Two Things You Should Never Say at a Poker Table

Two Things You Should Never Say at a Poker Table

During one of the several tournaments I played on my recent trip back to Las Vegas, I saw a bet and call on both the turn and the river with the final board showing {k-}{k-}{j-}{j-}{a-}.

Not too surprisingly, the bettor — a straightforward A-B-C player — showed a jack. The surprising part was when the caller turned over {q-}{q-}, and said, "I had to call. I had queens."

I almost laughed out loud. The impulse I had to suppress was to tell him, "If there's ever a time to fold pocket queens, it's when a player like him bets into you twice on that board."

This was far from the first time I've heard "I had to call" as self-justification. It's dime-a-dozen common in low-stakes games. It's also a sure sign of a losing player, and hearing it often at a table is often a sure sign that it's a good game to be in. This is because the most basic thing that separates bad players from good ones is the frequency with which they make erroneous calls, when folding would be the correct move.

In fact, so reliably does the utterance of this expression mark bad players that I think it's fair to make this conjecture — the profitability of a poker table is directly proportionate to how often you hear the players say, "I had to call."

But do you want to know a secret about that phrase? It's never true.

It's never true because, in the most literal sense, nobody puts a gun to your head in order to force you to put more chips into the pot. Every decision in poker is voluntary.

A more accurate rephrasing of "I had to call" would be something like, "Calling there was the correct decision, even though I ended up losing."

That could be true even in the case of queens on a {k-}{k-}{j-}{j-}{a-} board, depending on the specific circumstances. If the bettor were a habitual bluffer, for example, a call becomes much more justifiable than it was in the situation I witnessed. Or if the pot odds are ridiculous — e.g., calling 1,000 to possibly win a pot worth 20,000 — you have to be right so rarely that a call might be profitable in expected value against the great majority of opponents.

Two Things You Should Never Say at a Poker Table 101
James Obst

But even if everybody who says, "I had to call" used my alternative phrasing instead, they would still usually be wrong. In my experience, that explanation usually reflects the fundamental error of considering the strength of one's hand in isolation, rather than in comparison to the likely range of the bettor.

A stellar example of the right way to value one's hand came to my attention last week when I finally got around to watching the World Series of Poker Main Event broadcasts. If you saw the shows, you surely remember this hand.

On Day 7, James Obst held {7-Hearts}{7-Diamonds} and bet his full house on a board of {q-Spades}{7-Clubs}{j-Clubs}{10-Clubs}{10-Diamonds}. Michael Ruane then raised all in. Despite being offered more than 4-to-1 pot odds to call, Obst found a fold. Even more impressively, he folded not because he thought Ruane had quads or one of the five boats bigger than his, but because, as he said, "It looks like you have a straight flush."

His read was perfect — Ruane held {9-Clubs}{8-Clubs}.

The easiest thing to do in that spot would be to call, and, after losing, say, "I had to call. I had a full house." But in poker, you get no credit for a monster hand when your opponent has the nuts. You may get some sympathy, but you can't buy much with that.

Watching the Main Event final table reminded me of another thing bad players sometimes say after making a call they shouldn't have. In this case, though, it came from somebody who is about as far from a bad player as you can get — Cliff Josephy, a.k.a., "JohnnyBax."

I think everybody watching the time-delayed live feed cringed when they saw Josephy with {2-Diamonds}{2-Clubs}, Gordon Vayo with {3-Spades}{3-Diamonds}, and the flop come down {3-Clubs}{k-Diamonds}{2-Spades} to put Josephy in the dreaded set-under-set situation. (Eventual winner Qui Nguyen was also in there with ace-jack, although he'd step aside.)

Two Things You Should Never Say at a Poker Table 102
Cliff Josephy

The fireworks came on the {4-Diamonds} turn, where Vayo check-raised Josephy all in. Given Vayo's conservative style, the action, and the situation — four left in the WSOP Main Event — one could reasonably question Josephy's call on the grounds that if ever there's a time to fold a flopped set, this would be it. Perhaps there's a deeper justification that I'm missing, but it sure looks as though he fell into that same error of judging his hand by its own strength, rather than by considering how it stacked up against the hands that Vayo could plausibly have there.

But Josephy is ten times the poker player I'll ever be, and I can't be confident I would make the correct but difficult decision there, either. So I'll soft-pedal any criticism of his call.

What I will talk about, though, is what he said to his friends in the audience after seeing the bad news: "I knew he had it."

We know this wasn't really a true statement. If it were true, it would mean Josephy would have made the call even if Vayo's cards had been face-up when he had to make the decision. That is to say, he would have willingly put his chips into the pot when he had absolute knowledge that he had just a 2 percent chance to win the pot with a river one-outer — which obviously he wouldn't do.

Sometimes you'll even hear a player say "I knew he had it" after a bad call on the river, when there is zero chance of winning. Really? You would have made the same call if the other guy's cards had been turned up? I don't think so.

There's another thing that both "I had to call" and "I knew he had it" have in common — they're attempts to justify mistakes. This is problematic on two fronts.

First, the only thing worse than making a bad decision is failing to recognize that it was a bad decision. Attempts to convince yourself or others that a bad decision was actually a good decision make it that much more likely that you'll repeat the mistake again and again and again.

Second, I think it's better never to try to justify your decisions at the poker table. Later, when talking over hands with trusted friends, sure — make your best case for what you did, while being open to critiques and alternative approaches. But the only possible reason for explaining what you did while still at the table is that your ego is hurt, and you're trying to save face so that others don't think you're a bad player.

But why should you try to talk them out of thinking that? For one thing, it probably won't work. For another, if the losing call actually was objectively correct on the basis of pot odds, your opponent's probable range, and so on, explaining that to players who won't grasp it on their own is giving them a free education, which reduces your edge against them. Finally, if they think you're a bad player when you're actually not, you can use their erroneous assessment of you against them later.

In short, explaining your actions to your opponents never benefits you on the only scale that should matter — profit.

A call that loses you money might have been right or wrong, depending on the circumstances. But justifying it after the fact with "I had to call" or "I knew he had it" is always wrong.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the "Poker Grump" blog.

  • You hear players say "I had to call" and "I knew he had it" a lot. What does it mean when they do?

  • The profitability of a poker game is directly proportionate to how often players say "I had to call."

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