Poker Brain Farts and the Rule of 10

Isaac Baron

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.

Phil Hellmuth
Even people channeling Hellmuth can wake up with a hand.

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.

Chip stack
Brain farts get you stacked.

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.

Andrew Moseley
Most players are on auto-pilot.

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.

Allen Cunningham
What's the fix? Count.

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."

Author Bio:

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.

More strategy articles from Arthur S. Reber:

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MICHAEL NATORSKI 2012-04-02 12:49:26


me 2011-11-29 09:54:16

so you need to fold trip aces with a king kicker,because someone might have the one hand that beats you? seems way to tight to me

Golfplayer11 2011-11-27 23:54:22

Really good article, need to practise it. Perhaps if I read this sooner, it may have saved me from the brain fart that cost me around $700.

$4/$8 NLH. Buy-Ins from $300 to $800.

I was down all night having fully rebought once. At one stage I was down to $320 and then managed to quadruple up in one hand in a limped pot by flopping the nut straight, and getting called All In by a lower straight, the nut flush, and the second nut flush draw and straight draw on the Flop.

A few hands later, I hold Aces in Mid position. All folded to me. Raised to $32 and got called by the Blinds. Tight table. Pot $96

Flop 7+3+2 rainbow. Small Blind bets $55, Big Blind folds and I elect to smooth call. My read was that he was value betting an overpair on this board. Pot $206.

Turn 4 with 2 diamonds on the board. Small Blind bets $150 with $450 behind.

At this moment came the brain fart and the "All-In" came out of me, and an instant call from the SB with Fours. River bricked, and well done brain….undoing most of the previous good work….

Hank 2011-11-26 01:37:05

Farty smokes.. you always copy what other have said. Also a lot of you other comments on here are always way off and full of clap trap.

Arty Smokes 2011-06-04 14:04:25

Great article. I too often have these brain farts and realise my mistake the moment I click the mouse on the 'call' button. It's nearly always because of the bad habit of presuming I have the best hand (the "invincible" aces, for example), so I've already decided I'm going to call or raise no matter what the player in front of me does. It happens particularly often if I have AA. Flop might be Q 10 7, and a tilting player suddenly goes all in. Since I was planning to raise, I insta-call, without considering that the opponent has queens up or a set. Removing my hand from the mouse after each click is something that slows me down a little, and it buys me a couple of seconds to actually think before clicking. When holding a monster, you shouldn't be thinking "I'm gonna raise when it comes round to me." You should think "I'll wait and see what the opponents do, and THEN make a decision". Decisions made in haste are often regretted over longer time periods!

Pepito 2010-11-28 22:35:27

I have this habit of instant response when playing online. Brain fart as you eloquently call the phenomena.

I developed the habit of lifting my hand from the mouse before any and all clicks. This gives my brain a second more to let second though emerge and make a better decision.

Thank you for the great articles.

Jay 2009-06-05 07:29:00

Reber, you mention that a raise of $100 would have been the best move as it would have isolated the player on tilt and committed him into the pot.

This would most likely encourage him to re-raise all-in with the tilt factor (not to mention QQ). Lets say he had the same amount as you. Would you feel comfortable calling $1000 preflop with AK? In this case would you call or fold?

mathias 2008-09-13 22:48:00

btw. there are some things that are very interesting concerning brainfarts. to me it seems, the most brainfarters are calls, sometimes folds, but seldomly raises.
also, how one instantly realizes that the move was bad, just in the moment, where it is too late. (i know you already wrote this, but i find it so astonishing, i have to repeat it).
maybe sometimes it also has something to do with denying reality, like in the example hand you provided. you had very nice hand, two pair and flush draw, at the stakes i play there's no player folding something like this.
to me it seems like something in your brain, deep down, didn't accept that such a hand is not good. i don't know about you, but i think that's sometimes the case with, and it is my biggest leak. just today i made a brainfarter with AKs myself (a much stupider one than you, but on a very smaller level).
writing about it, i just realized, that maybe the AK is the brainfarter hand #1.
why would that be? AK is a difficult hand to play, but so are some of the weaker broadway non paired hands.
i just comes to my mind, that AK is the hand, that has the less similarities to other hands. i mean AA and KK can be played similar, as well as 78s and 76s. while the difference between AK and AQ is much bigger. well i'm starting to get off-topic. sorry for the long comment. a short reply would be appreciated. peace!

mathias 2008-09-13 22:34:00

Thanx very much for the article. I have these brainfarts myself from time to time, exactly the way you described them.
but i'm playing online, where you don't really can count to ten, well, unless you count really fast. but this would propably add to the stress and therefore being contraproductive..
any mehtods of help for online poker would be very appreciated!
on the other hand, having a name for this wil already help a bit, i guess.

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