Reraising with nothing is a rush when it comes off, but aggressive players will get caught
out in the end. Paul Jackson explains why it’s wise to forget flair and play by the numbers
It may be seductive to believe Texas hold ’em poker is all about instinct and ‘having a feeling’ about cards, but it’s not. Winning poker is all about mathematics. Every feeling we get as we play, and every decision and every turn of every card, comes down to correctly assessing probabilities.
If you think that sounds a bit dull and prefer to mix it up by playing with more flair, perhaps you should ask yourself why you’re playing poker in the first place. In my opinion, winning poker players are those who think more about probability than feeling, and play resolutely by the numbers.
I’m a methodical player, as are my most successful poker friends, Conor Tate (12th in the WSOP main event in 2005) and Iwan Jones (winner of the 2005 London Poker Open). You may wish to call us plodders. We plod our way through the early stages of a tournament hoping to maximise profit situations and take advantage of the mistakes of the loose, flair players who have no concept of risk reward.
In the early stages of a tournament, the reward you receive for the risk you take is a very important concept. To be honest, it’s really just common sense to most people. Obviously, in the latter stages of an event, when the blinds are much higher in relation to stack sizes and/or if you’re short stacked, then you have to take greater risks and can’t just sit there waiting for premium hands. The careful plodder may well get to the latter stages, but unless he then gets a highly improbable run of good cards, he’ll really need to open up and play a bit more loosely.
Nonetheless, in order to achieve the greatest longterm success, you need to make the correct mathematical decision as often as possible. This means knowing where you are in a hand at all times. The correct thought process is about making the right decision – even if that leads to the wrong outcome. Clear as mud? Well, those of you who believe that the correctness or otherwise of the action should be based on the final outcome of the hand are thinking in very narrow terms.
Whatever decision you make has to be informed by the information available to you when you’re required to make your decision. That’s the only time when the validity of a person’s action can be properly judged. It’s not simply a case of ‘He who wins the hand knows best’. Take the common situation that will play out in the early stages of a no-limit tournament: flair players will take advantage of plodders’ survival instinct and exert great pressure with large over-bets and reraises. They’re working on the basis that the initial raiser probably won’t hold a hand strong enough to continue in the hand. The flair player will then often say he has ‘pushed you off your hand’.
However, let’s consider that over-used phrase in a bit more detail. To push someone off a hand inherently implies that the opponent actually has a hand that could call. Why on earth would you choose this situation as a spot to reraise someone? It makes no sense to me – but, then, as I said, I’m just a plodder. If I was to try to put a move on an opponent when I had little or no hand, then I’d pick a spot where opponents had little or no hand themselves. There’s a very fine line between having a reasonable belief that your opponent will fold if you bet enough (pushing them off a hand) and throwing your chips into a pot with the same considered thought as a chimpanzee in a tree shoving the nearest banana down its throat.
For example, say you were in a no-limit tournament and on the third occasion that someone raises up to three times the blind, you just reraise all-in with any two cards. You’ll either win the pot with the bet (the most probable outcome), get called and bad beat your opponent (unless you happen to have a good hand), or knock yourself out of the tournament. If either of the first two options occur, will you regard yourself as either a good player or at least a better player than you previously were? If you do, then I would suggest you take a closer look at your playing style.
Winning in that situation is rather like driving home from work every day and ignoring all the red lights. On the odd occasion that you manage to get home in one piece, you’ll arrive early and can tell everyone what a good driver you are, and be admired by likeminded drivers.
The aggressive activity of flair players does have its benefits, though, even though the risk reward is a bit dodgy and these players often get knocked out early if running into a hand. If they make it past the early stages, then they have the ‘fat’ to avoid a bad beat and remain in the tournament.
The flair player will also get respect in the early stages, but not for the same reason as plodders. Flair players get respect or are feared because they over-bet and take advantage of other players’ desire not to get knocked out, or they play huge pots early on without having the absolute nuts.
The problem is that in the latter stages of a tournament – when the other players have seen them playing with such ‘flair’ for hours, the blinds are higher and some players are more desperate – aggressive players are far less likely to get away with their flair moves. Plodders, on the other hand, will tend to get respect for their raises because the likelihood is that when they raise, they have a premium hand.
Players who can marry the two types of game together are highly successful, but with the two completely different mind-sets required, it’s an extremely difficult thing to do. The average aggressive player doesn’t have the ability to switch down and play at a lower gear. Many of the flair players only have two gears – ‘very fast’ and ‘oh dear, my brakes have gone’.
I strongly recommend that players first try the plodder approach and incorporate some flair plays as they become more experienced. If you start off as a flair-type player, you’ll have enormous difficulty playing like a plodder, as it will seem boring and you can’t ‘allow players to run over you’ or ‘push you around’. Reraising with nothing is a great feeling when you get away with it, but like most things that give us that adrenalin rush, it’s best kept in moderation. You may love to gamble, but isn’t it better to gamble your stack with seven players left than to do it with 97 left?
You may well be wondering what would happen if everyone was a plodder. Wouldn’t it just end up being the luckiest player who wins if everyone was playing the same careful, mathematical way? Well, no. People will have different ways of accumulating the information they need to make their decisions and will arrive at different conclusions as a result. Poker then becomes a test of the decision-making process rather than just the end result of the decision, which is a much easier playing style to refine.
However, plodders don’t always have it their own way. The main problem with being a plodder is that you usually get knocked out with a bad beat and the injustice of this when you have played correctly from a mathematical point of view can be painful. Flair players don’t often suffer this sort of thing and when they do, they don’t know or don’t care that a mathematical injustice has occurred.
My personal view is that flair players are like a football team managed by Kevin Keegan – they won’t win very often but will look good when they do. Although there are many young, aggressive newcomers who don’t like the boring, plodder style of us old farts, I look forward to seeing how many of today’s flair players are still playing full-time poker in five years’ time.