Poker Myths Dispelled

Perhaps no game in the history of mankind is as misunderstood as poker. Ask almost any pro, and he'll tell you that at its core poker is a game of percentages. Ace-king usually beats Ace-queen. Pocket kings will typically collect from ace-six offsuit. No, these things don't happen all the time, but they happen often enough to allow a small group of players to make a healthy living playing the game. In the final analysis, 90% of poker is about showing down the best hand. If you can do this more often then your opponents, you're going to take home the barley. Yet most Americans think winning poker players operate on an esoteric, sub-psychic level, where the cards they're holding are only incidental. Now maybe this is true with the world class players, but I can tell you now that virtually all of the consistent low and mid-limit winners are essentially in the business of showing their opponents the best hand. Yes, sometimes you 'play the man'. But the easy-not to mention reliable-money comes from simply playing the cards.

It is with this in mind, then, that we venture forth into the heart of this essay. Let's look at a couple of the 'myths' that surround poker, and see what we can do to debunk them.

Myth 1 The best poker players bluff a lot

Let's face it bluffing is fun. And, when used with discretion, it's an important part of a winning player's arsenal. That having been said, the art of the bluff is only one bullet and a low-caliber one at that in the winning poker player's gun. The fact is, most players just love to call. Remember, the majority of your opponents are not playing for money. They may think they're playing to win, but they're really playing because they enjoy the game and the action if provides. And, since getting 'bluffed out' of a pot is most certainly not enjoyable, they'll find any number of excuses to call you even when they know they shouldn't. This means, of course, that you're only going to find a limited number of profitable bluffing opportunities in any given session. In big-bet poker, where you can push all your chips in the middle at any given time, the art of the bluff is much more important. But in limit poker it's just not all that valuable.

There are other factors other than your opponents' predisposition towards calling that make bluffing of limited value. For one thing, you'll often find yourself involved in a pot with two or more opponents. This means you need to calculate the probability that all players still contesting the pot will fold. If you're 'heads up' and you figure your opponent will fold 33% of the time, you can expect to drag the pot one in every three trials. If, however, you're up against two opponents, each of whom can be expected to fold 33% of the time, you're now looking at an 11% success rate for your bluff or once in every nine trials. Trying to run a bluff in this second scenario is obviously tougher than trying to run one in the previous example. Yet in the course of any given session you'll probably find yourself faced with two or more opponents a majority of the time.

You also need to understand that the farther you get into a hand the more expensive your bluffs become, while at the same time your chances of having your bluff succeed usually decrease. If you bluff the flop, for example, and get one caller, you'll often be tempted to follow through on the turn (and sometimes on the river as well). Thus, the bluff in its entirety will often cost you either 1 1/2 or 2 1/2 small bets. The problem is that as the hand progresses the chances that your opponent actually 'has something' go up, since you usually reason that he wouldn't be in there calling with a hand worse than yours. Further compounding matters is the fact that in limit hold 'em the bets double on the turn. You have to put in twice as much money on the turn as you did on the flop, while the odds that your opponent likes his hand have increased. For obvious reasons this argues against trying to run a bluff.

Thirdly, limit hold 'em becomes an extraordinarily tough game to beat once you've acquired a reputation as a habitual bluffer. Because the pots often get so big before the flop, you would usually like to see your opponents fold on the flop when you bet with a good but vulnerable- hand. If, however, you've been 'caught stealing' a few times, the chances of having your bets respected have gone way down. Let's say you raise before the flop with Ac Kh, and get four callers. The flop comes down As Ts 7h. If you bet, you'd probably like to see all of your opponents fold or at least most of them. But players who bluff a lot are almost always going to get calls here from hands that they would like to see fold (hands like Qs Td, for example, or Th 8h), whereas a player who's considered a 'nut hugger' might get some of these hands to drop out. True, a habitual bluffer will occasionally drag a monster pot when he flops the nuts. But flopping a good-but-not-great hand is much, much more common than flopping a huge hand, and the pots the bluffer ends up losing with his good-but-not-great hands far outweighs the extra chips he collects when he flops a 'gadget'.

Myth 2 Poker is a game of tells

I'll try to keep this a brief as possible. Simply put, tells are probably the least important part of limit hold 'em. Consider the following example; you have 4c 4d, and the flop comes 4s 4h 5h. The turn brings the 6h. When the six drops you see one of your opponents' hands start to tremble, which often indicates a big hand. Are you just going to check and call here, since the 'tell' indicates that your opponents has a monster hand? Of course not! In fact, you'd probably lose a ton of money on this hand if it turns out your beaten even if your opponent screamed 'ship it!' and started doing the mamba around the table. Sure, you picked up a 'tell', but so what? You're not going to give him credit for the straight flush, since that 'tell' could easily indicate sixes full. If you're like me, you'll probably cap it on the turn, and take it six or seven bets on the river no matter how your opponent reacts.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but the concept outlined here applies to less dramatic and therefore more common examples as well. Let's say you have the Kh Th, and the flop comes 8h 5s 3h. The turn is the Js, and the river is the 7h. When the seven hits you get a tell that indicates your opponent liked that card. Well, who cares! You liked it too. The fact that you picked up a 'tell' probably won't inform your play that much, since you're likely taking this hand to three bets anyway.

Myth 3 The best player always wins

Uh, no. Trust me on this one this is not true. Most winning limit hold 'em players will win around 60-80% of their sessions, depending on their playing style. This leaves 20-40% where their wallet leaves the casino lighter than when it first arrived. Bad players can and do get lucky and often they keep getting lucky for weeks or even months on end. If you haven't started seriously playing yet, you'll soon see what I mean. If you're already a regular player then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Myth 4 Great poker players are born, not made.

It is true that some great poker players seemed destined for greatness. Stu Ungar, for example, appears to have been such a player. But most solid poker players became winners by making a study of the game and working diligently on improving. I think it's probably safe to say that people who are born with a phlegmatic disposition have an easier time becoming winners, but having the proper mind-set is only a step one requirement. With a steady diet of practice and study I'm convinced that anyone can learn how to beat the game. I've run across plenty of winning players, and a lot of them had the 'card sense' of a koala bear. But they beat the game because they worked hard at it.