The 7 deadly sins of poker
1. Raising marginal hands in early position
On the surface, this appears to be a beginner’s mistake, but time and time again I see experienced players raising with marginal hands in early position. How many times do you get a hand like A-J or K-Q suited under the gun and think to yourself ‘oh boy, first good hand I’ve had in an hour – got to play it’ and open the pot for a raise. Don’t lie to yourself. You know you do it. And you’re probably wondering what exactly is the problem? Well, when you act in early position with a marginal hand you face the dilemma of reacting to your opponents. If you are re-raised, you are essentially throwing away the chips you’ve already put in the pot. Your opponent knows you’ve raised from early position, so the range of hands they put you on is probably pretty high. But knowing this, they’ve still re-raised you. This means they’re not afraid of what you are going to do. They have a hand and they are going to play it. Your hand is no good and the three to four big blinds you just threw out there are now gone. Whatever you do, don’t compound this mistake by calling. It’s a real beginner’s error not to fold to a re-raise with a marginal hand.
2. Betting in a predictable manner
I know there are those who advocate varying the size of your bet based upon position, hand strength and player tendencies. Do it randomly, these experts say. The inherent problem with this method is that people have a natural tendency to fall into patterns. Sure, you might think you’re raising four times the big blind 80% of the time, but more than likely you’re doing it 95% of the time. The typical mistake that players make is betting a certain amount based upon the strength of their hand. Say you’re the type of player who likes to bet less when you have a good hand and bigger when you are just looking to steal the blinds. An observant player is going to pick up on this and do two things. One, they are going to re-raise your big bets liberally because they know you have a weaker hand. Two, they are going to call your small bets often because they know there is implied value because you have a big hand.
3. Not paying attention
Too many players at every skill level fall into the trap of playing their cards without looking for profitable situations that are available to them. Observation of your opponents and careful analysis of their play can make the cards you are dealt meaningless. Failure to recognise a player’s tendencies can also be devastating to the size of your stack. You could lose chips by trying to bluff against a calling station, stealing against a loose-aggressive player’s big blind, or betting on a three-flush board against a player who loves to chase flushes. At the same time you could lose chips by not seeing opportunities that arise. For example, not raising a super-tight player’s big blind or not betting for value against a calling station with top pair, weak kicker. This is why you need to watch what is going on when you are not involved in a hand. Poker can be an easy game when you can win a pot without even looking at your cards.
4. Not making proper sized bets
There are several reasons poker players bet. These include getting a player to fold, inducing a player to raise, or getting a player to call. The correct bet depends on whether you are bluffing or betting for value. When you are bluffing, the amount should be the least possible to get your opponent to fold. When you are betting for value, the amount you bet should be the highest possible to get your opponent to call. Determining these amounts depends on several factors. What are your opponent’s tendencies? Do they fold a lot when someone bets? Then you can make a small bet when you are bluffing. Do they call a lot when on a draw and you have top pair? Then you should make a large bet. Sometimes we want to make a bet to give our opponent the appearance of being weak. This again depends on your opponent. How have they reacted to other small bets or large bets? If they think a large bet is weak and we have a strong hand then we should make an over-sized bet and vice versa if they think a small bet is weak. Figure out your opponents’ betting thresholds and adapt accordingly.
5. Overuse of ‘conventional’ plays
If you are a fairly experienced poker player, you’ve likely read many books and articles about poker. You know what a continuation bet is. You know what the squeeze play is. You understand and utilise the ‘bet to get a free card’ play. There’s nothing wrong with this either, as these often are the fundamentally correct plays to make. When you start to overuse these concepts, however, they become a weakness rather than a strength. One of the biggest mistakes I see players make is the overuse of the continuation bet. There are certain players who, if they raise before the flop, are going to bet the flop regardless of their holding. Everyone knows that the flop misses people two thirds of the time, so a clever opponent will raise their flop bet, watch them fold, and slyly add their chips to their stack. In other words, use the strategic tricks you learn about, but make sure you understand the proper situations in which to use them. They won’t work every time.
6. Not adjusting to short-handed play
Over the course of a game, players will either leave (in a cash game) or be eliminated (in a tournament). When this happens, it is possible to be faced with only six or seven players at your table. Too many experienced players fail to adjust when this happens. They continue to play as if there were nine or ten players at the table. They fold hands like A-J in early position. They fold A-10 on the button when the player two seats before has raised. While these aren’t always incorrect plays, the number of hands you open and re-raise with at a short-handed table must increase. Think about it: you’re going to be posting blinds nearly twice as often as you normally do. Folding continuously is going to cost you money. So what hands do you play? Much of this will depend on how much you have in front of you and what your opponents’ stack sizes are and what their tendencies are. If you play 20% of hands dealt to you at a full table then you should play 30-40% of the hands dealt to you at a six-handed table. This means expanding your starting hand selection to nearly double the range of hands you would play at a full table.
7. Blaming other people for your mistakes
This is probably the deadliest sin of all. You’ve read everything about poker. You know how to play poker. So when you lose you convince yourself it’s because you were unlucky and your opponent was a lucky donkey. This is the mindset too many players fall into. They start believing they are infallible and that the only thing stopping them from winning is luck. While luck might be a factor in the losses they are incurring, more often than not the problems lie much deeper. Poker requires constant self-analysis and scrutiny. If you lost a big pot to that ‘fish’, ask yourself if there was anything you could have done differently? Could you have bet more? Could you have prevented them from seeing the flop? Look for reasons why you failed to win the hand rather than placing the blame on everything else. If you are able to do this, you will likely find some holes in your game and gain some understanding of how to counteract your opponents. In time you’ll find yourself complaining less about bad luck as you rake in the big pots.