When I give poker advice, either on the 2+2 strategy forums or privately, I ask players to include the reasoning behind their decisions. After all, the point of asking about a situation is not to learn how to play it if ever occurred exactly the same way, but to figure out the concepts that really matter so that they can be applied to a wide variety of difficult spots. Perhaps most informative is when people give me explanations that are largely irrelevant to the situation, or demonstrate serious flaws in their broader understanding of the game. These are opportunities to produce the "aha!" type moments that can lead to significant improvements.
This article chronicles 22 different reasonings HUSNG students have given me when explaining their actions, along with why they each suggest the chance to get better. Some of them are misapplied to far too many situations, and some of them should never be applied at all. Most are about in-game decisions, and a few have to do with a broader approach to the game. Throughout, the common theme is that each incorrect rationale focuses too little on calculating EV, relying instead on emotional heuristics or misconceptions about theory. Do you understand the error in each?
1. "When bluffcatching, if I call the turn, I have to call the river."
This is only true when playing against a maniac who always triple barrels after betting twice, not against the vast majority of the population. The river decision is its own independent equity calculation based on your assessment of how often your opponent gives up on bluffs and what percentage of his range that gets to the river are value hands. It is quite often optimal with a bluffcatcher to call the turn and fold to a river bet.
The error tends to come from people's irrational desire to either say they lost the minimum, or say they won the maximum. If I'm folding on the river, they think, "dang, I'd have been better off folding on the turn". That's a results-oriented fallacy that takes away from your EV, both in folding to too many turn bets and in making crying calls on too many river bets.
2. "If I get caught bluffing, I'll be down to 300 chips."
While I will concede there are sometimes very small differences where a stack of t1000 might not be worth exactly twice as much as a stack of t500 in a HUSNG, in practice, cEV very closely mirrors $EV. The difference is almost never going to be enough to correctly stop you from making an otherwise +EV bluff. The elements of the equity calculation here are the pot size, your bluff size, and your fold equity. If you should be giving up, the math from those three numbers is going to be why, not your shortstack if you get caught.
3. "I'll fold and wait for a better spot."
Similarly, especially in the era of the rematch button, you're looking for a +EV spot. Hourly rate is a much better stat to be proud of than your ROI. The question you should be asking yourself is whether the play is +EV. When you're folding, "waiting for a better spot" isn't generally going to be why except in more extreme scenarios, like passing up on 52% equity against an opponent open-shoving 75bb deep. In general though, making the play that gives you the best equity in the hand is going to be what wins you the most money overall.
4. "So I raised to define his hand..."
When arguing that he should check/raise an A[club]K[club]Q[diamond] flop with Q[club]4[club] in a limped pot 20bb deep instead of check/calling, a winning $100 player remarked to me that by raising, he was able to define his opponent's range more, eliminating all the junky hands. As if we had anything to fear from seven high! Knowing what our opponent is likely to have is not a benefit in and of itself. Raising for information is a play that always should be grounded in equity, not out of unwarranted fear of playing against a wide range.
5. "Readless, I like to play fairly nitty, not wanting to get into a marginal spot against a player I don't know anything about."
Generally, this is said by people who go on to pass up against highly +EV spots because they are not sure of your opponent's tendencies. It's poker, and when Oreos aren't involved, we're never sure about any of your reads. It's always a probabilistic guess. When you know nothing, go by the population tendencies of how likely villains in general are to have each hand in his range. Don't fail to four-bet shove 77 just because you don't know whether your opponent's three-betting range is too tight for that to be profitable. Do a calculation. Based on range of villains I generally face, how often is it profitable, and how often is it not? That's a better approach that will lead to a +EV decision.
6. "If I'm facing a minraise or a limp in the BB, I can use the NASH chart to help make my decision."
NASH, the more technically correct cousin of SAGE, details the push/fold and call/fold equilibrium strategies for the small blind and the big blind respectively. It guarantees at least a certain amount of equity. However, it is best used as a solely general guideline for <10bb poker, and exploiting players with 2x raises, openshoves, folds, and limps generally leads to superior results better than what NASH provides.
While it is suboptimal >10bb, NASH is at least relevant. Unfortunately, many players use the NASH chart to dictate decisions like shoving over limps. You might as well use Phil Hellmuth's hand rankings to decide. When people limp, they have a completely different range than "Any Two Cards". Do the math of how much fold equity you have, what your equity is when called, and what your equity is from checking behind or making a smaller raise. Don't get lazy and try to use a chart for everything.
7. "All-in luck graphs are for whiners who like wasting their time feeling bad about themselves."
While some HUSNG players get all of the action they could ever want at a buy-in and speed they're positive is their most profitable, most people will not have that experience. There are deepstacks, reg speeds, turbos, and superturbos, all at the stake you're at, the level above, and the level below. Because EV-adjusted winnings have much better predictive value than your actual results, if you're not positive which stake level or game you should playing at, you hate money for not taking a quick look at all the information available to you.
8. "Let's not inflate the pot out of position."
This is another reason that bypasses the correct rationale for taking an action and becomes quite hollow when the real reason doesn't apply. There are plenty of times when you want to inflate the pot out of position, with great hands, poor hands, and everything in between. If you're using this logic, make sure you identify WHY it would be such a bad thing if the pot is bigger: Is it that you're not getting value out of enough hands? Is it that too much of your opponent's range can play well against your hand and decrease your equity? Focus on the math, not the often misleading generality.
9. "I don't want to build a pot with a marginal hand."
Similarly, there are plenty of times when you should be making thin value bets on the flop and turn with hands that can't stand up to further aggression. In fact, sometimes with a marginal hand, your best play is to be aggressive and get the money in while there is still at least some value to be had. Progressing as a poker player means winning pots with more than just your monsters and your bluffs, it means making the most in EV on every single value hand you are dealt, even if that means playing it safe less often.
10. "If I have Q6 on a 642 board, I hate all turn cards that aren't queens or sixes."
Thinking like this often leads people to over-protect their hand and be too scared of what cards can come. For example, if you had the Q6 in position on this hand and your opponent check/called a bet, a Jack on the turn would improve your equity in the hand against his range. Just because a jack increases the amount of hands that beat you doesn't mean that the card increases that percentage in your opponent's range of hands. Don't be scared, make a real value bet, and don't try too much to push people out on these type of flops. The reason for doing so is emotional, not mathematical.
11a. "Let's bet big, I have a big hand!"
11b. "Let's bet small, I don't want to scare him off."
Different types of players tend to have one of these two instincts when learning the game. Each seems immediately justifiable, but neither is well thought out when applied globally. Whether to bet big, small, or anywhere in between with your monsters depends on your opponent, the board texture, your opponent's range, your image, your perceived range, and a host of other factors. Often, players will quickly bet big or small without thinking about any of these details, just out of instinct.