: Bob enters the pot by calling an under the gun raise with an AQ, hits an ace, gets check-raised on the flop, pays off the whole way to the river, and loses to AK.  Suddenly Bob is worse off in terms of money than he was before he hit the set.  Bummer.

I swear this happens FAR too often to be coincidence. Now, you might think it is simply poker karma, and that Bob got some of his own medicine and can’t expect to catch all the cards. There’s a bit of truth to that,  but there’s much more going on here.  While each hand is indeed an independent deal, not affected by the cards that appeared on previous hands, Bob’s two big hands are none the less deeply connected and one might even say that Bob’s loss was almost directly caused by Bob’s win.  To see why, we need to think a bit about player psychology and the big poker rho. You should probably review that article before continuing.

Let’s assume that at the start of play, Bob’s opponents were in essence adopting the “calling station” strategy and bob was adopting what I termed “strategy B” – tight play with an emphasis on betting for value. As the rho (or just common sense) shows, Bob has a huge advantage here.  His choice of strategy is ideally suited to his opponents.  When he manages to value bet a big hand and win a stack off someone, that’s just the eventual consequence of his superior choice of strategy.  Now, when that big value bet finally comes, everyone at the table is going to notice.  And for better or worse, they’re going to react.

Based on the strategy rho, the correct reaction to Bob’s tight play would be to bluff Bob a lot.  If he’s going to set farm, be sure to bet him off all those pots where he missed his set – that sort of thing.  In other words, the correct way for Bob’s opponents to react would be to adopt “strategy C” or controlled aggression.   But Bob’s opponents aren’t very good players – they’re the typical denizens of a low stakes NL game.  So instead of doing what’s right, they do what’s natural: mimic what worked before.  Since tight just worked for Bob, they at least temporarily tighten up.  Maybe they’re recalling long lost memories of some poker book they read that told them to play tight.  Who knows.  But it’s a fact that when a loose player gets stacked in a small stakes game, all the loose players tend to temporarily tighten up.

Meanwhile, Bob’s not immune to psychology either.  He’s enjoying the high that comes from playing well and being rewarded for it.  If this is his first big score at NL, he probably feels like Doyle and Johnny Chan rolled up into one low-stakes badass.  So what does he do?  He decides he can outplay his opponents on later streets, and starts playing more pots.

The results are inevitable – the fish are playing tighter, Badass Bob in in every other pot, and the roles are exactly reversed from where we started.  Eventually one of the former fish catches a hand, gets Bob to call him down, and Bob’s previous win is consigned to the dustbin of long-gone gambling fortunes.  The key thing to see here is how Bob’s previous win set up all the pieces perfectly for Bob to suffer a big loss down the road.

The moral of this story is simple: when you make a big score, pay particular attention to your own psychology and be very careful about any adjustments you make to your game.  It’s probably a good idea to bluff a little more after your big win  – your opponents are gun shy and likely to incorrectly credit you with a hand.  But opening up your game and playing more hands is typically a terrible thing to do after a big score because it plays directly into the adjustments your opponents just made.  These guidelines become less accurate in bigger games – your opponents there are capable of more intelligent reactions to tight play in those games.  But at the smaller stakes, keep it under control after you hit big.  That way you’ll get to keep your new money.

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