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Poker Mantras - Two questions to ponder during the play of a hand

by Dan Abrams |  Published: Aug 09, 2005


Definition: man·tra (n); a sacred chant that is repeated during meditation to facilitate spiritual power.

Most people go through life on a path of least resistance. They fall into routines and don't seek improvement. Consequently, they're terrible poker players.

The rest of us at least try to make the best of the situations we find ourselves in. Take yourself, for example. You're reading this column because you hope it will give you some valuable advice and/or possibly be moderately entertaining.

So, here's Dan's Poker Mantra No. 1:

Always ask yourself, "How am I going to make money with this hand?"

Don't ask out loud, that would be annoying. But you should get in the habit of at least subconsciously knowing the answer to that question. If you're just starting out, try to use it literally for a session or two. See if it helps.

Why is that question important? Because it cuts to the core of poker strategy. If you are going to profit, beyond your share of luck, you must excel in at least one of two ways:

1. You must get opponents who have worse hands to call or bet into your better hands.

2. You must get opponents who have better hands to fold to your worse hands.

When you play pocket aces, the answer to the mantra question is easy. You have the mathematical edge, and anyone who calls you is giving up theoretical profit.

Most people have just as easy a time with pocket deuces. "No set, no bet" is the standard useful advice. Some pros get confident and tricky with their two ducks when a flop like 9 9 3 comes down. But generally, we mere mortals need a set of deuces to bet with confidence. So, who cares about Dan's Poker Mantra No. 1?

That first mantra becomes valuable when you have a semistrong hand. For example, let's say you see one person limp, another raise, and another reraise. You look down to find yourself holding A-J preflop. How are you going to make money with it? Describe the situation in which you're currently the favorite. Maybe it's a total maniac game and the first bettor is drunk and the second is a wild player. Maybe the third player (the reraiser) is an almost-moderate player with A-10 and he wants to isolate the drunk and the wild one. Yeah, maybe in that specific scenario, your A-J is good.

But then, how are you going to play it? You might think that an ace on the flop will put you far in the lead. But what if it doesn't show up? If you flop a jack but a king or queen also comes, can you really feel good about your hand? So, let's see. You're hoping that the drunk has garbage without a king or queen, and the wild one has garbage without a king or queen, and the moderate player has exactly A-10 or worse, and you're hoping that you flop an ace. That's quite a freaking parlay. Good luck. Better yet, fold the A-J to a reraise. Always fear the word "and" when assessing events in your favor.Now, if you hold the 10 8 and everybody is very deep-stacked in a passive no-limit hold'em game, calling becomes a legitimate option. Let's say the blinds are $3-$5 and each player has more than $3,000 in front of him. The first player came in for $5, the second raised to $15, and the third reraised to $30. If you think your call will encourage the other players to just call (and not reraise again), you're in an interesting situation.

Now, if the flop doesn't immediately give you two pair or better, you know not to put any more money in. However, if you get really lucky and flop trips or a straight, you might get a few-grand payoff on your $30 preflop investment.

So, it's very clear how you are going to make money with that hand. That's because your hand isn't likely to have its cards duplicated in your opponents' hands. You aren't likely to find yourself in a situation in which you're out-kicked and drawing to very few outs. You know with a hand like 10-8 that one pair isn't squat, whereas your opponents aren't likely to put you on that hand (after calling a reraise). So, if you flop a big hand (for example, 10 8 3), you'll probably bust an opponent who has A-A, K-K, Q-Q, or J-J.

Before I go into Dan's Poker Mantra No. 2, why don't you check back on the game you're playing in right now. Don't slow it down because of me.

Sir, it's your turn. Sir, it's your turn. Sir, it's your turn!!!

OK, you've returned, but you're still keeping an eye on the game. That's good. Now you've earned Dan's Poker Mantra No. 2:

Ask yourself, "What am I hoping for on the board and in my opponents' hands?"

(This is the flip side of Dan's Poker Mantra No. 1 and the basis of the advice, "Fear the word 'and.'")

Let's say you have the two red kings and raise preflop. Only the blinds call. Obviously, you're hoping for a king to flop a set, but you're really hoping that an ace doesn't fall.

Then, the flop comes A 8 5. Dang it! It's as ugly a flop as you could have imagined. Now, the small blind bets and the big blind raises. It's time to answer Mantra No. 2. If either of them has an ace or two clubs, you're almost completely dead. What's the best-case scenario? Your delusional mind races. What would they call my preflop raise with? Maybe the blinds are idiots, and they'll call with anything. So, maybe the small blind only has something like the Q and is betting the second nut-flush draw. And maybe the big blind only has the K and is raising with the nut-flush draw. Yeah, then your pocket kings are still good, at the moment. Sure, believe that. And there's no evidence of global warming or evolution, either.Let's get back to Dan's Poker Mantra No. 2. When considering what you're hoping for, please consider its likelihood. Fear the word " and." If you're hoping for one thing to be true and another thing to be true, you should multiply the chances. So, if you think there's a 40 percent chance that the small blind has the Q or worse and there's a 20 percent chance that the big blind has the K, the likelihood of both being true (assuming normal distributions) is only 8 percent. Do you really want to put your money in with red kings and an 8 percent chance that you're in the lead? And even in that best-case scenario, you still have a 36 percent chance of losing (to a flush on the turn or river). So, your true equity on the flop would be less than 6 percent. Face facts, it was a terrible flop for you. Fold and get over it. If, instead, you pray for the various "ands" to be true, you're gonna go broke. And we don't want that.

More important than knowing most everything is knowing when you don't. I don't know everything. Tell me when I'm wrong.

Dan Abrams was the writer/producer of the documentary on the World Series of Poker in 2000 for the Discovery Channel and the post producer/writer for the World Poker Tour in its first season.