Poker abounds with quickies - one-liners that seem to carry a cartload of wisdom.
Some indeed do.
Some favorites of mine are:
- Doyle Brunson's "Never go broke in an unraised pot"
- The uncredited "Small hands, small pots; big hands, big pots"
- and the wildly popular, "If you can't spot the fish in the first half-hour, it's you."
Most one-offs come from the greats or get filtered down through the culture of the game. And, like aphorisms everywhere, they are admirable for their clean, efficient encoding of deep truths.
Alas, there are others that abound in poker rooms that come up short in the wisdom department but are far more common and more commonly believed. I'd like to dissect a couple of them for you.
I hope there's a poker lesson here, and I hope even more that having read these you'll stop repeating them.
1. "I Crushed the Game Last Night at ____ (fill in poker room of your choice)."
If you "crushed the game" you should really not give yourself much credit.
No one deserves any special accolades for a single big win.
In the room where I play we have a school (metaphorically speaking) of semi-fish. They're actually reasonable players - not particularly gifted, not truly awful.
The game is too big to support the genuinely piscine; they would go broke too quickly.
Our partial fish just lose more than they win but, of course, without them the game would wither away.
One of these scaly folk must have stepped in something on his way in the other day. He caught cards that you would not believe.
It gave new meaning to the phrase "hit in the head with the deck." He walked away with two racks of greenies and over 4,000 coconuts in profit.
Not bad for a fish.
So, what do I hear from him next time I see him? I hear that he "crushed the game."
And not just that he crushed it. He now seems to think he's the best player in town because he recorded one of the bigger wins we've seen in months.
Interesting. He got so lucky that he didn't believe it either, so it must have been skill.
Nothing Wrong With Being Lucky in Poker
Frankly, he didn't crush the game. He just got very lucky. And, you know what? There's nothing wrong with that.
He hit two sets when he got involved in big pots with underpairs. He hit a monster runner-runner flush that chopped down a flopped set of aces, and virtually all his made hands held up.
If this sort of thing happens to you, just stack the chips quietly and don't, for a second, try to convince yourself that you're suddenly channeling Chip Reese.
My take on this: No one "crushes" a game in a single session.
If you log a big win you got lucky. You may have played well (when you're winning you tend to play better than when you're losing - an important topic we'll discuss on another day) but it wasn't your brilliant play that got you out with 1,000 big blinds; it was luck.
If you really crush a game, you beat it for five or more big blinds an hour for at least 500 hours - and, frankly, that's too small a sample to be really confident it reflects your true win rate.
Moreover, players who win at that rate will never be heard saying they crushed a game.
2. "I Outplayed the Guy that Hand."
This one is heard most often when a so-so player finds himself sitting at a table with a respected, top drawer player, especially when that opponent is a pro.
When you hear it you can usually piece together what happened. He got into a hand with the pro, made a good read and ran a bluff that got the pro to lay down the best hand.
This, he believes, means that he outplayed the guy. And, like the "crushed the game" line, it's true in only superficial ways and false in all the deep and meaningful ones.
Yes, you outplayed him in that you made the right move at the right time and won with a hand that wasn't the best. So what?
Here are two things to think about:
One, solid players lay down the best hand far more often than weak players. There is no shame in dumping a hand that could be best when the conditions call for it.
The pot could be small, the player could be out of position, the play up till then could have had ambiguous elements to it that made the bluffer difficult to read and so forth.
Two, "outplaying" someone is like "crushing a game" in that it isn't done in a short time span.
Just like it takes hundreds of hours and thousands of hands before anyone can begin to feel confident that they are truly, unambiguously beating a game, it takes a similar amount of time and experience before someone can conclude that they can reliably outplay an opponent.
I'm not sure where the "crushed" bit came from but the "outplayed" line was heard, famously, in the movie Rounders.
The hero Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon (who, as most of you know, is actually a pretty solid poker player), pushes Johnny Chan out of a hand in a high-stakes game at the Taj in Atlantic City.
He later exults in how he now thinks he is really ready for prime time since he outplayed the great Chan on a single hand.
When I hear someone say that they outplayed someone on a hand I think, like Daniel Negreanu said when asked what he thought when Phil Hellmuth sat down in his high-stakes cash game, "Yum, yum."
Do yourself a favor the next time one of these lines (or any number of other silly things people say at poker tables) starts moving from your brain to your tongue:
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 coauthor 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.