Poker’s Most Common Mistakes

By Lou Krieger | April 11, 2010

When I was in college, a journalism professor told our class (we all fancied ourselves future newspaper or magazine columnists back then) this wonderful truth: When you have trouble coming up with a subject for your column, make a list and all your problems will be solved.

“How many items on the list?” someone asked.

“It doesn’t matter. The subject defines the size of the list,” he said.

With that golden insight in hand, our study group tossed some less-than-scintillating column ideas among ourselves: “New York City’s Ten Hottest Hairdressers,” “Brooklyn’s Seven Best Delicatessens and Why You Should Try All of Them,” “Five Items That Will Make or Break Your Wardrobe,” “Manhattan’s Nine Most Romantic Places to Kiss,” and “A Dozen Incredible Eastside Irish Pubs.” You can make lists until the cows come home, and once you have the idea, a column based on a list just sort of writes itself.

I’ve periodically written list columns, though I try not to overdo a good thing so I don’t overuse them.

Recently I was rereading some of what I like to think are my best quotes, and came across this one: “Most of the money you’ll win at poker comes not from the brilliance of your own play, but from the ineptitude of your opponents.”

I wrote that a long time ago and still believe it fervently – so much so that it spurred me to offer up another list column: the most common mistakes made by poker players. It’s not an exhaustive list – you can probably think of three or four others for each mistake I listed here – but it’s a good start if you want to take it for what it is: a chance to review your poker game and correct any of these leaks.

#1. Immutable Standards

Beginning poker players often look for an immutable set of standards to tell them in deciding which poker hands to play and which ought to be released. Although the boundary between playable and unplayable poker hands can sometimes be crystal clear, it’s often fuzzy. While even the newest of newbies can learn to play a pocket pair of aces and throw away seven-deuce, what should our new player do with QJ in middle position if no one has entered the pot, if one player has limped in, if there’s one limper and one caller, or if someone has raised? And for each of these situations, how should you modify your tactics based on perceptions about your opponents’ relative aggression or passivity? The more layers to sort through, the grayer things frequently become, and when that happens, situational awareness is far more valuable than any set of hard and fast rules.

Because new poker players aren’t facile enough to maneuver their way through all these changing shades of gray, starting standards can serve them as a set of rules. But more experience players should think of starting hand standards as a guide that can and should be modified depending on the situation, while an expert should view starting hand standards simply as a point of departure based on his analysis of the situation, his opponents, and his perceived ability to use his chips to maneuver opponents into and out of the pot.

#2. Don’t Get too Emotional.

This is when you’re most likely to make mistakes. Try to remain detached from the poker game and bet with your head instead of your heart.

It’s all too easy and commonplace to graft sports analogies onto poker. Emotion can be a life-saver in physical sports. The ability to go all out can lead to a vital rebound in a basketball game and to a sprinter holding his form and finding victory even if he isn’t inherently faster than his foes. A bicyclist who isn’t prepared to suffer won’t win a time trial, or a bunch sprint, or a hilltop finish. What’s required is skill plus training plus the willingness to push through pain to victory.

But not in poker. The willingness to run up and over or through a brick wall won’t win many poker tournaments. It’s always a fine line between aggression and knowing when to pull back, tactically withdraw, and save chips for another confrontation. Poker is a high wire act of sorts, and unrelenting will, brute force, and the willingness to suffer won’t serve you well. You have to be prepared to drop in and drop out, take your chances with the best of it, and save your chips when the odds don’t ride with you.

#3. Avoid Playing Early-Position Hands too Assertively.

Reserve that ploy for late positions. It allows you to see what your opponents are doing. That’s when you should be more aggressive. Early position aggression is really blind ambition. You’ve no idea what your opponents have and you don’t know what they plan to do when it’s their turn to act. With each step closer to the back of the betting order, you have that much more information at your disposal about the real or purported strength of your opponents’ hands and how much it might cost you to make the play you’d like to.

#4. (Fancy Play Syndrome) Spare the Bluff.

Don’t get cute too often. If you do, you can expect to be called more frequently. Betting on a weak hand just reduces your chips. Bluff in moderation.

Too many players like to trot out fancy plays for no other reason than to demonstrate to the rest of the table just how facile, smart, sophisticated and cool they are. But many players won’t even recognize what you’re doing, and you’ll just cost yourself money. Poker expert Mike Caro labeled this phenomenon “Fancy Play Syndrome,” or just plain “FPS.”

If you must use fancy plays, use them sparingly, and only against your very best opponents. Players who have the skill to read and decipher your actions – and are good enough to be fooled by your ploy – should be your target, not weak players. An opponent who is blind to your actions won’t see what you’re up to and can’t be faked out. Against weak opponents the best play is usually the simplest: Bet your good hands and watch them pay you off.

#5. Limit Your Booze Intake.

Actually, this is true for all altered emotional state – regardless of the cause. Alcohol, drugs, feeling depressed, an argument with your spouse of significant other and poker don’t mix well. Playing poker online alone can be hazardous to your wallet if you’re prone to substance abuse – or even just substance use. And stay away from those free drinks in a casino. It’ll cost you more money than you realize if you blow through your bankroll because your altered state says “call,” when your good sense would tell you to either to raise or fold.

If you must drink, do yourself a favor and do your drinking after you’ve played poker, not while engaged in the game. Your decisions do matter at poker, and when you’ve altered your logic and reasoning, your decisions don’t figure to be very good. If you must drink and gamble, do it at the roulette table. After all, your results won’t be any worse there drunk or sober because your decisions don’t matter. As long as you can crawl back to your room once you finish playing, whether you played with a clear or clouded mind won’t impact your results one iota.

#6. Putting Your Opponent on a Single Hand, Rather Than a Range of Hands.

I always get a charge out of opponents who say something like, “I knew you had AK,” when I show down big slick and win a pot with it. For one thing, it marks them as a really poor poker player. Consider this. If my opponent knew with certainty that I had AK, which gave me top pair with the very best possible kicker, and he had a hand that couldn’t beat it, why did he call? Either of two reasons would suffice. For one, he wasn’t really sure what I had. He may have suspected I had top pair-top kicker, but wasn’t certain and was very reluctant to throw away what otherwise might have been a winning hand. Another possibility is that he had no idea at all what I had, but his insatiable and costly curiosity pushed him over the line and he called that one last bet.

The truth is you almost never can put a player on a specific hand, especially not before the flop. The best you can do – and what you should do – is to put your opponent on a range of hands, and keep narrowing down the range based on the cards that appear on future wagering rounds and the actions your opponent takes.

To put your opponent on a range of hands, you first have to understand something about his playing proclivities. Ask yourself what he’s likely to raise with in early, middle, or late position, both as the first player to voluntarily enter the pot, after one or more players have called, after there’s been a raise, after there’s been a call and then a raise, and after there’s been a raise and someone else has called.

If you don’t have these answers, and they’ll vary for each opponent, you’ll have to assign some default options for the opponents you know nothing about. And when you do, be sure to modify these default positions based on the knowledge you gain from observing what kinds of hands your opponent actually tables, and the kind of wagering action that took place during the hand.

Once you can place your opponent on a range of hands, you need to begin to play against his entire range of hands. But you shouldn’t do this just with the cards you happen to hold at that moment; you need to play your range of hands against his range of hands. If, for example, you simply play each two-card starting hand based on its own inherent strength, your opponents will quickly discern how you handle big pairs, big connectors, and all the other hands you might play. To counter that possibility, you might usually raise with pocket Aces, Kings, and Queens – and to throw in some deception, raise the same amount with 98 suited and pocket sixes.

While you’ll be tossing those sizes and 98 suited away after the flop the vast majority of the time, when you do flop a big hand with those value-added hands, you’ll win a lot of money if you can trap your opponent with a big pocket pair, big kicker or better yet, two pair, when you’ve flopped a set or a straight.

The idea of putting your opponent on a range of hands is so important that it’s worth a future article all by itself – maybe even a series of articles or even an entire book – but for purposes of this list, just make sure that if you catch yourself thinking in terms of single hands instead of ranges of hands, sit up, start over, and begin analyzing your hand and your opponents in terms of playable ranges and wagering accordingly.

#7. Playing Your Own Holdings as a Single Hand, Rather than a Range of Hands.

This is so closely related to the previous concept that it could have been included as part of it. Poker beginners often bet proportionally to the strength of their hand. When these players attempt to become deceptive, they fall into the sin of playing Aces and Kings like they were weaker hands. Instead, they should play some weaker hands like they were Aces and Kings, which is generally a better way of engendering deception than giving your opponents a free or very low cost chance to draw out on you by playing your strongest hands as though they were weaklings, but never playing weaker hands like they are pocket Aces or Kings.

#8. Hopefulness.

Hope is the death of poker players. That’s not the case in other endeavors, when hope can play a major role in accomplishing goals, in survival, and in providing the wherewithal to persevere in the face of incredible odds. Hope is food for the human spirit – the sustenance that tells us to never give up, never retreat, and never surrender.

Although hope supports a lot of what we accomplish as people, winning at poker is not on that list. Players who hope are players who base their actions on hunches, who wish rather than analyze, and who continue to call in the face of long odds that are not nearly offset by the size of the pot being contested.

In the 50-year old ballad, Springhill Mine Disaster – a song that tells the story of some miners who survived a cave-in in a coal mine – originally sung by Ewan MacColl and more recently by U2, the lyric goes;

Three days past and the lamps gave out

And Caleb Rushton got up and said

There’s no more water, or light, or bread

So we’ll live on song and hope instead.

While hope may have gone a long way toward keeping those miners alive for a week and a day in a dark and airless chamber deep in a collapsed mineshaft, it won’t do you much good at the poker table. If you need some poetry to keep hope at bay during your time at the poker table, a better choice might be “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” the inscription at the entrance to Hell taken from Dante Alighieri’s allegorical epic poem that was written sometime between 1306 and 1321.

#9. Failure to Keep Good Records – or Any Records At All.

Closely related to avoiding accountability is the failure to keep good records. If you don’t keep good records, or if you don’t keep records at all, how in the world will you know how you’re doing? You won’t have any idea in a traditional casino game. You will online, because you can see your bankroll grow or shrink – or even disappear altogether – but records are more helpful than an aggregation of your results. They will show you which games you perform best in, and whether your cash game or tournament play is more productive for you.

If you’re serious about your poker play, you have to treat it as a business, and a business that fails to keep records is as business destined to fail.

#10. We Have Met the Enemy (and he is us).

You are your worst poker enemy, as Dr. Al Schoonmaker would say. Your toughest poker adversary looks back at you in the mirror daily. To improve your poker skills you must first be brutally honest about them. There is always room for improvement, and it’s up to you to examine your skills, determine your shortcomings and then decide how to go about raising your game to the highest level within your reach. But you need to be accountable for your results, you need to keep good records, and you need to realize that the vast majority of challenges you will overcome on the road to becoming an excellent poker player probably reside within you.

These are only 10 of the common mistakes found among poker players. There are many more. But for now, there’s plenty to keep you busy identifying your weaknesses and leaks, developing a plan to raise your game and putting the plan into action.

Here’s where the Japanese concept of kai-zen comes into play. It’s the philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement in business and even life in general. If you look for incremental improvements in your poker skills, your game will improve, and if you are able to improve at a faster rate than your opponents are improving, you will catch and pass them on the high road to success.

Go forth and fix. And remember to have fun. After all, poker’s a game and you have to enjoy it to play your best.

By Lou Krieger

The author of many best-selling poker books, including “Hold’em Excellence” and “Poker for Dummies”. A true ambassador of the game and one of poker’s greatest ever teachers.


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