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Thinking Poker: Monkey See, Monkey Do

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Early in your career, you’ll probably play poker with a lot of people who, even if they are better than you, are not really very sophisticated or knowledgeable. This does not stop them from having strongly held opinions about what good play looks like, nor from sharing those opinions loudly and often.

Worse, because these are often very social games, there can be strong pressure to conform to the accepted “wisdom” about how to play. You need to resist this pressure. These are not the people you want to learn from!

You can’t win by playing the way all of your opponents play. The best you can do is end up passing money back and forth based on who’s getting better cards on a given day, with the casino taking its not-inconsiderable cut all the while. To win, you have the play better than your opponents, and that means doing things they aren’t doing.

If your opponents knew that those things were correct, they would probably be doing them themselves. So most likely, you’re going to end up doing some things that everyone you play with will consider bad. Probably you will play fewer hands than they do, though when you do play hands, you will play more aggressively, which may result in you raising some hands that your opponents don’t consider to be “raising hands.”

Especially if you end up winning the pot, the loser may not be shy about letting you know that he thinks you played badly. Ignore him. You don’t owe him an explanation, and you have nothing to gain by giving him one. In fact, you don’t owe him a response at all, though it may feel awkward to say nothing while he is berating you and asking you how you could make that call.

I like to handle these situations with humor when I can, saying something like “It was easy, I just pushed the chips out there.” If you’re feeling a little saltier, you can tell your mouthy opponent, “It’s my money, and I’ll play the way I want.”

What you should not do is tell your opponent your actual reasons for playing the way that you did. In the worst case scenario, you may lead him to play better, or at least to anticipate better how you will play in the future. Even short of that, though, you don’t want to reinforce the notion that you owe him an explanation. You’re allowed to ignore table talk, and often that’s the best policy.

The other thing to keep in mind is that bad play can lead to good short-term results. When you’re having a bad day, it can be tempting to look at someone playing half the hands he’s dealt, chasing every draw, and raking in the chips and decide that since he’s up big on the session, he must be doing something right.

One of the tricky things about poker is that you can’t look to short-term results to see whether your or anyone else’s play is correct. In all likelihood, this player is just getting lucky, and his play is nothing you want to imitate.

This is why it’s important to understand what makes certain plays correct or incorrect, rather than just imitating what you hear or read or see. Even when you’re learning from reliable sources, you have to understand the reasoning and the context for what you read so that you don’t misapply it. When you aren’t sure whether the source is reliable, then it’s even more important to think critically about what you’re taking in.

And when you know the source to be unreliable... well, you’re going to see a lot of monkey business. Don’t do it.

Be sure to listen to Andrew and Nate Meyvis on the Thinking Poker podcast, and for strategy articles, reviews, and more from Andrew, check out the rest of The Thinking Poker website.

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