Think of a familiar TV or movie scene where a known alcoholic, who has worked hard to stay on the wagon and faithfully attends every AA meeting, is tempted with a drink. There is privacy, sexual temptation, it is late and emotional guardrails are down. It’s been a stressful day. The drink is seductively thrust in the alcoholic’s face, accompanied by a whispered sexy invitation to “come on… loosen up… let’s have a little fun! No one will know.” The alcoholic demurs but doesn’t walk away.
The story is as old as Greek mythology and we see the train wreck coming. Tantalus, the ancient Greek God of Temptation, is the model for the character holding out the drink, begging to have fun, beautiful and seductive and persistant and who wouldn’t want to have the best time ever? “Don’t!” we want to scream. Our minds race ahead to the next scene: a room full of empty beer or wine or whiskey bottles. A fallen hero slowly regaining consciousness. Not because the hero has to fall, but what would be the point of showing all that TV/movie drama and finally the hero simply says “Nah, I’m going to bed. Sober. Alone.”
In this recent poker hand, I am Tantalus. Let’s fast forward to the fun part.
There was a pre-flop raise and five callers for a pot of 36 BBs. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call the raiser “Dave.” Dave has been distracted this evening, playing a private online poker tournament on his laptop while also playing in a live Texas Holdem cash game in our mutual friend’s garage. “Do y’all mind if I play poker while playing poker?” For this reason alone, I give Dave credit for having a strong hand when he raises, and will treat this as if big pocket pairs are a good part of his range. (Spoiler: He won the tournament, which started with 43 players. Way to go Dave!)
I’m in the cutoff seat with 99, and the flop comes 942 rainbow.
Yeehaw! (Must be said properly.)
After a check, Dave bets about 23 BBs, leaving about 40-50 BBs behind. With so many players, this effectively confirms that he has a big pocket pair. There is a good chance I can get all of it. With little hesitation, the next player calls – for purposes of this blog I’ll call him “Cary.” This is interesting… Cary could have a smaller set than mine, or A9 or maybe JJ or TT or even a pocket pair smaller than 9’s and he’s just a nonbeliever. His stack is larger than mine.
After one fold, it’s my turn. I am Tantalus, with about 85 BBs after the pre-flop round. How best to tempt the other players still in this hand to get drunk with me? I see three options: 1) just jam it all-in here and expect at least a crying call from Dave’s over pair, and for Cary to come along if he has a smaller set; 2) flat call and hope the growing pot size “tantalizes” at least one other player to come along; or 3) make a minimum raise to 46 BBs.
Although it looks super strong, I opt for the min-raise. If Dave has KK or QQ and an ace or the case nine comes on the turn, he might be able to shut down. Same for Cary if he has JJ or TT. I have the nuts right now, two other players are cheerfully putting chips into the pot, and I want them to put more in right frickin’ now. If either one calls, the pot odds will make it very difficult for them to fold to a shove on the turn. After my raise, there will be 128 BBs in the pot and very attractive looking price of 23 BBs to call. After a call, there will be 151 BBs in the pot when the turn round of betting begins, and my shove would only be about 40 BBs more. How tempting!
After another fold, the player who checked to start the flop action goes in the tank for a long while, with a stack that looks like about 80 BBs. A very long while. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Adam.” Is Adam really thinking about calling? Or jamming, perhaps with 53 and the open-ended straight draw? Adam is the only player in this hand I would fear open limping, then calling Dave’s pre-flop raise with 53 (suited, most likely). He’s a very smart poker player, with a habit of making some very unorthodox plays. Adam looks torn over his decision and finally folds, slowly shaking his head. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
The rest of the hand plays out quickly. Dave goes all-in, Cary folds and I snap call. Dave tables QQ and my top set holds up to win a nice pot. Yeehaw, again!
Then Adam speaks up, saying he folded pocket twos. He figured I had to have his set crushed with a higher set because nothing else made sense. He checked with the plan of check-raising (likely all-in). Had I just called on the flop, Adam would have carried out that plan. But when I min-raised, he had to slam on the brakes and rethink his plan.
Had Adam kept quiet, his play would appear unremarkable. The casual observer would note that he called a pre-flop raise after four other callers, then check/folded on the flop. Yet he preserved his entire stack, making the best poker play of the entire night.
It is not the reasoning that makes Adam’s play noteworthy (more on that coming in Part 2 of this post), but the difficulty is in rapidly harnessing one’s emotions. When Adam flops bottom set on a very dry board, it’s officially a monster hand. There is a rush of adrenaline. He’s excited, aroused. He plans to maximize the value of his monster hand with a check/raise. True to plan, Dave makes a continuation bet, indicating a big pair. Cary calls; we may never know what he had. More adrenaline, more excitement as the pot builds.
There is a physiological effect of excitement…
Arousal typically happens when the body releases chemicals into the brain that act to stimulate emotions, reduce cortical functioning and hence conscious control, and create physical agitation and ‘readiness for action.’ The endocrine system stimulates various glands, in particular adrenaline, which increases oxygen and glucose flow, dilates the pupils (so you can see better), and suppresses non-urgent systems such as digestion and the immune system. Arousal is spread through the Sympathetic Nervous System, with effects such as increasing the heart rate and breathing to enable physical action and perspiration to cool the body.
When a person is excited, their emotions become more powerful and can affect their decision-making abilities. Excited people are more likely to make a decision — any decision (even a bad one). Excitement leads to impulsivity.
Jared Tendler is a poker mental game coach and the author of The Mental Game of Poker and The Mental Game of Poker 2, two books this blogger owns and strongly endorses. I asked Jared about the brain function and physiology that makes Adam’s shift from “Yes! I’m going to win a big pot here” to “Uh, I guess I’m beat and have to fold” so difficult to do in real time. Jared said “This kind of emotional control, for some people, is the hardest thing to learn. Learning the ins and outs of poker is far simpler by comparison“ and pointed out that “some people naturally have this ability, and without talking with him it’s possible that Adam does. But the good news for those who don’t have that ability, is that it can be learned.“
What makes Adam’s fold a world-class poker play is that he reestablished emotional control, in real time. Most people cannot stop themselves, like the alcoholic in our TV/movie scene once the first drink goes down. It’s just too damn hard. Tantalus always wins, not because of mythology, but because of biology. An observer might blandly comment that it’s an easy fold, because blah, blah, blah and therefore Adam’s bottom set is obviously no good. That same observer might also think the TV/movie alcoholic should stop after taking a single drink from Tantalus. The observer can think clearly, his or her brain not being flooded with adrenaline (or acetaldehyde, the chemical released in excess in the brains of alcoholics).
Fantastic work Adam, very professional fold! Then again, THEY ALWAYS HAVE IT.
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