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Texas Holdem Poker

THE THINNEST OF LINES


by: Lou Krieger

Some gaps are wider than others. It’s a long way across the Grand Canyon. Barry Bonds can hit a baseball twice as far as I can and then some. If the legend is true, and George Washington really did throw a silver dollar across the Potomac, he certainly didn’t accomplish that feat at Mount Vernon, where he lived. The river is simply too wide at that point.

You’ll never come close to hitting a golf ball like Tiger Woods, and if Michael Jordan spotted me 19 baskets in a 20 basket game of one-on-one, he’d still be a prohibitive favorite to beat me. It wouldn’t even be close.

You get the idea. Some gaps are enormous chasms. Others are narrower. I’ve read that the average American lives two paychecks away from destitution. Even with a steady job, Mr. Average American is awfully close to that poverty line — and as anyone who’s been downsized and outplaced can tell you, times tighten up rather quickly when that paycheck stops arriving.

Although many players are quick to employ the poker-is-a-sport metaphor, in reality it’s a lot more like real life, particularly when one considers the gap between players of differing abilities. If you are a beginning or even an experienced player who has a hard time winning consistently, you can take solace in the fact that the gap between winning and losing poker players is not as wide as you may have been led to believe. If you, on the other hand, are a winning player, be careful: you’re probably not that much better than your adversaries.

The gap between players is narrow, and narrow gaps can be crossed. That’s the good news. The bad news is that even good players who develop leaks in either their game or their discipline frequently cross that gap in the wrong direction.

Statisticians will tell you that poker is a game where the variance, as measured by the standard deviation, is large when compared to the average amount of money won or lost per hour. This is math wonk jargon for saying that there’s a lot of short-term luck in poker, and very good as well as very bad players will occasionally experience results that are completely at odds with their respective skill levels.

This sort of thing doesn’t occur when gaps are wider. Gary Kasparov, I’m sure, could awaken from a five-day drunken stupor and annihilate me in a chess match without so much as a sobering cup of coffee. Some gaps are just too wide to cross.

A poker gap, however, is really quite slim A good professional ring-game player is generally happy to win one big bet per hour. But the amount of money wagered to capture that one big bet can be substantial. In a $20-$40 game, for example, I fork over approximately $100 per hour in blinds, along with $14 in time collection. Each hand played to the river will cost $120, assuming the pot is not raised.

It’s very likely that I will wager upwards of $600 every hour in my efforts to eke out a one-bet win — on average — from all this activity. When the line is so fine…so thin…so narrow, errors can be catastrophic. If I make a mistake that costs me the entire pot, I’ll have to play one entire day to rectify that momentary lapse in judgment.

If I’m smart enough to save just one losing bet every hour, I can increase my hourly win rate from one to two big bets. After all, money saved is just as valuable as money won.

Good players don’t have to go on tilt very long, nor is a catastrophic core meltdown required — just a slight list to the port or starboard will do — for them to cross that narrow line between winning or losing one big bet per hour.

In my opinion, game selection is the most important decision one makes at the poker table. I’m not the only one to hold this view either; others have said mush the same thing. Do you see why? In a soft game with loose, passive players, who are likely to call when they should fold, those extra bets gained can increase one’s expected win rate from one to two, or even three big bets per hour.

While game selection is the most important decision one generally makes as a poker player, it goes without saying that discipline is essential to winning, even in loose, passive games. Without discipline it is easy — as well as all too common — for players to throw off money that needn’t be lost. Think about your it. Haven’t you made calls you know were incorrect? Haven’t you played hunches on occasion? You have, I have, and everyone I know has. I often wonder if there is a single soul who plays perfect poker all the time.

Even so, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to that ideal. Without a vision to guide us, how will we ever be able to improve? How can we assess the quality of our own play, unless it is measured against a standard of excellence we believe we can get to if we try.

The dark side of this equation is that poker players often succumb to negative forces. It happens all the time. Many players probably spend their entire poker career wandering aimlessly between winning and losing play. Even winning players spend some of their time playing like losers, and losing players do play well on occasion.

We’ve all seen this. A good run of cards can make an otherwise mediocre player start playing well. While a few bat beats — sometimes all it takes is one — can tilt a good player sufficiently far enough off center that he begins to chase, or play like a maniac, in an attempt to recoup lost money he believes was rightfully his.

The gap between mediocrity and good play cannot be explained completely away by relative differences in knowledge. After all, even novices knows they shouldn’t play a hand like 9-4. But sometimes they do. “It was suited,” they’ll say, “…and besides, I just had a feeling.” But the cost of these momentary lapses can easily exceed one big bet per hour. When that happens, the gap begins to widen, and that narrowest of lines now looks like the Grand Canyon.

If poor plays are costing you too much money, there is just not enough skill differential between you and your opponents to overcome it. Winning play takes knowledge, to be sure. But it is predicated on a foundation of discipline, and a desire to win that is so strong, so compelling, that one cannot allow even a momentary lapse in judgment to distract their aim and focus.

When Ireland’s Noel Furlong winning the World series of Poker a few years back, and countryman Padraig Parkinson took third, there’s a fitting adage in the Irish language that should be close to the hearts of poker players everywhere: Ni bhionn an rath ach mar a mbionn an smacht. The translation reads: “There is no luck except where there is discipline.”

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