by David “The Maven” Chicotsky
There is an old saying in sports handicapping circles which relates well to poker and to the stock market for that matter, “Bet smart, not with your heart.” In many ways this flies in the face of the notion of many players of always going with their gut and acting upon instinct, rather than methodical calculation. I’m not here to make the argument that there isn’t an advantage to using your instincts in judgment situations where it could go either way, but instincts shouldn’t be your first line of decision-making. After all, instincts come into play mainly in general situations or situations where you are split between multiple options. My point is that you should try to recognize your preferences and do your best to steer away from a route that feels good, rather than another path that is more profitable. Tournament poker is its own animal, and personal preferences (what I call comfort-zone plays) can often cloud the waters when we’re deciding what plays to make or not make.
The classic example of players betting (or not betting) with their heart, instead of making a smart play, happens when effective stacks have shallowed out towards the end of a tournament. If a situation arises where we’re able to re-raise all-in for 15 to 20 big blinds and get a fold from our opponent a very high percentage of the time, for the most part it’s necessary to go ahead and make the play. Many players will forgo this opportunity because they are scared and the play doesn’t “feel right.” To put it bluntly, when does it ever feel right to push your stack all-in into the middle without a premium hand? It’s really important in a general sense to undervalue your hand-strength and overvalue the other variables present in any given situation. This is partly due to the fact that when you go all-in, the vast majority of the time your opponent will simply fold.
Let’s use an example of pushing all-in with 10 big blinds, small blind vs. big blind. 80% of the time or more your opponent will muck their hand and you’ll be dragging in a pot showdown free. The most important piece of this equation isn’t how strong your hand is, it’s how often your opponent is folding. If you have a hand like ace-jack, you very likely have 50% or higher equity in the hand if called (meaning you’re winning even if you get called by your opponent), but that’s only relevant the 20% of the time that you’re actually getting called. If you knew your opponent was calling you no matter what when you went all-in (let’s say you only had 2 big blinds total), it’s very important that you are winning when you commit these chips. If you are under the impression that your opponent is folding 90% of the time, for example, it wouldn’t matter if you had eight-four offsuit; since you’re clearly a massive favorite overall to win the hand in this spot. Even with eight-four offsuit in the situation above, even though your heart might tell you not to make the shove, it’s beyond a doubt the smart play.
Add to the equation that our general fight-or-flight survival instincts will work against you in tournament poker – there are definitely going to be situations where it doesn’t “feel” right, but mathematically it’s a must. An ex-girlfriend of mine used to constantly tell me “my heart tells me (fill in the blank),” and I always responded, “that’s not your heart, that’s your brain.” In tournament poker, be sure to play according to what’s mathematically correct and optimal from a profit standpoint; bet smart, not with your heart.
David “The Maven” Chicotsky is the 2008 Online Player of the Year and a former #1 ranked online tournament poker player. He is also an experienced poker coach and can be reached at TheMavenTraining.com.