How to Find and Fix Your Poker Mistakes

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Poker is a game of decisions.

And regardless of whether you win or lose the pot you're currently in, every time you make a less-than-optimal decision - aka a "mistake" - you ultimately lose money.

If you want to make money in poker without having to rely on being lucky, you need to cut down those mistakes, plain and simple. The best 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 Poker Mistakes

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.

David Sklansky poker mistakes

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.

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 is Q 8 4.

By the fundamental theory you're 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 poker 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.

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If It Feels Like a Mistake, It Probably Is

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.

We all know the number of mistakes you make in poker will directly affect your overall win rate. The fewer mistakes the better, obviously. But are all mistakes created equal?

Poker is a game dominated by short-term luck. Yes, in the long term all the good players will win and all the bad players will lose. But there is luck involved. That is undeniable.

poker mistakes how to fix leaks

Players can often be making mistakes without even realizing that they are in fact errors. They can make several in a hand and yet still go on to win the pot because of the influence of luck on the outcome of the game.

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Big Poker Mistakes vs. Small Poker Mistakes

The difference between small poker mistakes and big poker mistakes is, well, huge. Say that every single time you flop quads you open-shove no matter what the size of the pot is.

Is this a mistake? For sure. It's not the most profitable way to play quads. More often than not your opponent will fold. But is it a small mistake or a big one?

Obviously, it's a small mistake. Quads, after all, occur very infrequently If you're dealt 5,000 hands you may only hit quads once or twice. Since flopping quads is so rare, even if you open-shoved every single time you could still be a winning player.

Big Poker Mistakes Separate Winners from Losers

Big mistakes are what separate the overall poker winners from overall poker losers. These are mistakes that can happen every single orbit and make it extremely difficult to be a winning player long term.

An example of a big mistake (which may actually seem like a small mistake initially) would be regularly calling raises from out of position with dominated hands.

If this is a mistake of yours it doesn't matter how good the rest of your game is; you just will not be a winning player. Playing with a worse hand out of position is just too big an obstacle to overcome.

You will be put into so many difficult spots that your mistakes will compound and you'll throw money away every time you play.

Calling too much is another example of a big mistake. Calling stations routinely play way too many hands and take them too far. Since they throw money away almost every hand they'll never be long-term winners.

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Most Players Have Small Leaks

No poker player is immune to mistakes. Most players have small "leaks" in their game - things that they can do better. Examples of small mistakes are things like:

  • Not value betting the river enough when in position or
  • Calling too many raises with low pocket pairs

If you don't value bet the river enough that just means you'll never get check-raised. In the long run that means you're leaving money on the table. If you call too much with small pocket pairs, even though you will stack someone occasionally in the long run you'll just bleed money.

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Great Poker Players Don't Let Mistakes Compound

Poker is a game of decisions. It doesn't matter if you're multi-tabling online or playing a single table live, you'll be put to the test often and every decision is important.

poker leaks
Great players correct course quickly.

You're playing poker - by definition, you win money by making better decisions than your opponents. The fewer bad decisions you make, the more success you will have.

Mistakes are inevitable however. Nobody plays perfect poker, and even the best in the world make mistakes.

If nobody made mistakes, nobody would ever win in the long run. Everyone would just trade money back and forth playing perfect poker while slowly losing money to the rake. That's not my idea of fun. Mistakes are what fuel the poker economy.

So if even the best players in the world make mistakes, what makes them different from you or me?

Great players never let their mistakes compound. They take each decision independently and make the very best choice of action they possibly can. When new players make a mistake they often fall off the rails and allow their blunders to multiply.

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Here's an example:

$1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em; effective stacks are $200. Villain raises to $12 from the button. You mis-click and accidentally call with 4 7 from the big blind. The board comes 5 6 A. Villain bets $20.

Allowing the mistake to compound? You just call or fold because you mis-clicked pre-flop.

The flop now changes the hand completely and you have an open-ended straight flush draw. Though you made a mistake pre-flop the bigger mistake would be to fold the flop and/or play the flop passively. Your best move now would be to raise.

Another example:

$1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em; effective stacks $200. It's folded to you on the button. You raise to $7 with T 9. The big blind, who is one of the tighter players at the table, reraises to $20.

You believe he would only do this with big pocket pairs and A-K, and decide you can stack him if you hit a straight and call (perhaps flawed thinking in itself).

The board comes T 3 4 and he bets $30. You now have top pair, and since you elected to call pre-flop you talk yourself into calling the flop.

The turn drops the 7 and he bets $65. Now you feel you have too much invested to fold so you call the turn. The river comes off 2 and he bets his last $85.

You feel you're pot-committed and make the call. This is an awful hand and a classic example of mistakes building on one another.

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Don't Let Misplay Lead to Tilt

You did one thing right - you raised pre-flop. After that the hand is a full-on debacle. You let your problems compound and you didn't once think things through in order to make the best possible decision.

The three-bet from a tight player clearly shows strength. Don't bother trying to outflop him; chances are if you make a big hand this tightwad isn't going to pay you off anyway.

Then the flop comes and you make top pair. After he bets there's nothing that you can beat but you choose to call again. You then make yourself feel pot-committed and end up stacking off with one pair.

This is not good decision making. This is getting yourself emotionally tied up in a hand and opting for the wrong course of action - more than once.

Instead of one misplayed street you now have a completely misplayed hand. On top of that you may go on tilt and ruin an entire session, or worse. Good poker players don't let things like this happen. So what's their secret?

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Phil Galfond poker

What's the Secret to Better Poker?

"Every time the action is on you it is your opportunity to make the best possible decision." - Phil Galfond

It doesn't matter if you're in the middle of a downswing or you just got sucked out on or you mis-click raised to see the flop. When the action is on you the only thing that matters is that you decide on the optimum play.

Doing so requires thought. Meaning if you're still obsessing about that hand where you just donked off a stack, you won't have a clear enough head to make the right decision.

You're better off quitting the game than you are playing in this state. You need to get past the last hand and focus on the situation you're now faced with.

Make that your goal. As soon as you stop letting your mistakes pile up and start taking each decision as it comes, you'll be on the way to becoming a better player.

Phil Galfond's 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. 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.

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Understanding the Why of Poker Mistakes

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.

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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.

How to Fix Your Poker Mistakes

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'll just 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.

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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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