Bad habits

Just because you’ve taken down a big tournament, it doesn’t mean you’ve made all the right decisions

There is a particular type of mistake that is extremely common in the poker world. It’s been around since the first time the game was played, and it’s increasingly prevalent today. It’s a mistake you’ve probably made yourself, and it’s a mistake you’ll see made on TV by professional players with amazing regularity. I’m talking about ‘results-oriented thinking’. To illustrate what it is, let’s take a silly example.

I’m not much of a gambler when it comes to non-poker activities, but one weekend I decide to go crazy, forget everything I’ve learned over the past eight years, and buy a lottery ticket. On Saturday night, I watch in awe as three of my numbers come up, earning me ten beautiful pounds. ‘Great,’ I think, ‘I have cleverly picked the right numbers. I’ll do the lottery every week. I’ll be rich!’

Of course, this is ridiculous. If I do the lottery every week, I’m just going to be a lot poorer at the end of the year. Playing the lottery is a negative expectation decision – for every £1 you put in, you can expect to get less than £1 back at the end of the year.

This is an example of results-oriented thinking – that is, I played the lottery, I won money, so playing the lottery must equal winning money. The lottery example may seem ridiculous, but this kind of thinking happens all the time in poker. I’m going to discuss five common situations where it happens, then talk about how you can avoid results- oriented thinking yourself.

Situation One

How often have you heard a player say something like, ‘I love K-9 suited. I always seem to win with it!’ This is an example of results-oriented thinking. Early in the person’s poker development, they may have won a key pot or two with this hand, perhaps by playing it more aggressively than was warranted or by drawing out on a much bigger hand. Their mind has associated the hand with the thrill of winning, so they go out of their way to play their ‘lucky’ hand in almost any future situation.

These so-called ‘lucky hands’ can cost you a lot of money if you’re reluctant to fold them, simply because you’ve won with them in the past. The truth is, no hand is luckier than any other, but some hands are significantly stronger in certain situations.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t randomise your play by choosing a hand to bluff with in the right conditions. Indeed, only recently I bluffed an opponent off pocket Kings pre-flop, holding my ‘randomiser’ 7-2 offsuit (it has also backfired on me, but it’s no fun telling that story). Be sure the conditions are right before you do so, and don’t play a hand regardless of the situation because it’s ‘lucky’, rather than good.


Try not to brand marginal hands that you’ve won with on the odd occasion as lucky. No hand is luckier than any other

Situation Two

A second area you regularly see results-oriented thinking is on TV, the internet, and in magazines after somebody wins a major tournament. The magazines often argue that the winner is an excellent player, pointing out the brilliant plays that won them the trophy. On the internet, you may see the same player heavily criticised because one bluff went wrong that was televised. But either could be true.

In the $5,000 pot-limit hold’em event at the 2007 WSOP, Allen Cunningham eliminated Jeffrey Lisandro to win the bracelet, holding K-9 offsuit against Lisandro’s pocket Queens, all-in pre-flop. If you judged Cunningham based on the results of that hand alone, you’d probably think he was a bad player who got extremely lucky to beat Lisandro. But in reality Cunningham is one of the best hold’em players alive.

Nobody is criticised for this more than the past few WSOP main event champions. The likes of Jerry Yang and Jamie Gold have taken more flak than almost anyone for their ‘terrible play’ and ‘luck’. But most of their critics are basing their judgement on just a few hands seen on TV. You can’t possibly know how strong a player these guys are. And the same principle applies to a player you have only seen a couple of times online. Don’t be too quick to judge.


You can’t simply judge a player based on the results of one key hand, or one tournament. Treat everyone with the respect they deserve as a winner, until you’ve played with them several times yourself

Scenario Three

Back at the table, another mistake made by amateur players manifests itself like this: player A raises pre-flop, player B calls and the flop comes Q-10-2. Player A checks, player B bets, player A folds – showing a pair of Jacks. ‘I hate Jacks,’ he says. ‘I always lose with Jacks.’ This is a classic example of results-oriented thinking. Pocket Jacks are a difficult hand to play and it’s easy for them to get outdrawn. But that doesn’t mean you should play scared when you hold such a hand and fold because you’ve been outdrawn, or have run into a bigger hand in the past.

In our example, player B’s range will obviously include hands with a Queen in them, but they could also have a hand like pocket nines, A-10 suited, a straight draw like K- J or even a complete bluff (the looser the player, the wider the range of hands). It’s a mistake to automatically check and fold to a bet on such a board against most players.

Scenario Four

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have discussed many hands on internet poker forums. You’ll also have seen many examples of results-oriented thinking. For example, a player posts this hand: ‘I was on the button, holding pocket Kings in a $5 sit&go with the blinds at 20/40. A player in middle position moved all-in for 1,500 chips. I called, but he showed pocket Aces and I was eliminated. Should I have folded and waited for a better spot?’

This player has made two key mistakes. First, he’s posted the results of the hand, which will taint all the replies he gets. Some players will post answers like: ‘Yes, you should fold,’ simply because they know what actually happened – a good example of results-oriented thinking. Secondly, he is doubting his play simply because he lost the hand, when clearly he made the right decision given the information available to him and given a typical opponent’s range of hands.

You would have to pay me to fold a pair of Kings pre-flop in a typical $5 sit&go. So, when discussing hands on the internet, don’t give away the results, and don’t doubt yourself because you lost the pot. Similarly, you shouldn’t necessarily congratulate yourself for making the right decision if you win a pot. Only after you’ve analysed the hand in question objectively can you know for sure whether you did the right thing.

Scenario Five

One last thing I want to discuss is the theory that online poker is ‘rigged’. There is a wealth of evidence to support the fact that internet poker is legitimate and none whatsoever to support the theory that it is somehow biased to favour certain players. But many players truly believe their results are not decided by luck and skill, but by the sites themselves.

Usually, the reason for this is that they’ve experienced some series of horrendous bad beats. But that’s not evidence to suggest their chosen site is rigged. Perhaps the player in question could have avoided the beats if they had played better. Or perhaps they have some other misunderstanding of the game. Often, players look for others to blame for their short-term losses, while rewarding themselves for short-term wins. That’s a particularly twisted form of results-oriented thinking.


Just because you’re taking some bad beats, or you’re on a losing streak, resist the temptation to blame the poker site that you’re using. Try and think objectively about your own play

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