Emphasize Correct Decisions over Making Money

The big advantage of playing poker for the long term is that you can focus on the only tiling that is important: making correct decisions. Every poker hand you play will present you with decisions. In limit Hold'em, you decide whether to fold, call, or raise at any given juncture. Other games may contain different decisions. In pot-limit or no-limit games, you must decide how much to bet or raise, while in some games such as lowball and 5-card draw, you must also make a decision on how many cards to discard and which ones.

Although there is the possibility that he was on a subtle form of tilt and had started to play it badly after a while.

At this point, what we mean by "correct" play warrants some discussion. In his excellent book The Theory of Poker, author David Sklansky describes the following as "The Fundamental Theorem of Poker":

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents' cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way as you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.

This theorem gives an excellent and succinct explanation of how money is won and lost in poker, but it should not be used to determine whether a particular decision was a mistake or not. The problem is that Sklansky's theorem assumes that you have perfect information. In reality, we almost never have perfect information, as our opponent's cards are hidden.11 In fact, if we did have perfect information, poker wouldn't be much of a game at all.

When we talk about the "correct play" in this book, we mean the best play that you could reasonably be expected to make given the information you have available. Our definition focuses on the practical side of play rather than the theoretical. To illustrate the difference between the two, consider the following hand.

You are playing limit Hold'em and hold A* Q*. A large pot develops, and by the river you are heads up with your opponent on a board of

" There are a few exceptions to this, but they are rare. Opponents will sometimes accidentally expose their cards, giving you perfect information. You might also find a tell that is 100% accurate. For the most part poker is a game of incomplete information.

Your opponent bets into you. What do you do? You are holding an ace high flush while your opponent could have any number of hands inferior to yours, including a set, a straight, a smaller flush, or even two pair. The obvious play here is to raise, and against the vast majority of opponents, this is certainly the correct play based on the information you have available.

However, what if your opponent had T* 9*? You are beaten by the straight flush and so the correct theoretical play by Sklansky's definition is to fold. You probably have no conceivable way of knowing he has the straight flush, and so a raise is considered correct for all practical purposes, and a fold would be terrible. You would almost certainly call at least, even against an opponent who you have never seen bet on the river without the absolute nuts.

So why should we emphasize making correct decisions over making money? After all, isn't the goal of poker to make money? The problem once again comes down to the dominance of luck in poker in the short term. There is no way to guarantee making money in the short term; there are simply too many unknowns and random variables. A good player can virtually guarantee making money in the long term, but he can only do this by making correct decisions. A correct decision may end up losing the player money, but consistently making correct decisions is the only way to ensure long-term profitability. Focusing on anything else is futile.

For example, let's say you are playing no-limit Hold'em and are dealt A-T off-suit in late position. A solid early-position player raises a standard amount, and it is folded around to you. You recognize that A-T off-suit is a marginal hand that plays badly against early position raises and so you correctly fold. The big blind calls, and the flop is A-T-9. After two blanks on the turn and river, the dust settles and the big blind with T-9 suited wins a large pot from the pre-flop raiser who had A-K. Had you not folded pre-flop, you would have won a very large pot.

This is the kind of hand that upsets some players because they are looking at the hand in isolation rather than as just a small incident in the vastness of their poker career. While their fold did indeed cost them money in this hand, it was the correct decision (by both our definition and the Sklansky definition) that in the long term will save them money. Simulations tell us that against A-K off-suit and T-9 suited, A-T off-suit will be the best hand at the river only about 15% of the time. Your fold effectively made you money because you couldn't possibly expect to make more money in the 15% of the time you win in this scenario than you lose in the other 85%.

It is the same principle for any decision in poker. If you make the correct decision, then the actual result of the hand is irrelevant. Inevitably, there will be times when you lose money as a result of making the right play, while inevitably other players may win money by making the wrong play. All you can do is console yourself with the knowledge that over time these players will lose their money, and if you keep playing well, you will be in the best position to win it. Don't worry about winning money; worry about making correct decisions, and let the money take care of itself.

Action Point: The next time you play, take measures to ensure you don't know how much money you have won or lost in a session. If you are a live player, arrange your chips in messy uncountable piles. If you play online, buy in for a strange amount and keep randomly adding other strange amounts to your stack. If you don't know how much you are winning or losing, you should be able to concentrate on simply making good decisions.

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