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Mind Over Poker

You Have a Choice

by David Apostolico |  Published: Dec 31, 2008


You don't ever HAVE to callIn poker, the most damaging four words to your wallet are "I had to call." Usually, these words are preceded by the phrase, "I knew he had it, but …" Put them together and you get something along the lines of, "I knew he had the flush, but I had a straight, so I had to call." In limit play, this line of thinking may not be so bad, but in no-limit, it can be disastrous.

There are certainly times when you need to make a crying call. If you're up against an overly aggressive opponent who will consistently fire bullets through the river, you won't need the nuts to call. Of course, in that situation, you probably aren't saying to yourself, "I knew he had it." In those situations, you are justifiably cynical. This column is about those times when you feel compelled to call against your better judgment.

If the four most damaging words are "I had to call," the six most friendly words to your wallet are "I do not have to call." The second-best hand can be a costly proposition, but it does not have to be fait accompli. I see way too many players resign themselves to losing with these good but not winning hands as if they had no choice but to play them through to the end. I'm here to tell you that you always have a choice. You are endowed with free will, so exercise it.

No one likes to be thought a sucker. I think most of us would rather call with a strong but losing hand than fold that hand and wonder forever if we made the right decision. I recently played a hand in the WRGPT (the world's largest and oldest free e-mail poker tournament) that got me thinking about how we can overcome this big mental block that forces us to call. Our starting stacks were 20,000. In the first round with the blinds at 50-100, I open-raised for 300 from middle position with Q-J suited. I had one call from a player acting behind me. The flop came K J 4. I led out for 450 and was called. The turn brought the Qd. This time I led out for 750. My opponent raised all in for another 18,000 and change. If I were to call, I'd have only about 500 left. Now, there's no question I'm going to fold. There are just too many hands that can beat me. Even though I find the all-in bet curious, he may have a strong but vulnerable hand, such as the smaller end of the straight or a two-pair holding of K-Q. Both of those hands would beat me, but he may be worried about my potential draws. At this point, I'm not going to be cynical even in the face of a ridiculous overbet.

Here's the point, though. Sometimes our opponents make our decision easy for us, such as in this case. That will rarely happen, however, when our opponent has a very strong hand and is trying to extract value. So, the next time you face one of those "I had to call" decisions when your instincts are telling you that you're beat, ask yourself a simple question: "Would I call a much larger bet here?" If the answer is no, you have something to think about. I'm not suggesting that the size of the bet shouldn't be a factor as well as such other factors as your opponent's tendencies, the texture of the game, stack sizes, and so on. What I want you to accomplish by asking this question is opening your mind to the possibility of choice. You can indeed fold. In fact, you would fold to a much larger bet. Now, go into the think tank, evaluate all of the factors, and make the best possible decision. You have choices, so consider all of them.

David Apostolico is the author of numerous poker-strategy books, including Tournament Poker and The Art of War and Poker Strategies for a Winning Edge in Business. You can contact him at