Stop Playing Poker Like A Slot Machine
by Ed Miller | Published: Jun 13, 2012
Far too many players treat poker like it’s a slot machine. Sit there, push the button over and over, and hope the jackpot will eventually come sliding across the table.
I’m known as a guy who has opinions about how to play poker. So naturally people ask me a lot of strategy questions. Here are examples of the most popular types of questions.
“With suited aces, I like to limp in and then call a raise. Do you think this is okay, or should I do something else?”
“How much can I call preflop with a small pocket pair?”
“When I have a draw, should I check and call or play it aggressively?”
“Should I slowplay on the flop or not?”
With all due respect to those who ruminate on these topics, these are slot machine questions, not poker questions.
I participate occasionally in a video poker online discussion group. Video poker, for those who don’t know, is a game where a savvy gambler can generate a consistent advantage over the house and win over the long haul. Video poker is also a slot machine.
The questions asked on this discussion group often look something like this, “In Super Mega Deuces Wild, if I get dealt deuce-ace-queen suited, do I hold the deuce-ace-queen or just the deuce?”
This is a slot machine question, and in its venue it is a completely appropriate question. It has a mathematically correct answer that never changes. The answer depends entirely on the pay table of the game. If a wild royal flush pays X coins and four deuces pays Y coins, you can calculate the answer to any such slot machine question as a function of X and Y and all the other pays in the game.
Poker, however, has no pay table. If you make three of a kind, it does not pay you three times your bet. In fact, making three of a kind in poker often pays very little. Occasionally it pays a whole lot. And sometimes it costs you a pretty penny.
More importantly, in poker, what hands are worth depends completely on the strategies your opponents are playing. The hands themselves have no value.
I know you’ve heard this before, and intellectually you understand it. But when I tell this to most people, they respond like this, “Sure, I understand what you’re saying. Hands have no value. But in general, Ed, how much can I call to try to make a set?”
Poker is absolutely not about making big hands and collecting the jackpot, and if you keep looking at it that way you simply won’t get better.
If there is a guy in the game who is playing every pot, has a ten thousand dollar stack, and is paying off every bet to the river whenever he hits top pair, then fine. Play the game like a slot machine. No need to wait for a slot attendant, this fellow will dutifully pay your jackpots.
But if there’s no one in the game regularly paying off all the big hands, and this is usually the case now in Las Vegas games and in many other locales, then a slot machine approach won’t go very far.
Asking Poker Questions
Okay, so I’ve told you what questions not to ask. Questions that focus on making big hands and how much you can invest preflop to try to make the hand miss the point.
So what should you ask?
You win at poker by examining how other players are putting money into pots. Then you look for the scenarios where your opponents will put money into pots that you can most easily, one way or the other, end up winning.
Let’s say you notice that one of your opponents is raising a lot of hands preflop and, when called, she’s betting the flop every time. This player is obviously putting a fair amount of money into lots of pots with not particularly strong hands. A good poker question to ask in this scenario is,
“Which preflop hands should I play against this player to maximize my ability to steal all these little pots she’s building?”
Another one might be,
“On which types of flops should I play back at this player to give me the best chance of taking it down?”
These questions reach the essence of poker. An opponent has created an opportunity for you to win money. How best to get it?
Let’s say now you’ve noticed a player who seems to be very suspicious and willing to suspect you of bluffing in nearly any situation. Maybe he’s suspicious because you just got caught running a huge, audacious bluff. Maybe he’s suspicious because he just caught someone else running a huge, audacious bluff. Maybe he’s just a poor hand reader and a naturally suspicious person.
Whatever the reason, this person is putting money into pots in a specific and predictable way, and we can ask questions about how to get the money.
“What types of preflop hands gain the most value against a player willing to call big river bets with medium pairs?”
“How should we approach playing the flop and turn to maximize the chance this player makes a bad river call against us?”
“How should we treat situations where we don’t have much hand, but it appears this player doesn’t have much either. That is, when should we try to bluff this player despite the fact that it is his tendency to suspiciously try to catch bluffs?”
I don’t have the room to answer these questions here, and answering them isn’t the point of this article. Learning the right questions to ask is the key, because it shows you’re thinking correctly about poker. Then you learn how to to answer them yourself.
Poker isn’t a slot machine. If your poker brain is constantly stuck thinking along the lines of, “Let’s make a big hand and get paid. How much can I call, and what are my odds?” you aren’t going to perform well over the long-term.
Instead, think like a poker player. Look at what your opponents are doing and find situations where they put money in the pot without perhaps the most airtight reason to do so. Then think about, under what conditions, you could get at this money. The questions you ask about poker should pertain specifically to how best to get this money.
There is no pay table in this game, and hitting that jackpot hand may net you next to nothing. But if you learn to ask yourself the right questions, you can win big without ever hitting that elusive royal flush.
Ed’s brand new book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is available for purchase at notedpokerauthority.com. Find Ed on Facebook at facebook.com/edmillerauthor and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.
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