The Joys Of Soft Competition
For American poker players, online poker options are limited thanks to former United States Senator Bill Frist, who pushed through the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The bill resulted in many online poker rooms, such as Party Poker and Titan Poker, no longer offering their real-money games to Americans. The few online poker rooms that still service US players, such as PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, have historically had tough competition.
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For Americans, depositing money onto online gambling sites has only gotten harder. This has led to many US casual poker players quitting online poker altogether. Nine months since the passing of the UIGEA, the dust has settled enough to observe that these major US-facing sites feature competition that is very difficult to beat.
Nonetheless, I have played at these sharky sites for the past several months. In that time, my mind has been framed to expect the players I face at the table to be, at worst, somewhat competent, to, at best, significantly better than I am. After playing at tables with high-quality competition, it can be easy to forget what it's like to play against weak players. A trip to Las Vegas does wonders for refreshing those memories. In this article, I want to share a few humorous examples of play you might expect to see in a live poker game in Vegas, as well as point out some poor psychological processes that result in these players bleeding money to their competent counterparts.
A Commitment To Ensure A Flop
The following hand was mentioned in a "Live from the WSOP" entry, but it's worth repeating. I played a $540 buy-in (not exactly chump change) tournament at Caesars Palace. You might be inclined to think that most of the players in such a tournament would be quite good. After all, the competition you're likely to see in a $500 online tournament will be a collection of the internet's best poker players. As you're about to read, this is far from the case in a live tournament.
During blind levels of 200/400 with a 50 chip ante, an older gentleman who, on the previous hand, called a player's huge all-in bet with Ace-Queen on a board of King-Jack-Seven-Four (the other player semi-bluffed all-in with Ace-Queen, so they chopped the pot), raised to 1,200. A player unfamiliar to the ways of folding preflop called that raise. It folded to me in the small blind where I looked down at King-King. With a stack of 12,000 chips, a standard move in an online poker tournament might be to call, or re-raise to 3,000. However, against these opponents, you're likely to get a call if you push all-in.
The older gentleman, somewhat to my surprise, folded after several seconds of thinking. Immediately after he folded, the other player shrugged his shoulders and said, "I guess I have to call," which meant over 75% of his stack went into this pot before the flop. He turned over Two-Two.
The key point to that story is the player's reluctant, but dutiful call. Making a bad, but dutiful call is an emotion that many players display in live poker games. For some reason, players have a notion that once they've put some of their chips in the pot, they might as well put the rest of them in as well. This knowledge enables the success of an over-bet that wouldn't have worked for me at PokerStars.
An Inability To Relinquish Premium Starting Hands
I observed the following hand in a $1/$3 ($500 max buy-in) no-limit cash game at Treasure Island. After a few players limped, a guy in his early 30's, who up until this hand seemed like a good player, raised to $25. An old guy, who played really loose but was actually pretty good, called the raise.
The flop came Ace-Nine-Four. The original raiser led out for $40, and the old guy immediately made it $140. At this point, it seemed blatantly obvious that the old guy had an ace with a good kicker, or possibly a set of nines or fours. When the younger guy stealthily called, I actually suspected he might have a set of aces.
On the turn, the young guy checked to the older player, who immediately pushed all-in for $300. The young guy thought for a very long time (which usually means they're going to fold), called, and turned over King-King. The old guy only had to dodge one out with his Ace-King for the pot, which was close to $1,000.
Immediately after seeing the old guy's Ace-King, the younger guy erupted. His fury was furthered by the revelation of two other players that they folded an Ace before the flop, meaning the old guy hit the only ace left in the deck. The younger guy started to berate the older player by saying, "Incredible! You hit a fu*' one outter on me, incredible!"
Then, he looked for sympathy from the other players by saying, "Can you believe this idiot hits a one outter on me like that?"
At this point, I felt the player was out-of-line in handling his loss by berating the innocent-seeming old guy, so I said to him, "The only idiot I saw was the guy who put $400 in the pot with an underpair."
Many players at the table laughed, which caused the guy to storm out of the poker room. I was a little worried he was coming back with a loaded gun after my comment, but to my liking, he came back with another $500 in chips and sat back down.
His play is an example of a consistent money-draining thought process that almost all players have, myself included: over-estimating the chances that they're being bluffed.
An Over-Reliance On Emotions For Decision-Making
During the previously mentioned Caesars Palace tournament, I made the final table as one of the chip leaders. In middle position, I made a standard chip-leader raise with Ace-Jack suited. It folded to a friendly guy with a short stack who began to think extensively about his hand. Most of his previous decisions had been made quickly, so I knew he was faced with a legitimate choice of whether or not to go all-in with his meager chip stack. After a lot of thinking, he folded, as did the rest of the players at the table.
As I threw my cards into the muck, the guy informed everyone that he folded Ace-Queen because he "just had a bad feeling - Ace-Queen has been doing awful" for him. Justifying bad decisions with emotions isn't something found only in $500 tournaments. Many may remember eventual second-place finisher David Williams calling a raise that amounted to one-third of his stack in the 2004 WSOP Main Event with Five-Five because he "had a feeling" he would flop a set.
Emotions are a terrible means for making gambling-related decisions. Casinos make money hand-over-fist thanks to people's "feelings" that generally result in over-estimating their chances of winning. Poker players make similar mistakes all the time. While it's true that instinct and a certain "feel" for the game can lead to correct decisions in some situations, in general, it's best not to rely too heavily on emotions when playing a game where the decisions are largely founded in mathematics.
If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's this: Americans, take a trip out to Vegas to gain perspective on how tough the competition is at US-facing online poker sites. Europeans and Canadians, be thankful for the fact that you still have places like Party Poker and Everest Poker at your disposal. Finally, take stock of any poor thought processes that may be causing you to lose money needlessly at the poker table.