I played some $20/40 stud at Foxwoods the other night. It was a great game. A couple of loose players and a bunch of solid guys like me. We all ganged up on the fish. I love that.
I saw one serious mistake from one of the solid players – one that I could easily be guilty of – though I've never done exactly what he did. His problem, and mine as well at times I must admit, was focus. Not too little focus but too much. Let me explain.
There was a raise from someone with a King. Another player with an Ace re-raised. The King called. They played until the River, with the Ace betting and the King calling. On the River the Ace checked. The guy with the King said "I habxxtre Kings". The guy with the Ace mucked his hand just as the guy with the Kings tossed over his hand to show a pair of Kings. The other guy said, "What's that? That's not three Kings!!! You said three Kings!!!!!" The dealer and a couple of players said, "No, he just said he had Kings". "I heard him say THREE Kings" says the player with the Ace. "I had Aces!!!!" The dealer awarded the pot to the guy with the pair of Kings.
The guy with the Kings was not pulling an angle – though I've seen that done. He didn't deliberately miscall his hand to get the other guy to concede. But even if he had, the guy who mucked what would have been the winning hand made a serious error – an error of focus. He was focused so much on his own hand – on waiting to see if he'd catch Aces up, that he wasn't able to do what even a brand new player does – wait to see what his opponent actually had before conceding.
We good poker players sometimes do this. We put our opponent on a hand – we focus on improving — on thinking about the odds of improvement, the cards that are out, the betting strategy to drive out our opponent – and we fail to get the big picture. We put our brain on a hair trigger – not wanting to hang around even a second longer with what we have concluded is our losing hand. We then, sometimes, make moronic mistakes as the guy who improperly mucked found out.
Here's another example from the same day but in a different setting. I was playing no limit hold 'em in a local poker club. I had folded one of about 26 hands in a row and was intensely watching the action. Three players end up all-in. The pot was about $420. Everyone faced his cards pre-flop. AdAc vs. TcTs vs. QdQh. The guy with the Aces was clearly the best player of the three – maybe the best player at the table – aggressive and a bit wild at times to induce action – a perfect style for this game.
The flop was --.
"I'm dead" say the guys with the underpairs – almost in unison. "Come on Tens" "Come on Queen" they chant respectively as the dealer turns the next card.
"I'm dead meat" says the tens. "Me too" says the Queen.
The dealer deftly flips the River.
"Hah!! I win with the wheel that I didn't need!" says the Aces.
I think exactly the same thing. He wins; he hit a wheel – A2345 – with a 6 for a 6 high straight for good measure – not to mention his Aces that were also good.
A second or two later and everyone realizes what I and the winner didn't at first see. Everyone wins. All three players chop the pot – since the 6-high straight is common to all. The player's mistaken call didn't affect the awarding of the pot at all, since the cards were face up. But it easily could have led someone to improperly muck his cards. I knew, immediately, that I might have made that mistake.
It's not that we didn't know how to read the board. Of course we did. Even a brand new hold 'em player would know that the 2-3-4-5-6 on the Board was the best possible hand when players held AA, QQ, and TT.. But our focus was wrong. We were looking for the cards that would give the other players trips. We were focused on that to the exclusion of everything else – allowing us to temporarily be blinded to the big picture.
I have found that my field of vision tends to narrow as I experience particularly tense or anxious moments at the poker table. I metaphorically sit forward with my eyes lasered in on just the one tiny spot of action that I think will decide my fate. As such, I am temporarily mentally immobilized in every other respect. If something occurs outside of my microscopic field of poker vision, I am not aware of it. And so I leave myself open to making these baby mistakes.
There are a few things that have helped me in this regard that I recommend to you. First of all, you need to develop habits that will protect you from catastrophic consequences should you fall into this pattern of behavior. Never muck your hand at a showdown, for example. Always face your hand at the end – so even if you are blinded to the obvious – your hand is still in play and can be called the winner. The one time in 10,000 hands where you missed seeing your winning hand will more than make up for all of the other times when it was a wasted gesture.
Also, get into the habit of deliberately breathing and physically sitting back in your chair at moments of intense drama like this. Sitting forward, being the first to see the last card, or being the first to call the hand wins you no extra dollars or points. Let others get caught up in the precise moment of drama. You should learn to sit back and take it all in.
I can see the experienced player in each of you smirk at these instructions. I know that you think that you are too practiced at poker to make these baby mistakes yourself. Fair enough. Perhaps this is too basic a lesson for you. Perhaps.
Ed Note: Perhaps you should try some of the best online poker rooms. Perhaps….