by Barbara Connors
“I had a feeling.” This seemingly innocuous phrase, usually spoken in defense of a loose call after the hand is over, ranks right up there with, “I had to make sure” and “I’ll just play a little while longer until I get back even again” as among the most costly utterances in poker. And yet what red-blooded poker player hasn’t been tempted to play a hunch now and then? Sticking to clinical, strategically-sound, mathematically correct play all the time may be the most surefire way to make money at this game, but we’re not robots. Playing hunches appeals to the frustrated artist in all of us. It’s flattering to believe that maybe we’re a little bit psychic and it’s just plain more fun.
But is it always a bad thing to play a hunch? Well, it depends. Anytime you feel yourself wanting to make some unorthodox play that you would never make otherwise, based purely on a gut feeling, the important question to ask yourself is—where did that gut feeling come from?
Basically it boils down to one of two possibilities. The first, and more common, is that our poker hunches are based on emotion and wishful thinking. The twin emotions of fear and greed, present in every poker game, can easily influence us to misread what’s going on at the table if we’re not careful, and those misreads can come to us in the form of gut feelings. A fearful player on a losing streak is much more likely to get the “feeling” his opponent has the nuts and he should fold, while the greedy player has hunches that assure him he’s destined to win. Ever since the game began, hopeful poker players have been making hopeless calls—seeing the flop with junk, seeing the turn or river with long shots, calling on the end with mediocre hands—all based on some cosmic “feeling” that was really nothing more than wishful thinking in disguise. These are the types of hunches that cost us money in the long run. These are the hunches that we use as an excuse to play badly. For every one of these wishful hunches where we get lucky (I knew it! Maybe I really am a little bit psychic!) and we use as a justification for making even more bad plays in the future, there are dozens that don’t work out as we hoped—but we somehow manage to forget about those.
Then there are the hunches based on intuition. In a game as complex as poker it is always possible—likely even—that some part of your brain has noticed details about the game and that knowledge still hasn’t worked its way into your conscious mind yet. Perhaps it’s something about an opponent’s betting patterns, how he always follows up on his bluffs, or bets a certain amount when he’s strong. Or maybe it’s a subtle physical tell in a live game. Either way, the knowledge is there, lurking around the corners of your brain, but you just can’t articulate it yet. These are the types of hunches that could be useful, especially if you are an experienced player, with years of winning play under your belt.
Needless to say, these intuition-based hunches can never apply to feelings about future cards. If you call to see a flop with K-5 off-suit because you have a feeling the flop is going to come 5-5-K, or if you call to the end with pocket deuces against a made hand because you feel certain that another duck is going to fall on the river, knock yourself out but don’t kid yourself about what you’re doing. These are low-percentage plays where you must get lucky to win, and saying “I had a feeling” afterward doesn’t change a thing.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.