How Deception Can Be Deceiving in Poker
Poker is a game that often involves deception. Bluffing, slow-playing, check-raising — all rely on playing your hand in a way other that straightforwardly. Deception is surely interwoven into the very fabric of the game
Consider the words of one of poker's foremost theorists, David Sklansky. According to his famous and oft-quoted "Fundamental Theorem of Poker" — shared in the seminal The Theory of Poker — Sklansky explains...
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 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.
Simply put, Sklansky is saying that when you deceive your opponent about your hand you win; and when he deceives you about his, you lose. In so doing Sklansky enshrines deception as a kind of sine qua non of poker.
As powerful and as useful as this theory is, it has unfortunately led many beginning and intermediate players astray, costing them their bankrolls in the process. Such players fail to appreciate the needed qualifiers to go along with this statement about the importance of deception in poker.
In practice, you do not gain every single time your opponent plays his hand differently from how he would have played it if he could see your cards. For that reason, it does not always make sense to attempt to deceive your opponent. For beginning and intermediate players especially, straightforward play is sometimes a better line than a deceptive play.
Let's look a little more closely at the idea of deception in poker and see where and why deception sometimes doesn't work. In so doing, I think we'll come to a better understanding of when not to use it.
When do you "lose" with deception? You lose with deception when your opponent would have made a larger mistake had you played your hand straightforwardly. This happens because mediocre and bad players frequently make mistakes on their own — even when they are not deceived.
Let's look at an extreme example. If you're dealt aces on the button in hold'em, everyone folds to you, and you know that the big blind is a huge fish who will call your bet, no matter how large, because he always thinks buttons are trying to steal his blind, then you would be making a mistake to play your hand deceptively — that is, by just calling or making only a small raise. Rather, you should raise big or shove and force him into the huge mistake of calling incorrectly.
Similarly, there are some players so awful who might call your preflop shove with aces even if your cards were revealed to them in advance. They might call for many bad reasons.
Perhaps they have kings and just "can't fold kings," no matter what. Perhaps they "just felt lucky," or thought they were due to win, or thought that you were unlucky, or thought that since you had just won a couple of hands in a row you were bound to lose. Perhaps they'll call simply because they're ready to leave the game, anyway, and figure they'll go out in a flourish. Or perhaps they called once with an inferior hand and caught up, and now they are convinced your aces are meant to be cracked. Who knows?
In all of those situations, when they would call your aces even though they knew they were behind, you would be making a mistake by not making the most extreme straightforward move of shoving with them.
Of course, that's a deliberately extreme example. There are many more closer calls that you can imagine, times when players might choose incorrectly even if they knew your hand.
Since we don't play with our cards face up, imagine an opponent who cannot infer from your betting action what hand you are likely to have. He plays his cards based on their value only, not based on how they compare to the value of the hand he thinks you might have. So if he has two high cards, paired or unpaired, or any other pair, he calls all raises because he has a strong hand.
Surely you wouldn't want to attempt to deceive such a player by (for instance) slow playing a monster. He's going to call your bet no matter how big or small.
Think about players who don't or can't calculate their drawing odds correctly. If you're playing against anyone who does not correctly figure out the true odds of making the hand he needs to make to beat the hand you have, you again might be making a mistake by being deceptive.
For example, imagine a $1/$2 NL game in which the effective stacks are $100. A player raises to $7 from under the gun and two others call. The next player in middle position has been dealt and he reraises to $18. It folds around to you in the big blind where you have , and you shove all in. The original raiser folds as do the callers. The action is back on the fellow with and as he thinks about what to do you show him your hand.
Are you certain that every player you are up against in this situation will know what the correct play is, even having seen your two cards? (By the way, the correct play is to call — but only narrowly so).
The key is this. Deception is a very important part of poker, but that doesn't mean that you should always seek to be deceptive, nor that fooling your opponent will get him to make the wrong move. You may fool him, only to have him back into the correct play — by mistake! You are often much better off against certain types of players playing straightforwardly than deceptively, especially against those who make frequent mistakes even without others using deception against them.
Consider the following. You are playing at a table with bad players. Maybe they're good sometimes, but this time, late at night, under the influence of a long playing session, alcohol, and some bad beats, they are all playing terribly. One of them has begun raising blind, just about every hand. And two of the other players are shoving every other hand, regardless of their holdings.
Seems unlikely? I tell you that I have played in games just like that, late at night at both the Mirage (in a $1/2 game) and at Caesars (in a $2/$5 game).
In both of those situations, energized by the insane play of their opponents, the other players were also playing... well, oddly.
One player would buy in for the minimum whenever he lost his stack, then would call just about any hand preflop and only fold on the flop if he thought he had absolutely no chance of winning. With any draw — even the longest draw possible — he'd stay in for his short stack, only to buy back in again for the minimum when he invariably lost.
Another player was so intoxicated by the action that he was often shoving blind himself — and laughing madly while doing so. No reason, no strategy, nothing but pure, unmitigated gambling.
So you say these are extreme examples. And of course you're right. Games like these don't come around very often. They're outliers. But variations of them, somewhat more sane variations, happen regularly, with one, two, or three players not playing logically or sensibly, but just gambling.
When that is happening, the importance of using deception decreases significantly. You don't want to deceive your subpar opponents with tricky plays, bluffs, semi-bluffs, or by slow playing. You just want to think about the pot odds and, perhaps even more, the implied odds and your drawing odds. Play by the book, 100 percent "ABC poker," and you will eventually in the long run win the money. Deception be damned.
There's another problem with always making it a goal to play deceptively. We occasionally can justify bad play on our part by rationalizing it as a deceptive play. We can sometimes justify our incorrect and habitual inclination to be aggressive, passive, weak, or tight — or just sloppy in our thinking — by telling ourselves that we were just trying to deceive our opponents.
We raise big because it feels good to do so, and then we say to ourselves that we were trying to bluff our opponents into folding even though a more thoughtful approach would have had us folding. We call rather than raise, not because we should but because we are afraid of putting more money at risk — but we justify it as a deceptive move with our strong hand.
"Deception" gives us a lot of rope with which we can hang ourselves if we're not careful. Indeed, for some players, the idea of using deception becomes a means with which to deceive themselves.
Yes, there are times to deceive. But at least as often — if not more often in most low-stakes games — you need to learn how to exploit the unforced mistakes of your opponents with your own solid and straightforward play.
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See www.houseofcardsradio.com for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.
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