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by Barbara Connors

 Arguing with a fool proves there are two —Doris M. Smith

 It’s a foolish mistake that happens all the time at the poker table. First, an experienced player bets to protect his hand. Then some know-nothing bonehead calls with a piece of garbage longshot that doesn’t even remotely have the odds to call in this spot. Not that the bonehead will ever know what a terrible play he made, because his miracle card falls on the river and he drags a huge pot. But that’s not the foolish mistake. No, the foolish mistake comes a moment later, as the bonehead is stacking his chips, and the experienced player can’t resist getting up on a soapbox and giving the bonehead a stern lecture about how wrong it was for him to make that call.

 Criticizing your opponents is foolish because the repercussions are almost universally bad for your long-term profitability. What happens when you tell an opponent how badly he is playing? Generally, one of the following: A) thanks to your instruction, the bonehead learns from his mistake and begins to play better, or B) he leaves the game altogether because it’s not relaxing and fun anymore, or else C) he gets seriously ticked off at you. The first two outcomes are terrible because they ultimately deprive you of the very thing your poker survival depends upon — a weak opponent. Only the third option has the potential to maybe work in your favor if you can put the bonehead on tilt.

 Granted, the urge to criticize is perfectly understandable under the circumstances. You’ve worked hard to learn the game, and, as a result, you made the correct decision when the action got to you. Then some moron makes a spectacularly incorrect play and gets rewarded for it. He’s feeling good about himself, full of confidence, perhaps even feeling that he outplayed you on this hand. The nerve! It’s bad enough he won the pot, but to have him believing he won it on skill? No. You have to set him straight.

 But to get that short-term gratification, you are sacrificing the long-term profit that comes from playing against such a poor adversary. That’s a heavy price to pay for one brief moment of protecting your ego. Never forget: Your profits come from your opponents mistakes. Ultimately, the more they screw up, the more you benefit.

 So not only do you want to keep playing against the poker boneheads of the world, but you want them full of false confidence — so they will keep making those same stupid mistakes over and over. You want them to believe that cold-calling with bottom pair or a one-card straight draw or whatever ridiculous two-outer draw they hold is a great play. You want them to believe it’s a good idea to make plays based on superstition or because they “had a feeling” or because they have some cryptic “system” that supposedly always works for them.

 The one thing you don’t want is for the bonehead to realize he should make plays based on percentages — on outs and odds and position and all that good stuff. Because then he won’t be such a bonehead anymore, he’ll start to become a good player. Ultimately, your soapbox lecture will snatch more defeat from the jaws of defeat.

 Ask yourself: what would you rather have from the bonehead, his money or his respect? It’s rare that you can have both. Poker is not a straight-up competition like racing or lifting weights, where the fastest and the strongest always win. Poker is war. And in war, strength is often most effective when it is concealed. Conversely, enemies are at their weakest when they are complacent. A loose bonehead who thinks he has the game figured out (when in fact he’s playing all wrong) is a gift. Don’t mess with that gift. Let him win a battle now and then. You’ll win the war.

 Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at

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