One of the most fascinating poker questions is: Why do so many people play so badly? Most of them know better, but they keep making the same mistakes. Even well-read people don’t play as well as they can. For example, Mason Malmuth told me, “We’ve sold more than 63,000 copies of Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players and almost as many copies of The Theory of Poker, but only a small number of people apply the lessons well.” I’ve studied both books many times and talked repeatedly to the authors, but I don’t play as well as I should, and you probably don’t, either. We aren’t stupid; we can understand the books we read. So, why don’t we play as well as we know how to play?
The answer is surprisingly simple: It’s more fun to play badly than well. Of course, winning is more fun than losing, but trying to maximize our profits would force us to do lots of unpleasant things. In fact, profit maximization makes such extreme demands that only a few, extraordinarily disciplined people play their best game most of the time, and nobody always plays it.
A Classic Misunderstanding
Most poker writers and economists claim that people are driven primarily by the profit motive, but the evidence is overwhelming that other desires affect most actions. We may claim to want to maximize our profits in poker (as well as in business, the stock market, and so on), but our actions contradict that claim. In my last column (“Freud and Poker”), I discussed the effects of unconscious factors, but many of the reasons for bad play are right out in the open. Let’s look at a few extremely common mistakes. If we were really trying to maximize our profits, these mistakes could not possibly occur so frequently. There must be other factors at work.
Playing Too Many Hands
The very first lesson we learned was to play tightly, but nearly all of us play too many hands. We have read countless warnings against it, but we still do it. Why? Because it’s boring to fold hand after hand. So, we “take a shot,” playing a hand we know we should fold. Sometimes it pays off, and we kid ourselves that we don’t have to follow those silly rules; we can profitably play hands that less talented players should muck. We may even congratulate ourselves for our “courage” or “flexibility.” When playing a weak hand costs us serious money, we may vow, “Never again,” but we soon find an excuse to break that vow.
We chase with weak hands for the same reason, plus the self-defeating desire to “protect our investment.” We’ve gone this far, so we throw good Dominoqq money after bad. Sometimes we catch a miracle card to win a large pot, and we remember it long after we have forgotten all the bets we wasted. We know that chasing is foolish, but it pays off frequently enough to let us pretend we can get away with it.
Playing Too Aggressively
It’s easy to justify betting and raising with weak or marginal hands. We know that all the top players are aggressive, and an extremely aggressive style works well in many situations, such as very tight games, especially shorthanded ones, and heads-up pots. I am not talking about those situations. I’m referring to ones in which we know we should be less aggressive, but play aggressively anyway. Instead of recognizing our mistake, we may remember the times that everyone folded, letting us win a small pot, or we sucked out to win a large one. We may ignore all the bets we wasted or treat them as “just a cost of doing business,” or “advertising so we get action when we’ve got a monster.”
Playing Too Passively
If we prefer to play passively, we can easily find good excuses to justify our preference. We just remember the times we saved money by not betting or raising, ignore the pots we lost by giving away free or cheap cards, or insist, “Nothing I could do would get those idiots to fold.”
It’s so tempting to show our cards that almost everyone does it occasionally. If we made a successful bluff or a great laydown, we want people to know how smart we are. If we had aces cracked by someone playing 7-3 offsuit, we want sympathy for our terrible luck. Of course, we’ve read that we shouldn’t give away information, but we can always think of a good excuse for violating that rule “just this once.”
Choosing the Wrong Games
We’ve all joined games we should have avoided, then stayed in them long after we knew it was a mistake. Perhaps we couldn’t stand the thought of losing to these weak players, or we didn’t want to admit that the game was too tough for us. We let our pride or other foolishness cost us lots of money.
We make lots of other foolish mistakes, such as trying to beat a specific person (the jerk or the expert), showing off for a woman (or a man), and playing above our bankroll. Perhaps “fun” is the wrong word. I’ve defined it loosely to mean any short-term satisfactions that directly reduce long-term profits. What is “fun” to you might turn me off. The important point is that you or I will pay a high price for “fun.”
Because we get pleasure from different sources, you and I make different kinds of mistakes, but all of these mistakes must be caused by something other than the desire to maximize profits. Despite the evidence, countless players and writers insist that people strive to win as much as possible. I find it amusing that so many people insist on rationality, while committing the supremely irrational act of denying reality. If you believe that most people seriously want to maximize profits, ask yourself a few questions:
- Have you seen most or all of these mistakes — plus many others — committed more times than you can count? 2. Have you made many of these mistakes, not just when you were a beginner, but the last time you played? 3. Do you and most other people know better? That is, have you all been told again and again that you should not do this or that? 4. Despite that information, do you all continue to make the same mistakes?
If the answer to most or all of these questions is “yes,” it is extremely illogical to believe in the myth of profit maximization. Your answers to these questions clearly and unequivocally say that some other “irrational” forces must be operating.
We have read countless exhortations to “get into the other players’ heads,” but we — and I certainly include myself — don’t try hard enough to understand the other players’ motives. Why do they act so foolishly?
Understanding our own motives is even more important. We already know much more strategy than we apply properly, but we don’t know why we keep making the same mistakes. Since our problem is not a lack of information, the best way to improve our game is not to study more strategy. It is to learn why we don’t apply the lessons we have already learned, then ensure that we do apply them. Until we understand and control our own motives — including the unconscious ones — we cannot possibly play our best.