Poker Pots

Nine Objects of Danger

Poker Pots"It can be argued that man's instinct to gamble is the only reason he is still not a monkey up in the trees." -- Mario Puzo

Many years ago I was lucky enough to see The Flying Karamazov Brothers juggling/comedy act several times early in their careers. The highlight of the Brothers' show was juggling "nine objects of danger." The Brothers challenged the audience to present them with nine random hand-held items, which they would then juggle.

The great part was that this was the Brothers' hometown, and people knew the act, so the audience came up with a crowbar, a roll of duct tape, a soccer ball, a vibrator, a Togo's submarine sandwich and a toaster. Add a bottle of beer, a cigarette lighter and a hatchet and you have nine objects of danger -- which the Brothers' then proceeded to successfully juggle to the amazement of the crowd. The Brothers' ensuing career led to ever more outrageous juggling of objects of danger.

The poker lesson in this is that the Brothers' were great. They were great in a "don't try this at home, kids" way. They showed up for work each time knowing they would be expected to perform in an above-the-rim fashion when often taken completely by surprise. How do you juggle a dead mackerel the first time? How about a ceramic bust of Ronald Reagan? The answer is talented people adapt, even when it isn't easy.

Great poker players squeeze pennies of profit out of situations that merely good players do not. Great poker players can try to do things that mediocre players shouldn't even think about ("don't try this at home"). Great poker players know that each time they play that they will have to do something great!

Mediocre poker players have the dual problem of often being outplayed by great players, and of also failing when they try some Evel Knievel-ish tactic they have no business even thinking about.

It's a common lament for decent players to complain about some unorthodox play a better player made, where the better player appeared to "get lucky". The truth is that mediocre players fixate on the earlier parts of hands, while better player focus on the later parts of hands. The ability to "finish" well is important in poker because the later betting rounds are both bigger, and there is more money at risk. Despite this, mediocre players, especially in Hold'em, focus on pre-flop play. When they raise with 77 one behind the button after no one opens the pot, they can't understand how a better player will often re-raise with JsTs. All they see is that fairly crappy starting hand. They don't see how not only is the JsTs profitable here because of the dead money of the blinds, but worse, they don't see how the better player is going to make them pay on later betting rounds. They don't understand the relish the better player has for situations like this, where they can play above the rim and perform like the great players they are, while opposed only by a player who doesn't understand the situational exploitation of weakness.

Great players understand they are not trying to win every pot they play. Great players try to set up reoccurring situations where, at worst, they give up small edges repeatedly so they can get a huge return less often. You see this a lot in No Limit Holdem tournaments. Great players want to see a lot of flops, and aren't afraid to lose many small pots with hands like 6s5s. What they are waiting for is to "finish" in the more rare situations when things matter more.

While this concept is easier to understand when thinking of No Limit poker, it also applies to Limit poker hands. If you play four pots against one person, and in three you lose one small bet, but in the fourth you win five big bets, you have just done something really, really well. Sacrificing pots, losing hands, is a truly fundamental part of winning poker.

Weaker players fixate on pots. They don't even care if their thinking is right; they care if they won a pot. How often do you hear someone say "well, you did the right thing since you won the pot"?  Baloney. Making dumb decisions that accidentally lead to winning a pot are not good things. They were mistakes. Yes, sometimes mistakes turn out to make us money, but making mistakes is not the way to be a winner. Focusing on getting the money in the long run is what makes a winner. Money is how we keep score, and the game lasts your whole life.

Very few of us are going to be able to juggle a porterhouse steak, a coffee cup and a birdcage, but we can learn to exploit weak opponents by losing the little battles while winning the big wars.

See also Small Pot Poker and Why Play Poker