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Battling Groupthink

by Ed Miller |  Published: Apr 16, 2014

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Ed MillerMost regular $2-$5 and $5-$10 level cash-game players in live card rooms don’t play well at all. I don’t mean relative to one another. I mean they don’t play well compared to an objective standard of good play, like perhaps Phil Ivey. Or when compared to the strongest computer program currently out that plays no-limit hold’em. Your typical $5-$10 regular would get killed by Phil Ivey or by the bot. Absolutely obliterated.

I think many players don’t understand exactly how enormous the gulf in ability is. It’s difficult for most card room regulars to play a single hand from beginning to end — through four or five decision points from preflop through the river — without making at least one significant theoretical error.

I say this not to insult my readers, many of whom are card room regulars. Not at all, actually. Instead, I want to highlight how much opportunity there is available to you if you decide you want to study the game and rise above the chip shuffling masses.

“Poker is a dying game.” You’ve heard someone make the argument. Back during the boom, winning money in poker games was easy. Now it’s tough. Everyone is good. The suckers don’t have any money left. These days it’s like trying to squeeze blood from a garden full of rocks.

I just said that your typical card room regular is really not very good at all. Can I be right, while so many people are saying that the game is dying? And if so, what gives?
The culprit is groupthink. Groupthink is very strong among poker players. Say I walked into the Aria in Las Vegas on a Tuesday afternoon and pulled ten regular $2-$5 players aside. I asked them a set of questions about how they play the game. Gave them a few scenarios and asked them how they’d handle them. Would I get ten different answers to every question?

I don’t believe I would — not even close. Sure, there’d be some variation. But I’d hear the same things over and over again, and I believe that in many common hand decisions, the majority of the players would all play roughly the same way.

This groupthink is why these players have so much trouble making money today. When you sit in a game and eight out of the ten players basically think and play just like you, you aren’t going to make money.

Chances are you have internalized quite a bit of groupthink. It’s hard not to. Humans were built to learn from others, and whether you’re aware of it or not, many of your poker thoughts and plays likely have been strongly influenced by your regular opponents.
Nearly everything I produce — articles and books and videos — is designed to help regular players overcome the groupthink and learn how to play both differently from and better than their regular opponents.

But it’s one thing to think about these things, and it’s another entirely to actually play this way. Many players have a mental block when it comes to deviating from “acceptable” play when they’re sitting at a table of their peers.

That’s what the rest of this article is about. It’s about how to break through the invisible boundaries prescribed by all the unwritten rules that compel most people to play more or less the same way.

Four-Bet and Five-Bet Bluffing Preflop

In live cash games, four-bet bluffs preflop basically don’t happen. Online, people four-bet and five-bet bluff all the time, even at low stakes. In live games, however, it’s quite uncommon.

So do it. Wait until you see someone three-bet preflop, and you suspect it might be light. No, not the crusty old guy who’s guaranteed to have aces. Wait for a different situation. Look for players three-betting from the button or one of the blinds. Look for someone who looks like they might have learned at least one new thing about poker in the last ten years.

Then bluff them. You can four-bet cold — where you bluff without having entered the pot yet. Or if you were the original raiser, you can just plain old four-bet.

If it’s not a thing you do, you’ll feel out of your comfort zone. But don’t worry, your opponents will be even further out of their comfort zones because people don’t make this play in live $2-$5 games.

It might work. If so, great. You might get called. If so, all is not lost. Try to hit the flop. Failing that, give your opponent a chance on the flop to reveal some strength. If he doesn’t show strength, try another bluff on the turn.

If it blows up in your face, oh well. In some ways that’s the best outcome, because the goal with this exercise is that you learn how to:

1. Put yourself out there with a big bet in an uncertain situation.
2. Have it blow up in your face.
3. Shrug it off and do it again the next time the situation arises.

Learning how to deal psychologically with losing a big chunk of your stack doing something “crazy” is part of becoming a strong player. If you can’t do that, you won’t break out of the groupthink.

Call (Almost) All Small Bets

One of the first things people learn is that they need to be selective with their hands. They can’t just call any old hand down to the river.

But quickly many players take this idea too far, and they begin to fold too early in hands. “If she bets the river I can’t call, so I’ll just fold now. Don’t want to call now and fold then.”

Additionally, players learn that they shouldn’t chase better hands, and they begin to ascribe almost a moral righteousness to holding the better hand preflop or on the flop. “I had him on the flop. He called me with his gutshot and got there.” Heads shake and tongues wag.

The thing about this is that it’s often just fine to “chase” when the bets are small on the flop and even sometimes on the turn. There are three reasons for this:

1. You might hit your hand.
2. Your opponent might not have the hand strength you assume he’s got.
3. Your opponent might get scared by a turn or river card that doesn’t improve you.

Most people think primarily about the first reason when they contemplate calling an early bet, but frequently the second and third reasons are more important.

I make a lot of money just hanging around in hands until something happens. Sometimes my opponent gives up on a pot unexpectedly. Sometimes a scare card hits. And yes, sometimes I suck out. If you agree with the statement, “Bad players suck out and good players get sucked out on,” there’s a good chance you’re missing a lot of value to groupthink.

Final Thoughts

Every time you play, commit to making at least one type of play that puts you out of your comfort zone. Something that could make you look silly. The more you do it, the more you learn there’s nothing to be afraid of. ♠

Ed’s brand new book, Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top, is on sale now at edmillerpoker.com. Find Ed on Facebook at facebook.com/edmillerauthor and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.