The Trinity of Poker

Monday Morning Flopping

Poker Backbone"The girl who can't dance says the band can't play."
-- Yiddish Proverb

Previously I've written about how newbie players should not try to immediately emulate the type of play they see on TV. The circumstances of the play shown will very seldom be similar, so the types of plays made will generally not be applicable to "normal" situations.

A companion to this phenomenon can be found on Internet forums the day after an event is broadcast. The world now has "Monday morning flopping." People analyze the play we saw the night before. Naturally some of this analysis is fine and right on the money. Other times what is revealed is a serious lack of poker understanding on the part of Monday morning quarterback criticizing one of the televised players.

One instance of this that has been fairly common has been for poorly-skilled poker forum posters to criticize Chris Moneymaker's outstanding play in the 2003 World Series of Poker. One play by Chris in particular stands out. The flop came three low cards below a six, and Chris had a baby pair with a gutshot straight draw. When his opponent moved all in, Chris read the situation right (concluding the opponent had two overcards), calculated that he was a significant but not overwhelming favorite, and then pulled the trigger on calling a huge bet, even though losing would have put him out of the tournament.

This single play summed up the instincts (read the situation correctly), the head (calculated he was the favorite), and the heart (had the nerve to call with the best of it though he could be eliminated) of poker. The hand was perfect in showing these Father, Son and Holy Ghosts -- the "trinity of poker". To succeed at the top levels of poker you need your head, your heart and your groin to be able to take it. Moneymaker's televised play showed the world what it takes to succeed at the highest level.

Unfortunately for many people, they don't have enough of one or more of these, and they don't understand that they don't. Not all of the play on television is good, some is even horrible. But some of the play is brilliant -- even if a lot of viewers will not be able to understand it, and may end up criticizing play that is over their head.

On a World Poker Tour episode, down to four players, retired car wash owner James Tippin faced Barry Greenstein and Chip Reese in a key pot. The hands shown previously showed Tippin playing great poker, despite facing Greenstein (one of the most successful players of the past decade) and Reese (perhaps the most successful poker player in the post-1970 era). Still, some Monday morning floppers could not appreciate Tippin's fine play -- particularly his final hand.

First to act, Reese moves all in to steal the blinds for about 300,000 with K5 suited. In the small blind, Tippin calls with two queens, and makes a point of announcing he is only calling. Barry has since told me Tippin's "only calling" speech didn't influence his subsequent action, but in any case, this leads to Greenstein moving all-in for over one million with AKs. Tippin calls about 800,000 more (Barry had 100,000 more than Tippin), and is eliminated despite being a 50/33/17 favorite to win.

An amateur player playing his first major final table got all his chips in against two of the best players in the world as a significant favorite! The only thing really to say about that is: "well done". But some forum posters somehow (and I'm still not sure how) found fault in that. They wanted him to raise to drive Greenstein out. The philosophy of this escapes me. Greenstein would still call with KK or AA, so why on Earth would you want him to not play his weaker hands? QQ is a huge favorite over JJ, AQ and weaker hands, and a significant favorite over AK.

You have to risk losing to win. He faced two inferior hands, and one got lucky to beat him. (If Barry had folded, Chip would have won the pot anyway because a king flopped.) That is poker. It happens. But the more important part of poker is getting the best of it, which is what Tippin did, and against two stellar players to boot. (And Greenstein even had position on him!)

One person even posted how he viewed Tippin's statement that he just called (instead of moving all in) as "a horrible tell". The poster went on: "I'd have been all over that with AK too." This is astounding. The poster is criticizing Tippin, and then saying he would have been "all over" making the bad raise of the AK.  Um, hello, in a 50/33/17 confrontation, you want to be the "50" not the "33"!

In any case, the point is, to win you must have that holy trinity of poker. Most people don't have it, and lack the discipline to get it. Instead of seeking to understand a clearly correct play, despite the fact that it lost, not-very-thoughtful players criticize the great playing, and then even embrace an obviously inferior play. (I don't blame Greenstein for making his raise, since as we see, most weak players would have tipped their hand by moving all-in with QQ. Tippin simply played better than his critics could even kibitz!)

Head, heart, groin... they all come into play. A first step though is to use your head when watching, and trying to understand, poker on television.

More on tournament poker player types of The Fox and The Farmer, Poker Skills and Anti-Skills