After years of playing poker, I have seen the same mistake more times than I can count: Where a hand calls for careful, thorough analysis, poker players look for shortcuts and simplifications. In any given player's mind, there are several -- or several dozen -- terms and phrases that sound sensible to the ear but fail at the table.
Recently, in a $5/$10 no-limit game in Las Vegas, I saw a classic example of a player justifying a blunder with a catchy poker phrase.
Before the flop, an active player opened the betting with a raise to $50 and was called by a loose and passive opponent in the cutoff seat. From the big blind, a full-time professional player who is a regular in the mid-stakes Las Vegas games also called, holding 7s 7d in his hand. When the three of them saw a flop of 10h 7h 4h, action quickly escalated.
Let us focus on the player in the big blind. Knowing that the active player would bet almost any hand, the big blind checked. He was right, and the preflop aggressor fired $100 into the pot. However, the big blind was surprised when the passive player raised all in, a significant overbet.
Now, it was the big blind's turn to act. He was looking at a set of sevens, and he had started the hand with about $1,200 in his stack. With one player all in already, the big blind just had to do the math.
Like many veterans, the big blind could quickly break down the numbers. He had $1,150 left after calling before the flop. He stood to win a pot of $1,405. Those odds meant that he needed to win at least 45 percent of the time to make a profitable call. It seemed like a good outlook, because he already had a respectable hand and would improve to a better one about one-third of the time. In a later conversation, he argued, "The only hand I was behind was a flush."
Unfortunately, that simple remark cost him his stack.
Even though it was almost true, it was not close to the whole truth.
There were two reasons why he should have known better. First, the player who went all in was passive, not the type to attack pots or bluff, and there was not much at stake when he shoved his stack into the middle. From such a player, anything less than a flush would be rare. Second, even though the big blind would draw out to beat a flush about 35 percent of the time, a passive opponent would not go all in with enough weaker hands to give the big blind at least a 45 percent chance of winning. His only options were to fold or to get all of his money in while too far behind to make it a worthwhile bet.
The big blind's opponent did, indeed, have a flush, and the big blind failed to improve his hand on the last two streets.
What strikes the ear as convincing and logical can often be one's downfall in a poker game. Every decision must be made carefully, avoiding shortcuts and rules of thumb. Take the time and have the discipline to make consistently smart plays.
Corwin Cole is a poker coach whose instructional videos can be found at CardRunners.com.