In a recent attempt to get some professional insight on the subject of limit hold’em, I reached out to Roy Cooke. Roy Cooke is a professional poker player from Las Vegas who makes his living at the limit hold’em tables at Bellagio. He also has a monthly strategy article published in Card Player magazine. I asked him some questions, and he unfortunately only had time to answer two. But here is our correspondence.
Question: In Minnesota, there aren’t any no-limit hold’em cash games. As such, I find a number of players begrudgingly playing limit hold’em. If they lose, it is almost inevitable that they will blame their loss on the medium of limit hold’em, as if to suggest that because they can’t properly protect their hand, that the game is mostly “luck.” My question to you is two-fold: Do you think that casual players view limit hold’em as the “lesser” poker game when compared to no-limit hold’em? And if so, how would you respond to this insinuation?
Answer: I think it’s more than casual players that think that! Obviously limit requires a lower level of “heart” and “courage” than playing big bet poker. To those who are seeking “machismo certification” limit is a wimpy game. That said, both games require a high level of knowledge and skill. While it is true that in no-limit you can protect a hand easier, that doesn’t make limit a matter of luck. The equations may change, but the concepts are the same. And some equations are much harder to calculate in limit than no-limit. Anyone who thinks limit is all luck can find me in the $40-80 limit hold’em at the Bellagio. We can see who gets lucky.
Question: What skills must a successful limit hold’em player possess that would differentiate him from, say, a successful no-limit hold’em player?
Answer: I think the skill sets and fundamental concepts are very similar, though the application and importance of skills varies between the games. For instance: tells have value in both, but more value in no-limit. Hand protection strategies have more value in limit than no limit, but are still very applicable in no-limit. Courage has value in both games, but is more important in no-limit.
If you possess a high level of conceptual knowledge and the competitive skills to beat one game type well, you should be able to transfer those skills over to the other. You just need to learn the new game strategies and acquire the “feel’ of how the additional game plays.
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First of all, I’d like to say that I acknowledge my recent lack of blog-producing productivity. My apologies. Getting married, buying a home and beginning a new job has occupied large chunks of my time. This has left me with little time for poker and even less time for writing. I’d like, however, to reverse this lack of prolificacy and I hope to post more often as the following months commence.
Today I’d like to unveil my list of the top five hands most often misplayed at the limit hold’em table. When you’ve played enough hands of limit hold’em with enough bad players you begin to observe trends. And that’s what this list is: a simplified grouping of good hands that bad players most often tend to screw up. Think of these hands as a high-performance race car; it’s a beautiful thing driven by experts, safely and elegantly navigating turns to complete the race with dignity and a championship. When operated by fucking idiots, however, the car ceases to be a beautiful machine and is simply the vehicle the fucking idiot uses to crash himself into the wall.
5) Ace – Ace
Pocket Aces, in fairness to bad players, is a difficult hand to play at the limit hold’em table. It’s nearly impossible to protect at a wild game. Also, it’s only one pair. It’s hard to improve and very infrequently will one pair win a large multi-way pot. Furthermore, it can be difficult to know exactly when one pair is beaten; however, there are a number of times at the limit hold’em table when it’s very obvious that one pair is beaten and yet the corresponding fold isn’t made. Stubbornness defines the misplay of Pocket Aces. It’s hard to let them go and as such, few people do.
4) “It was soooooooted!”
I know that the “suited” misplay is more 2007 than 2013, and it certainly afflicts lower limit hold’em players more than middle to higher limit players. That said, the malady is far from extinct. Here’s something that I don’t think a lot of poor poker players know: the suit of your cards is significant for but one poker hand: the flush. In every other scenario the suit of your cards is entirely meaningless. And playing that K-2 of clubs simply costs you money on the K-7-4 flop when you call down against K-Q.
3) King – King
This hand is ranked higher on the list than Ace-Ace because it’s easier to know when this hand is beaten if for no other reason than the existence of the Ace itself. In other words, if there is an Ace on the flop with crazy action, the likeliest scenario is that your Pocket Kings are drawing to a two-outer. With Pocket Aces, the fragility of your hand is less and when beaten, it’s more difficult to detect. Still, both pocket pairs are often clung to with a recalcitrant grip. Also, bad players love to call down to the river knowing they’re beat simply to prove to everybody how unlucky they were. People love to play the victim.
2) Jack – Ten
This hand is distinct from other hands on this list because its principle misplay is done pre-flop. I once wrote an article entitled, “Somebody Always has Jack-Ten.” I stand by that credo. Getting a bad player to fold Jack-Ten pre-flop is nearly impossible. “What’s that dealer? My turn? It’s thirty-six bets to me? Yeah, go ahead and take whatever you need out of my stack.” If there’s ever an 8-9-Q board, go ahead and fold your Q-Q because you’re almost certainly behind. The pre-flop overvalue of Jack-Ten at the limit hold’em table is astonishing. Bad poker players develop hall-of-fame-quality stick’em on their hands with these cards. You thought Charlton Heston was talking about his gun when he said you’ll need to pry it from his cold, dead hands? Incorrect. He was talking about Jack-Ten.
1) Ace – King
Ace-King is like owning the first pick in the NFL draft. It’s a great asset to have due to its high potential for success. But that’s all it is: potential. If you’ve drafted Jamarcus Russell you don’t resign him to a $100 million contract simply because you used your first overall pick on him. You’ve realized he’s garbage and you cut him. Likewise, when you have Ace-King and the flop comes 10-9-8, it’s unwise to continue pumping money into wasted potential merely because you started with the best possible opportunity for success. You fold. Here is where good poker players differentiate themselves from bad poker players. Good poker players realize that a first-rate preflop hand can change drastically after seeing the flop. Admitting failure and moving on is preferable to poorly-played and expensive wasted potential. Jamarcus Russell doesn’t get into the hall of fame simply because he was considered the best player of that draft; likewise, Ace-King doesn’t warrant all your money simply because it had top-end potential at the beginning of the hand. Like they say, “That’s why they play the game.”
Bottom line: Don’t be Jamarcus Russell.
I sat down at my computer today with the intention of writing a new piece. I had a specific topic in mind about which I wanted to discuss and as I mentally reviewed what I wanted to say, I realized that the transformation from my brain to a structured piece of writing was proving difficult. I then asked myself for the first time, “Why do I blog?” I certainly don’t aspire to teach anybody anything. I’m neither qualified nor interested in improving your game. Perhaps I wish to entertain. It’s nice if people enjoy what I’m writing, clearly. But after contemplation and a few moments of self-reflective honesty I realized that my ability to entertain is a secondary byproduct of my one completely selfish goal: I need to vent. It’s that simple. I need a forum to release my poker-related irritation, and, for better or worse, you’re my audience. So thank you.
***Disclaimer complete; commence with insignificant and self-indulgent blather***
There is a dictum that bad poker players love to use, and because it makes me cringe each and every time I hear it, I thought I’d share it with you and explore its “logic.” The phrase is this:
“Why raise? Everybody is just going to call anyway.”
If I had to set the line in Vegas on the frequency at which this phrase will be uttered, I’d open at once every six and a half minutes. The recurrent nature of this thought requires further analysis. Why do so many people believe this or at least profess to believe this?
First of all, I think that the very nature of limit hold’em requires players to play mental games so as to absolve themselves of any personally responsibility for a loss. Limit hold’em does indeed have more multi-way contested pots than the average no-limit hold’em game. Anybody calling one bet is likely to also call a second bet, particularly pre-flop. This simple equation allows bad players to justify bad plays. The phrase is always used when discussing whether or not somebody should raise with their huge pre-flop hand against a number of opponents. They’ve seen Pocket Aces go down in flames so many times that they almost start to believe they’re playing the lottery and that their play cannot manipulate the outcome of a hand. That guy with 8-7 wasn’t going to fold anyway, so goes the dictum, so why bother raising?
The primary concern I have with this rationality is that it minimizes the value of raising to a single attribute: We raise only to get people to fold. Clearly that’s horse-shit. If this were the only reason to raise, why would anybody ever raise pre-flop after a player has already limped? The limped-in player will always call an extra-bet so your raise has failed to achieve its one and only goal: to get your opponents to fold. If you have Pocket Kings on the button and one middle position player open-limped, you’d disappointedly limp-in behind him because “he’s never going to fold anyway”? Of course not. I realize that the dictum is specifically aimed at multi-way pots, but the basic principle is the same.
There are many reasons to raise. If you have Pocket Aces on the button and four people limp in front of you, what do you do? Of course you raise. Employing the “Why raise, Everybody is just going to call anyway” strategy is defeatist, stupid, and bad poker. If you play like this, you’re bracing for a loss rather than maximizing a win. Like I said, this attitude arrises from people seeing huge hands get run-down time and time again. This attitude fails to recognize all the times when Pocket Aces holds up as the best hand (which is, of course, the likeliest outcome) and wins a substantially larger pot because of the pre-flop raise. Remember, one pre-flop raise immediately doubles the size of the pot. That is one of the most important reasons to raise overlooked by this silly strategy: We raise because we have the best chance of winning the pot. It doesn’t matter if you’re a dog against the entire field. Every individual hand is a dog against the entire field. Your cards have the best possible odds of winning, and that alone should be enough to swell the size of the pot. Of course you can slow-down at subsequent streets as new information presents itself; but right now, you have the nuts. You may not have gotten the 8-7 to fold pre-flop, but you did make him pay extra for his weak limp.
Another reason to raise, as all good players know, is to take aggressive control of the action. How often does the “check-to-the-raiser” strategy get used at the limit hold’em table? Constantly. You raise pre-flop not only because you have the best hand but because you can manipulate action as the hand continues. If you have two black aces and the flop comes J-10-9 of hearts, you may just be able to peel a free card when all five limpers check to you on the flop.
You may also choose to raise as a misdirection play. I will often raise with the 10-9 suited on the button after a few limpers. It better disguises your truly big hands. It also gives you an opportunity to check the Q-8-2 flop when everybody weakly checks to you, giving you a free opportunity to hit your gutshot.
How did something so clearly wrong become so widely-accepted? It’s easier, I suppose, for bad players to follow the wisdom of some poorly-conceived proverb as opposed to using their own brain.
I realize that this may sound like an attempt to teach and for that I apologize. I assure you the details of this post are merely an explanation of exactly why I get so irritated with ridiculous logic. I hope nobody improves. Also, I realize it’s a testament to my own strangeness that, rather than being happy that so many of my opponents are stupid, I’m mad that I have to actually hear so many of my opponents being stupid.
My emotions at the poker table fluctuate more by the caliber of surrounding human beings than by the draw of the cards. I’m not necessarily proud of this personal characteristic, but it’s a truth nonetheless. I don’t mind losing my money if I respect the person who’s taking it. On the other hand, when the clueless donkey scoops what should have been my pot, it really gets under my skin, particularly when he violently defends his own clueless play.
Take, for instance, this depressingly real hand I played a few days ago. I was under-the-gun with Pocket Kings. I raised. The guy immediately to my left three-bet it. (As it turned out, he had Pocket Queens). Action folded around to the big-blind, a confused and terrible player with only about nine small bets remaining in his stack. He called. I four-bet it, and both players called. The flop was 10-8-2, rainbow. The big-blind checked and I bet. Pocket Queens called as did the big-blind. The turn was an off-suit 6, and the same action ensued (leaving the big blind with eleven chips). The river was another 6. The big-blind checked, I bet, Pocket Queens called, and now the big-blind check-raised for three more chips to get himself all-in. We both called. He turned over Q-6 off-suit.
I simply said, “Wow. Nice flop.”
He had two immediately defensive responses to my annoyance, equal in their stupidity. One, “I was trying to get all-in”, and two, “What about that time you had K-2 and won?”
As to the first one, my retort would be, “You’re an idiot.” Your all-in strategy is to check-call with a drawless Queen-high? If you’re trying to get all-in, at least be the aggressor and try to get me to fold! You’re not going to win a showdown with Queen-high, chief.
As to the second one, my retort would be, “You’re an idiot.” Do you ever notice how dumbass players can’t differentiate bad hands from bad play? It’s somewhat remarkable stupidity, actually. The hand he was referring to found me limping with K-2 of diamonds on the button after numerous callers, only to flop a pair of twos and turn trip twos for the pot. He found this roughly equal to calling three-bets with Q-6 and then calling the flop of 10-8-2. Why are these hands equal in his mind? Because they’re both poor pre-flop hands. That’s as far as his dumbass brain will let him think. He seems to overlook the fact that he can choose how to play his cards as the hand progresses.
I digress. My point is this: I could’ve stomached the loss much easier if, instead of justifying his legendarily awful play with defensive gibberish, he would’ve said “Wow, that was really gross. I got super lucky there.” I realize the psychological defect is on my end; he doesn’t owe this to me as a courtesy. And he certainly doesn’t owe me anything if he simply hits a flush draw or one of his overcards. I reserve my expectation for Admission-of-Gross for really nasty hands, like the one I experienced a few days ago. Hands that bad, between civilized human beings, call for some sort of declaration or intellectual recognition of what’s been done. Of course, people with the social grace to recognize their grossness rarely perpetrate the grossness in the first place. It’s a Catch-22.
I like Phil Hellmuth. I can say that with sincerity, as my relationship with him is one-sided; that is to say, I have no relationship with him whatsoever aside from watching his charades on television. From the perspective of a viewer seeking entertainment, Phil Hellmuth is delightful. Watching him at the poker table is not unlike watching any other reality TV star complain about the minutia of their otherwise frictionless lives. I enjoy him like I enjoy Honey Boo Boo; I can laugh at the insanity while retaining the option of turning off the television at anytime.
If I were, however, forced to interact with Phil Hellmuth, I’d likely have an entirely different opinion. He’s from another planet, and on this planet lives only one inhabitant: Phil Hellmuth. Unfortunately for the rest of us, he’s moved to Earth, but has maintained the narcissistic attitude of his roots on Hellmuthia. I’m not sure he knows he now lives on a planet where more than one person exists.
I should, perhaps, preface my criticism with a point that should not go unnoticed: Phil Hellmuth is a great poker player. I’d never argue otherwise. What I would argue is that he needn’t personally remind us of this every fourteen seconds. After every pot he loses, you’ll undoubtedly hear him utter something to himself (but really to the camera) about his own incredible accolades. “I have thirteenth bracelets,” or, “I had him perfectly figured out and dead to a Jack,” or something as simple and self-aggrandizing as, “I’m Phil Hellmuth!”
What makes a man so desperate to endlessly reiterate his own self-worth? His confidence seems to hinge so precariously on the admiration of strangers. We get it, dude; you’re good. We don’t care. Being good doesn’t mean you’re going to win every pot you enter.
Choose any televised poker event you’d like for evidence of Hellmuth’s cartoonish narcissism, which isn’t limited simply to touting his own accomplishments. The other day I happened to catch ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event, an event Hellmuth won. It was hilarious. The final table went absolutely swimmingly for him, as he hit big hands and scooped crucial pots. Yet he still found a way to spin the narrative into one of victimhood, ignoring facts to the contrary.
For instance, he got into an all-in pot where his opponent’s tournament life was on the line. Hellmuth had the worst of it, but managed to turn a straight. The river completed a board straight and the two players chopped the pot. Hellmuth dropped to his knees, cursing the world in disbelief, as commentator Antonio Esfandiari says, “Well, I’m not sure what he’s so upset about. He didn’t even have the best hand.” The very next hand, Hellmuth takes 4-4 against his opponent’s Q-Q. The flop was 7-7-6, with a 4 on the turn. Hellmuth value-bet it on the turn and river and won a very nice pot, to which he had no commentary. And to his credit, neither did his opponent. I can’t imagine the outburst had the hands been reversed.
Hellmuth simply suffers from the affliction that most immature narcissistic poker players suffer from, on a larger scale and too a more dangerous degree. All of his losses are meticulously catalogued in his brain, while the moments of good fortune and luck are purposely eradicated. Of course, every poker player had a mild case of convenient amnesia. And I’ll admit that there are times when everything is going wrong that I, too, can be an irritating self-serving dickhead. But in Hellmuth’s mind, everything is going wrong all the time. One loss triggers his need to defend his very fragile ego. It becomes tiresome having to hear such a successful man complain about the very things every single poker player on the planet deals with every day.
I suppose in Hellmuth I see a lot of the day-to-day characteristics that drive me insane. Of course, I’ve never met the man. Television producers do have a way of manipulating clips to portray a particular image. I also understand the irritation that comes with losing to complete morons. Poker can be downright nasty. There comes a time, however, when, editing notwithstanding, the evidence becomes overwhelming and a relatively accurate portrait of a man can be drawn. And if I were the artist, he’d look like a petulant, narcissistic, admittedly entertaining, child.
There are some things that can beat smartness and foresight. Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him. -Mark Twain
I’ve used this quote before. I will almost certainly use this quote again. Dammit, Mark Twain is a genius. I can’t imagine a more succinct and accurate description of the way I often view my opponents at the poker table. If somebody plays with no discernible strategy or intelligence, it’s difficult to form a counter-strategy. A great percentage of middle-limit hold’em players operate precisely this way: chaotically, and without the slightest attempt at, you know, thinking.
Admittedly, this is a losing way to play. Nobody can sustain success without at least some idea of what they’re doing. But, as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. And when these players’ broken clocks are right, it’s difficult for the thoughtful strategist to respond.
Take this hand for example, from a recent 8-16 session. One player limps in middle position. I’m on the button with 77. I raise. The big-blind and middle position limper both call and we see the flop three-handed. The flop is K72. The big-blind bets out. The middle position player calls. I raise. Each of my opponents call. The turn is the 5. Both of my opponents check. I bet. They both call. The river is the 6. The big-blind bets out. The middle position player now raises. I stop and think for awhile. Both of my opponents are a little goofy. I figure the big-blind for some sort of King. Being as he was indeed in the big-blind, it’s possible he has a hand like K-6, making a river two-pair. Or maybe he simply has a big King and wants to make sure I don’t check it for a free showdown. The middle position player is even stranger. But still, what could he have? The only thing that both makes sense and has me beat is K-K. That seems very unlikely. I think the middle position player just made some strange two-pair hand. I three-bet. The big-blind reluctantly calls. The middle position players now four-bets it! I confusedly call, as does my crying opponent in the big-blind. He turns over 98 for the nut-straight. I muck my cards befuddled, as I see the big-blind’s K-6.
Now, this makes no sense at all. None. My opponent called two bets on the flop with nine-high, no overcards, and no draw. My functional brain could not possibly have put him on this hand. Yes, it’s a horrendous flop call. Yes, he’s going to lose lots of money in the long run. But during this particular hand, it cost me multiple big bets on the river simply because I was dumbfounded by his dumbness. I had no recourse. My mind couldn’t process the stupidity and it cost me.
Tournament players may read this and think it’s hyperbole and a freak occurrence. How could something so outrageous happen with any frequency? Well, tournaments are not limit hold’em cash games. This isn’t even an uncommon scenario. I’ve (nearly) grown accustomed to expecting results that make no sense whatsoever. There is a pervasive epidemic that I like to call “Eight-Sixteen-itis”. The 8-16 game is littered with players who operate with one very simple principle: Don’t ever fold the flop ever for any reason ever. Knowing this before entering the game is of utmost importance. It’s most crucial as regards continuation-bets. Let’s say, for instance, that I have A-Q and have raised pre-flop. I see a flop in position against two opponents. The flop is something like J-7-5. Each of my opponents check to me and I make a standard continuation-bet. Both opponents call. The turn is another 5 and both of my opponents check to me again. Oftentimes a player will shut it down at this point. You got called in both spots and you figure one of your opponents has to have something! Well, this is 8-16, and that’s not necessarily the case. Players call the flop with anything. Neither of your opponents have shown any aggression, and it’s SO EASY for them to hold a hand like 10-9 or 6-3, calling one time attempting to hit a gutterball. Shit, they could have A-2! I’ve learned to fire multiple-barrel continuation-bets at the 8-16 table, slowing down only when I face aggressive resistance. Oftentimes my opponents have absolutely nothing and need only a little nudge from me to fold their hand.
For the most part, of course, this epidemic benefits me greatly. Typically, Whack-Job McKnuckles will donate $16 on the flop with nine-high and will anonymously fold the uneventful turn. Sometimes, though, when those cards are turned face up, it’s difficult to understand the inexplicable thought-process to led to this player’s victory.
Being as I tend to focus my intellectual faculties on the social shortcomings of my poker-playing colleagues, I often feel unqualified to discuss poker from a strategic perspective. I do, however, feel a certain responsibility for leading any local discourse on limit hold’em. It’s difficult to find limit hold’em articles, despite the fact that Minnesota spreads exclusively limit hold’em (live games). Perhaps it’s time to add to my repertoire of childish observations a certain strategic sophistication. I did publish a number of blogs focusing on the differences between limit and no-limit hold’em. What I’d like to do now is begin a strategic series of hand-focused articles where I’ll work through my thought-process during play.
I’d also like to offer two pre-game caveats:
1) This does not mean that I’ll discontinue my social, rant-based blogs. Don’t worry. The curmudgeon isn’t going anywhere.
2) I do not want these blogs to be interpretted as a one-way “advice-based” series. I simply want to offer my internal analysis as a way to begin discussion. I may easily have mis-played a hand. Please, do not consider these articles a “how-to”; rather, please view these articles as an open-ended discourse. Tell me if you’d have played the hand differently. Thoughtful disagreement is welcomed. I have no ego, and assuming you know what the hell you’re talking about, bring on the commentary!
So, here we go!
This was the second hand of an 8-16 session. I’m in the small-blind. The under-the-gun player limps, as do two middle-position players and the button. I look down at A-A. Pocket Aces can be obnoxious in limit hold’em, particularly from the small-blind where self-protection is difficult. But of course I raised. The big-blind called as did the under-the-gun player. The next guy, a middle-position limper, back-raised making it three bets.
[Sidenote: There are very few situations where a limit hold'em back-raise makes sense to me. If this player truly has a huge hand, why wait until your opponents are numerous and pot-interested to spring into action? If you do not have a huge hand, then why build such an enormous pot with the worst of it and virtually no chance of gaining aggressive control over such a highly-contested pot?]
The two other limpers call. I four-bet. The back-raiser five-bets, capping the action. Everybody calls and we see the flop six-handed.
The flop is 7-6-5. That’s so gross. With five opponents and out of position, my hand becomes difficult to play. If I had had, for instance, A-K, I could quietly check-fold with absolutely no regret. With Pocket Aces, however, it’s somewhat likely that I still hold the best hand. But I certainly need to avoid half the deck to remain in the lead. I bet out. I can’t check. I need to get some idea of where I’m at. The big-blind and the under-the-gun player call me. The pre-flop back-raiser makes it two-bets. He gets called in one spot behind him with another player folding. Action is back on me.
Here is where I differentiate myself from many of my skilled poker-player brethren. Having the current best hand is of little value knowing how many turn and river cards you need to avoid. I prefer the wait-and-see approach. I put my back-raising opponent on something between 8-8 and K-K. I feel fairly confident that I have him beat. (Although there is also the possibility that he flopped a set). I also feel fairly confident that I have my other three opponents beat, given their lack of aggression on the flop. But if I think I’m getting anybody to fold for one more bet, given the pre-flop cap and the size of the pot, I’m fooling myself. Nobody folds the flop in 8-16 hold’em. Ever. Particularly with such a huge pot brewing. Rather than three-bet and open it up to a four-bet/five-bet debacle, I just called. I’ve seen it so many times where a guy in my spot jams it hard on the flop, only to have to fold the nasty nasty turn card. Let’s play wait-and-see. I call, as does everybody else. Five of us see the turn.
The turn is an off-suit 10. I once again bet out. I like this turn card enough to see what happens with a bet. I can attempt to “protect” myself here with a large wager and a relatively safe turn card. The big-blind called. The under-the-gun player called, and the back-raiser guy also called. The button folded. Four of us saw the river.
The river is an 8, for a final board of 7-6-5-10-8. Psssssh. I give up. I check, and to my surprise, it gets checked around. I turned up A-A, knowing it wasn’t good. My opponents didn’t need a straight to beat me. Any gross two-pair will do. The back-raiser, to my amazement, also turned up A-A. The under-the-gun player mucked. The big-blind turned over Q-4 for the bottom-end of the staight and the win.
The back-raiser began giving me a verbal lashing.
“You should’ve three-bet the flop! He would’ve folded!”
Bull-shit. He’s in for six bets. He has an open-ended straight draw. The pot is huge. And he’s shown the propensity to call raises with Q-4. He isn’t folding the flop.
My argument, on the contrary, was that it was his fault that we lost. If he had raised pre-flop the first time with A-A, perhaps the limpers behind would’ve folded, slimming the field and shrinking the ultimate size of the pot. I certainly would’ve three-bet. Then the big-blind would’ve faced two more pre-flop bets with Q-4 in a pot that looked to be a lot less multi-way and juicy. He’s more likely to fold Q-4 here, giving us a Pocket Aces chop.
I’m always trying, difficult as it often is, to understand the way nut-job people view the world. The sociopathic poker players’ behavior, I’ve always said, is simply a microcosm for humanity at-large. Everybody wants immediate gratification, personal success, and for everybody else to be on board with their singular mission of winning at whatever cost. “Winning,” of course, is not specific to poker. It simply means getting what I want, when I want it.
I talk a lot about this behavior. But I’ve now developed a very simple mathematical formula for the way I believe these people perceive their surroundings:
“Me > Not-Me”
The basic principle couldn’t be less complicated. I like myself more than I like you. Obviously. But to truly understand the intricacies of this formula requires further analysis.
For starters, notice that this equation separates the world into two categories. Only two. There is no differentiation between members of the “Not-Me” group. They’re simply Not-Me. The Not-Me group isn’t a diverse collection of people with their own hopes, dreams and ideas. It’s just a pack of people who stand together as an obstacle to you achieving your almost certainly trivial goals.
There’s a clear example of this at the poker table. Let’s say Player A has been losing pot after pot after pot. He’s ice-cold. Also, however, the player next to him, Player B, is losing. Neither one of them can make a hand to save their lives and their stacks are quickly losing verticality. During one particular hand, however, Player A finds himself heads-up with Player B. Player A is leading the entire way until Player B hits his flush on the river. The hands are turned face-up and Player B begins stacking one of the few pots he’s won all day. What does Player A do? He says, “Dammit, you get lucky on me every time!”
Now, to what could the pronoun “you” refer in Player A’s complaint? It certainly doesn’t apply to Player B, at least not personally. He hasn’t gotten lucky at all. “You” refers simply to the Not-Me group. Player A’s goal of winning money has been derailed, and the Not-Me group is to blame. Nevermind the fact that Player B is just as much a loser, and that he hasn’t hit a river the entire session, let alone getting fortunate specifically against Player A. That doesn’t matter. In Player A’s mind, there’s Me and Not-Me, and at the moment, the Not-Me group has the best of him.
Furthermore, the gap between how these people view the Me group versus the Not-Me group is cavernous. Me > Not-Me suggests only that Me is greater than Not-Me. It doesn’t indicate how much greater it is. Let’s be clear. Me is far greater than Not-Me. To rank the two would be to place Me at #1, and Not-Me at #319. The Not-Me group isn’t even considered in the same breath of significance as Me. Me is Michael Jordan, Not-Me is Mark Madsen. Me is Breaking Bad, Not-Me is Honey-Boo-Boo. Me is The Beatles, Not-Me is Justin Bieber.
So not only do the nut-jobs divide the world into an easy-to-understand categorization of two groups, they also significantly undervalue the Not-Me people. It’s easy to see this formula at work while playing poker. Why do people talk endlessly about their own misfortunes without taking a breath, as if anybody else gives the slightest shit? Their perspective is one of Me-first, everybody-else-second… or third, or fourth, three-hundred-nineteenth… They’re sure you want to hear about their losses. There’s only one goal here, right? And that’s for Me to win. The problem, of course, is that eight other people have the same myopic Me-first narrative, and social chaos ensues. Listen to me! I’m so unlucky! Look how I’m not getting exactly what I want right now! Isn’t this a tragedy?
I’ve always felt that on a broader scale, socially speaking, driving is an excellent microcosm of the Me > Not-Me pervasiveness. I need to get off on this ramp! But I’m in the far left lane! Well, there’s only one person on this road who needs to accomplish their goals and that’s ME! Cut to them slicing across seven lanes as they leave a world of mayhem in their rear-view mirror. But fuck it. “Me” got what me wants.
Since mid-July I’ve been on perhaps the coldest poker streak of my career. It’s one of those streaks where every single little thing goes wrong, and nothing at all goes right. I lost four sessions in a row, and that hasn’t happened since 2006. Hopefully, now, I’m beginning to climb myself out of the miserable cave of losers and see the light. What I realized upon that climb, however, is how differently I view poker during good times versus bad times.
This doesn’t sound like much of an earth-shattering epiphany; and it isn’t. Nobody enjoys poker when they’re losing. But what really changes for me during the miserable times is this: I hate individuals at the table with so much more passionate vigor. I’m always irritable, but when the cards are not cooperating, my level of tolerance for people drops to almost zero. And it’s always the same thing that makes me insane, and it’s not meanness, loudness, or overall annoyance. It’s stupidity. When people are stupid, and winning despite their incredible lack of intelligence, I want to jump off a fucking bridge. My own losing is irksome by itself, but easy enough to deal with in a vacuum. It becomes far harder to swallow your losses when you see exactly where the winnings are going: to a slobbering halfwit who needs assistance spelling his own name.
Let me give you an analogy. During these exacerbating times, I feel like a 19th century prospector, panning for gold. I’ve set up a series of pans and ropes in the river, a complex system of items intended to scour the water for the precious metal. I’ve been on my hands and knees all day, gathering next to nothing. Just as I’m about to pack up for the day, the local drunk wanders by the river and trips on his own stupid feet, and falls face first into a giant gold nugget wedged behind a rock. He picks it up, celebrates his unearned success with idiotic screaming and hollering as he scampers back home. Now, had I simply had a quietly unprofitable day at the river, I could’ve gone home levelheaded. However, having failed, in addition to seeing this moron strike fortune, despite not having the least bit of cunning or intelligence, I want to kill somebody. Not only did I fail, but that monkey succeeded. The world doesn’t seem fair.
Let me also give you a real-life poker example. I was playing 8-16 limit hold’em, and three players limped-in. I was down to about $100 left of my original $400 buy-in, and life was miserable. I looked down at AQ on the button, and raised. The big-blind (our targeted moron) and the other three limpers called, and we saw the flop five-handed. The flop was 762. The big-blind bet and everybody called. I don’t care for this flop, obviously, but I can call with the assurance of only having to pay one bet to see the turn with two over-cards, and the back-door nut-flush draw. I called. The turn was the K. The big-blind checked, the first limper bet, one folded and the other one called. I, too, called, now with a decent-sized pot and the nut-flush draw. The big-blind also called. The river was the 9. I missed everything, but action went check-check-check-check. The original limper, the one who bet the turn, flipped over KJ. (Limit hold’em players love to float the flop with over-cards). The other limper and I both muck our cards. The big-blind, however, looks at his cards confusedly and finally says, “Oh, holy crap, I have a straight,” as he turns over 108. Owwww! My poor brain! So, he didn’t know that a nine made him a straight? But… he bet the flop…? And called the turn? Ummm, why? Holy hell, people like him never ever ever deserve to win a pot. I’m over here struggling and working my ass off, and this douche-bag discovers gold completely by accident.
Let me also say this: As irritated as I get, and it often boils over internally, I almost never say or do anything. But in my own head, I’m a huge judgmental asshole, no doubt about it. I do not stomach stupidity, particularly on the sub 50-IQ level.