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Poker Brain Farts and the Rule of 10
I know; it's not the most elegant of titles, but read on. You'll understand.
Here's a recent hand I "got broke" on. I don't want sympathy; frankly, I don't deserve any.
I'm writing this because the situation I was in is quite common and psychologically interesting.
There is a technical term for the principle that underlies the situation I will describe. It's called a brain fart. (OK, so it's not a technical term.)
It's $2/$5 No-Limit Hold'em. I am on the button with a stack of just over a thousand. The player on my right has just taken a hideous beat and is tilting like a three-legged pinball machine.
He has just rebought for $300. The big blind is solid, tough and has me covered.
It's checked to Tiltboy, who makes it $35 to go (it's a very aggressive game; opening raises between five and 10 BBs are typical).
I insta-called with A♠ K♠ and in the time it took for me to slide seven redbirds over the line I heard my brain shout at me: "Brain fart, Reber. You're an idiot!"
Why Did the Mistake Dominate?
Psychologically, this is fascinating. Within a microsecond I knew the call was not the best move here (why? see below).
So, both thoughts ("call good" and "call bad") were present in my head.
Why did the mistake dominate? Why didn't my brain, my faithful servant for so many decades, get the right thought in there?
Ponder these things while the hand gets played out.
SB folds, solid player calls. The pot is $97. The flop: A♦ A♣ 5♠.
I flop trips, top kicker and a back-door flush draw. The BB checks; Tiltboy bets $75.
I smooth-call to induce a call from the BB, who cooperates. Pot = $322.
The turn is 8♠. I pick up the nut flush draw. BB checks again and Tiltboy goes all-in for his remaining $190.
I smooth-call again. BB raises to $500.
Why So Much?
Whoa! Surprise. My first thought is, "Why so much?"
It feels like he's trying to push me out of the hand with a weaker ace. If he's sitting on a monster, why not just smooth-call?
So I do the "insta all-in," the dramatic wave of the hands.
Before my wave even crosses the top of my stack my addled brain screams at me, "Man, you think the first one was a stinker - now you are chief crepitator on the planet."
Indeed. Of course he calls and shows me pocket fives. To add insult to injury, I hit the flush.
FWIW, Tiltboy hurls pocket queens into the muck face up (don't forget, even people channeling Phil Hellmuth can wake up with a hand).
Where It Went South
Okay, let's now analyze the hand and see where it went south. Then let's look at the psychology of the brain fart.
The first mistake was the smooth-call before the flop. It's not terrible, but raising is better.
Tiltboy can have anything. I am almost certainly a favorite and I need to isolate him.
Letting in one of the blinds complicates things. A raise of about $100 would do it - get rid of the blinds and get Tiltboy pot-committed.
The second mistake was failing to take into account all the possible (and sensible) holdings of the BB.
While I might have gotten all my chips in anyway, at least I could have done it thoughtfully.
The Hallmark of the Brain Fart
So, what's going on in cases like this? Note the key feature, speed.
It's the hallmark of the brain fart. You see it in ultra-quick calls of a raise, in sudden all-in moves.
They just seem to pop out of nowhere. Almost always they are mistakes and, almost always, big ones.
Brain farts don't just cost you a couple of BBs. They get you stacked.
Psychologically they are based on habit hierarchies.
In most situations we all have a variety of reactions we can make, a number of possible ways to respond, and they form a hierarchy, from those that are most likely to occur at the top to those that we exhibit only infrequently below them.
Habit Hierarchies Run Top Down
The ones at the top tend to be the ones we learned first, the ones that are most practiced. But the others are there, in our brains, lurking, waiting.
Most poker players play pretty much on automatic pilot. We fold, call and raise in a fairly standard fashion.
We go with choices from the top of our hierarchies.
For the majority of situations, that's fine. Calling a big late-position raise with A-K suited when there are only two more players to act, both of whom will be out of position, is at the top of most players' hierarchies.
But a level down are reraising to get more money in the pot and reraising to isolate an off-the-rails opponent.
Often, these other plays don't work their way into consciousness in the fraction of a second it takes to call the raise.
Here's Where the Stress Comes In
How about the all-in move? Here the culprit was stress.
When we're under stress, or when we are surprised, we are even more likely to go with our initial impulse, the one at the top of the hierarchy.
We typically don't dig below the surface levels.
That's what happened here. I was surprised (and, of course, stressed) by his raise and, alas, went with my first read rather than probing deeper.
BTW, stress is a singly important element in poker. See my two recent columns exploring it.
The Rule of 10
That's the problem. What's the fix?
Here's my suggestion: The Rule of 10. Any situation that calls for a bet, call or raise that is greater than 10 times the big blind, stop and count to 10.
You don't need to think. Just count.
This will let the immediate impulse fade a bit and give you the time to mull over alternatives.
Implementing the rule won't be easy for an obvious, if paradoxical, reason: it'll be a new way of behaving and, being new, will be low on your habit hierarchy.
In fact, be ready for the situation where, just as your lips form the words "all-in," your brain screams at you, "Brain fart! You forgot to count to 10."
Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and co-author of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.
Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.