Understanding and Fixing Mistakes

Sami Kelopuro
The bigger the decision, the bigger the possible mistake.

Poker is a game of choices; whether you win or lose the pot you're currently in, every time you make a mistake in poker, you ultimately lose money.

If you want to make money instead, without having to rely on being lucky, you need to cut down those mistakes, plain and simple.

The most acute way to eliminate mistakes from your game is to learn from the ones you do make.

To learn from a mistake, you have to:

  1. Make the mistake
  2. Understand and admit it was a mistake
  3. Figure out what the better move would have been
  4. Figure out why that's the better move
  5. Apply it to your game.

Identifying a Mistake

What exactly is a poker "mistake?"

David Sklansky tried to classify a poker mistake with his fundamental theory of poker, which says if you acted any differently than you would have had you known exactly what your opponent's cards were, then you've made a mistake.

Part of this theory includes his idea of "Sklansky Dollars," which, in short, is the money you would have won or lost in a hand if it worked out according to the odds.

David Sklansky
David Sklansky himself.

Meaning if you're a 60/40 favorite when the money goes in, whether you win or lose you've earned 60% of the pot in Sklansky Dollars.

Lots of poker professionals, though, think this definition is inadequate. It's not exactly incorrect, but it's too black and white for a game as complex as poker.

Say you have A K and your opponent has 9 9; flop comes Q 8 4.

By the fundamental theory, you'd be making a mistake doing anything other than check-folding. Your opponent has you beat, so you shouldn't put any more money into the pot.

In reality, depending on the player, there's a very good chance your opponent will fold to a bet. And that can't be measured accurately enough to be factored into Sklansky Dollars.

So what's a mistake then? Essentially anytime you make a play other than the "optimal" play, you've made a mistake.

Unfortunately, most poker hands fall into a grey area where there's no simple cut-and-dry, correct way to play the hand.

The better rule of thumb is if you feel like you made a mistake, you probably did.

Anytime you think "I could have won more" or "I could have lost less," there's a decent chance you're right. Red flag those situations for future contemplation and discussion.

G-Bucks

To figure out the optimal choice, you have to ignore Sklansky Dollars completely. It's nearly impossible to know exactly what your opponent holds, so the best you can do is narrow it down to a range.

Enter Phil Galfond's G-Bucks.

For a full article on G-Bucks, head here. But in short, G-Bucks are used to evaluate your hand against your opponent's possible range of hands or vice versa.

The optimal choice is the most profitable choice against an opponent's range over a long period of time. So even if they had the nuts in the actual hand you played, moving all in can still be the optimal choice if that hand is legitimately a very small part of his range.

There's no quick, one-stop answer to figuring out the optimal choice. Factor in pot odds, ranges, images and betting patterns, then go and discuss.

Talking these scenarios out with someone who has a better understanding of the game than you is invaluable.

OMG Clay Aiken!!!1
Phil Galfond, creator of G-Bucks.

The Why

Once you figure out the optimal choice, you need to decipher exactly why it's the best choice.

It's important not to gloss over this. Knowing what the optimal choice was in one specific hand is of almost zero help to you as a player.

You need to break it down to the roots of the problem and the reasons behind the solution. Once you understand the "why," you can apply it to your skill set and use it when faced with a similar situation in the future.

Memorizing hands and plays can only get you so far.

Application

This is the most crucial part. All of this analytical work is useless if you don't apply the final result to your game.

If you understand the mistake, figure out where the leak is, uncover how the leak got there, but then never plug it, you're just going to sink again once you touch the water.

Figure out the best play, figure out why it's the best play, figure out why you didn't make it in the first place, and then fix the problem.

The more you do this, the fewer mistakes you'll make and the less severe the ones you do make will become.

As Tommy Angelo says, it makes no sense to put work into your "A" game, when it's your "C" game that's losing you all the money.

There's very little room to improve on the hands and situations you already play well, so concentrate on the parts of your game you handle poorly.

Fix the mistakes, and you'll lose far less money. In the end, that translates into winning more.

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Sean 2009-06-19 19:25:00

Sorry to be pushy, but I don't think you understand the fundamental theorem. If you know what your opponent has (9-9, in this case) and you know there is a positive expected value to betting, then you should bet. The theorem in no way says otherwise. It does not say that you should only bet when you have the best chance to win at showdown. Only that it is a mistake to play other than you would if you knew their hand, which in this case would also include knowing how hard it would be for them to call bets with overcards on the board.

I don't think the fundamental theorem is intended to be 'applied' to any hand in progress. It's not a system. It's simply a way of identifying the perfect play in a mathematical/game-theoretical sense.

Okay, I'm stepping off my soapbox now. Take my thoughts on this as you will.

I will also mention, though, that the topic and the message of the article are great. This is a critical skill for any poker player. Thanks!

Sean Lind 2009-06-19 17:22:00

It's not the exact opposite really, since if you bet and they call, you're making a mistake, betting with the worst hand.

If you don't bet, then you're making a mistake not giving them the opportunity to make a mistake.

Sklansky's theorem here is a catch 22, rendering it completely useless. Even sklansky dollars are useless, as the actual hand they have that time is irrelevant.

The game is all about ranges... either way, the fine points about the theorem aren't overly important to this article anyways, so I'm not too worried. But thanks for the input, always appreciated.

Sean 2009-06-19 02:42:00

I think this is a misrepresentation of Sklansky's Fundamental Theorem of Poker. Sklansky dollars are simply there to help our minds factor out the variance due to luck, so that we correctly separate the good plays from the bad ones, regardless of the outcome of an individual hand. It's just another way of expressing expected value.

According to the theorem, when you play other than you would if knew what your opponent was holding you lose, and ALSO if your opponent plays other than if they knew what you were holding, YOU WIN. In your example, if you check-fold all the way, you aren't giving your opponent the opportunity to make a mistake by folding. This is the exact opposite of what Sklansky's theorem advises.

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