Are You or Aren’t You?

quote Harvey Cox for poker blog

Not to decide is to decide.

This clever statement, attributed to theologian Harvey Cox, (sometimes) helps with people who are stuck on indecision.  When they are stuck on the fence, just say it.  Eventually, if they never decide to do whatever it is, they have de facto decided not to do it.

There are a number of things we want to do at the poker tables in the belief that these things will increase our win rate.  But until we actually decide to do them, we are deciding over and over not to.

Not to be aggressive is to be passive.  When we limp, or call a pre-flop raise, in hopes of getting a flop that allows us to be aggressive post-flop, we aren’t being aggressive; we are being passive.  When we 3-bet pre-flop with AK, then shut down when we whiff the flop, we aren’t following through with the aggression; we are being passive.  When we have a set on a 4-flush board, and two villains both check to us on the river, checking back because the pot’s already really large and just maybe neither of them made a flush is not being aggressive; it is passive.  Check-calling is not being aggressive; it is passive.

Someone referred to a calling station type of player as “aggressive.”  I asked why that was a apt description, and she replied that it was too hard to get him to fold.  He’s not aggressive; he is passive.  And stubborn.  And exploitable.

Not to be in position is to be out of position.  There are probably some elite poker players whose skill advantage is great enough to overcome bad position.  There are definitely many more otherwise solid poker players who wrongly believe their skill advantage is great enough to overcome bad position.  This is one of the biggest leaks.

Completing from the small blind after several limpers because “obviously, the pot odds…” means playing the rest of the hand from the worst possible position.  Calling a small raise from the big blind… basically ditto unless the small blind also called.  Now there’s two of you.  Y’all have your own movie.

How many times has someone thought “it’s only [fill in the blank] to call,” then improve just enough on the flop or later to lose bigly with the second best hand?

Pardon the digression:  I was at a silly dealer’s choice game once and a player announced that he had invented a new game, “Best Man.”  It was 7-card stud, and the 2nd best hand at showdown would win the pot.  So if your hand improved too much and was likely best, you would have to fold, which often had a domino effect.  It was surprisingly interesting.  If you wanted to win a Texas Holdem version of Best Man, I’d suggest playing out of position.  When it was my turn to deal, I invented (on the spot) “Bridesmaid.”  It’s the same as Best Man, except queens are wild.

Not to have strong starting cards is to have mediocre or weak starting cards.  How many starting combinations are really worth playing?  This is a situationally dependent question.  So examine the situation:  position, stack sizes, table dynamics, your image and emotional state, villain characteristics, etc.  In situation X, which starting combinations are really worth playing?  Aggressively?  If your cards require you to make 2-pair or better to win at showdown, you are hoping to get lucky.

Suited connectors will make a flush about 7% of the time; they will make a straight about 9.5% of the time.  Trips about 4% of the time.  Some of the flushes and straights will lose to higher flushes and straights.  Unsuited connectors… fuggedaboutit with the flushes.

Strong starting cards don’t always win, but they can win without getting lucky.  If you aren’t sure if your cards are strong, they aren’t.  If you like playing a certain combination (perhaps it has a clever nickname?) but don’t think it’s worthy of raising, it’s mediocre at best.

Not to be patient is to be impatient.  One indicator of impatience is when you find yourself pondering on every missed flop and turn whether you can represent whatever hand it is that would get the villain to fold top pair / top kicker.  Sometimes you can successfully execute that bluff, but not every single hand.

You’d be better off going into another room and doing pushups until you collapse.  That helps restore patience.

Fancy play syndrome is not a sign of patience; it foretells impatience.  Altering your strategy because you are card dead is not a sign of patience, it foretells impatience.  Planning a 10-minute break but skipping it when the time comes is not a sign of patience; it foretells impatience.  Riffling chips more often or faster than normal is not a sign of patience; it foretells impatience.

Not to be emotionally calm is to be on tilt.  The smallest level of tilt is a level of tilt.  Negative emotions caused by non-poker stuff is a level of tilt.  Either you are calm, in the moment, stoic in the classic sense, ready to accept your fate in a non-judgmental way (Bee-Tee-Dubs, usually that means folding!), or you aren’t.  One sign of the beginning of tilt is you hear inside your head or escaping through your mouth something like “Goddammit!”

But we can work through tilt while at the table, through greater self-awareness and breathing exercise.  Oh, really?  That means playing poker while tilted, betting on our ability to un-tilt, while tilted.  If we had that ability, shouldn’t we have been able to never tilt in the first place?  I also believe I can fly…

Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his journal:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

If Marcus were a poker player, the same sentiments might be expressed differently:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself:  They Always Have It, yet their nature is like that of brothers and sisters to me.  Therefore prepare yourself to get over it, without anger or hate, such that when it is your turn to have it you can and will make the most of it.


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