Center of the Poker Universe


Matusow"Glory consists of two parts: the one in setting too great a value upon ourselves, and the other in setting too little value upon others." -- Michel Montaigne

No matter what your Momma told you when you were four years old, the world does not revolve around you. And despite what the zillions of readers out there are thinking at this moment ("Gee, I know I'm not the center of the Universe"), a worldview of extreme self-centeredness plays a key part in how pretty much all players deal with aspects of poker at one time or another. And like in the rest of the world, when you act based on the notion that the world revolves around you, you are prone to making serious mistakes.

I'm not out to prove that last notion -- it pretty easily proves itself. Walk out into traffic, not caring about any cars whizzing down the street, and your center of the universe will be splattered on the center of the pavement in no time. For the moment, let's just assume a similar attitude is similarly dangerous in poker. Here are two examples of how people focus on me-me-me in poker.

The "great game": How common is it to hear above-average players describe some terrific game they were in, only to hear how they got clobbered in this game? With some players, they virtually never lose except in "a great game." They end up playing longer in these great games, and shorter in not-great games because they aren't "great," even though they tend to do better in such games.

This really isn't a mystery. Why do good players often lose in great games? There are other reasons, but one is merely the fact that if the better players in the game are losing, this means the worse players in the game are doing much better than they should. If the best hand always won, the lousy players who never get pot odds, who constantly run uphill, who need truckloads of luck to stay alive, will bust out in no time. Imagine if the best Holdem starting hand won every pot, what an awful, action-less, not-great game that would be! But since crappy Holdem hands often win pots, the game often is pretty good, and sometimes when the crappy hands do really great, the games are on fire. In Omaha8 games when players playing 679J are scooping big pots, a good game will be in progress.

Then also, when bad players winning are creating the "great game" phenomenon, the better players get frustrated. They go on tilt either a little or a lot. Imagine three of the worst players at a table winning most of the pots, and the three best players at the table tilting so they play well below their ability, well, this is the recipe for a "great game."

Again, it's not strictly true because other factors can be in play, but if you are a good player, you should often expect to not win in great games. (A major exception being games where there is enough money and enough terrible players flowing through them that they are always great, day in and day out, like $3/6 Holdem games in Los Angeles.) It wasn't center-of-the-universe-you who had bad luck in this great game. You merely were a necessary part of the phenomenon needed to create great games.

Big blind play: Poker begins as a struggle for the blinds/antes. In many hands, two players end up playing head-up where they both have a positive expectation in the longrun from splitting up the dead money of the blinds. I asked on the Internet if people were dealt 98o in the big blind if they thought it would be more profitable to call or to fold to a raise head-up if the raiser happened to hold the specific hand of AKo. You would be getting 3.5-to-1 on your call and be about a 64/36 underdog if both hands always went to the river. The question is not to wonder whether calling with the 98o is the right thing to do in general or not, but merely to find out the reasoning of players who thought they would be better off folding. Some people replied that they would be afraid of being outplayed, like on a Q92 flop, because they could never be confident about what the raiser had -- maybe the raiser has AQ, maybe JJ, etc.

This again is me-me-me thinking. Why aren't these people making the raiser wonder what they have? Why are they focused on their own side of the equation? Why aren't they concerned about the problems the raiser is going to have in playing his hand? Why aren't they thinking of how tough it is to play against a big blind hand, who could have anything?

Poker is an individual game, but it is not a solitary game. Opponents are people too, and for the most part they are just as dumb as we are, just as prone to mistakes as we are, just as me-me-me focused as we are. The game is more than just you. The more you make it about me-me-me, the more likely some pieces of your bankroll will be splattered out there on the center of the pavement.

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