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Why Smart Players Make Dumb Plays

Two good reasons

by Barry Tanenbaum |  Published: Aug 20, 2010


Poker attracts many smart people. They are intrigued by the richness of strategies and the many other elements of decision-making that are part of our game. This column is directed at those smart people. Luckily, I know that you are one of them, because you are reading it.

Smart people have some specific problems when actually trying to play. The sad truth is that most of the time, poker play is simply routine. Smartness just does not enter into it. You get dealt a J-6 offsuit and fold. It’s the right play, but it does not demonstrate all that much intellect. You get pocket aces and raise. That’s definitely the right play, but no one is going to reward you for your brilliance.

Unfortunately for some, winning poker is largely one fairly routine decision after another. You sit, you wait, you play your good hands strongly, and you win when the cards behave and lose when they don’t. All of that horsepower in your brain, and very little chance to use it.

This is when smart people fall from grace. They chafe at all of this boring sameness. Sure, it works, and in the long term it gets the money, but there is something missing. Actually, there are two things missing:
• Smart people want to feel smart.
• Smart people want to look smart.

Smart people want to feel smart: At some point, you may get bored doing “the right thing” over and over, especially if the cards have given you no scope for making difficult decisions or good-thinking plays. So, you decide to take a bit of liberty to add some variety to your game.

You limp in from the button with 9-8 suited behind three limpers in a limit hold’em game. Both blinds play, and six of you see the flop of K-7-4 with two of your suit. The small blind folds, the aggressive big blind bets, two players fold, and the next player calls. You decide to raise for a free card. You have not played many hands recently, you have a good table image, and it should work. Both remaining players call. The turn is an offsuit ace, which doesn’t help you. Everyone checks to you. Now, you know the right, boring, uninspired play here: Check, take the free card, bet if you make the flush, and check and give up if you don’t; very cut-and-dried.

But wait. Your brain starts churning. They did check to you. Maybe they don’t have much. Maybe the ace will scare them. Maybe, if you bet, they will give you credit for the big hand suggested by your raise and fold their cards. You might win a pot by deceit that you could never win if you just took the free card. And look at how good you will feel if you fool them and take this pot down with 9 high. So, you convince yourself to bet.

The big blind calls, but, wonderfully, the other guy folds. Only one opponent left! Maybe he will succumb on the river.

You miss the river, which is a deuce. Your opponent checks. You have no choice now; you can’t very often win by checking, so you bet. He calls. “Nice call,” you mutter as you either show your hand or don’t. Your opponent flashes K-3 offsuit from the blind and stacks your chips.

Do you feel bad? No, you figure that you made a play and it came close to working. He might have had a different hand, maybe 8-7, and let it go. But you should feel bad. You wasted two big bets with no reads or tells to give you hope. It was due more to boredom and the desire to make a smart-feeling play than any deep logic on your part.

This desire to feel smart functions on a very insidious level. It affects our judgment in ways that we often do not even realize.

Smart people want to look smart: How many times have you seen this? You are not in the hand. There is a bet and a raise on the turn, and a third player goes into the tank. He takes forever, then shows his hand to his neighbor and throws it into the muck. After the hand, he can’t contain himself, and announces, “I had pocket kings,” or some other hand that looked good for a while and then turned into a loser.

What is going on here? Why the very visible studying, hand-showing, and announcement? Clearly, the third player is looking for your approval and respect. He wants you to know that not only did he lose with a good hand, he was able to diagnose the situation and throw it away. Basically, he wants you to know how smart he is so that you can admire him. If he had just folded, especially in tempo, you might not have worked it out, so he puts on this show-and-tell.

Many players have a strong desire to be respected. They already know how well they play, but they need to have you know it, too. So, not only do they announce their hand, they go out of their way to make plays that will demonstrate their cleverness.

Let’s look at an example: You have 9-8 suited in the big blind. A good player in middle position open-raises, and you are the only caller. On the flop of A-7-4 with two of your suit, you try a check-raise to see if you can pick up the pot with a semibluff. Your opponent three-bets. You check and call when you miss the turn. On the river, you make your hand when the deuce of your suit hits.

As a rule, the right play is to bet here. It is almost always correct to bet into a single player — especially a good, non-maniacal one — when a scare card hits. Not only does this assure that you will earn a bet most of the time, it enables you to make an occasional credible bluff when you miss a draw but something else scary is out there. You cannot bluff if you frequently check-raise.

But, check-raising looks so much smarter. It is a cool play, and may even win an extra bet, as well as show the table how tricky you are. After all, your opponent has been aggressive throughout, and he did three-bet the flop. Maybe the check-raise will work, you think, so you check. Unfortunately, your opponent also checks. Your flush wins, as he shows you a pair of red kings. He played his hand the same way that you would have.

Conclusion: Certainly, there are times that a clever play is called for. But 99 percent of the time, making the obvious play wins the most money. Smart people need to calm down and make the right, if boring, plays.

Just repeat this old saying over and over: I’d rather have cash than credit. Spade Suit

Barry Tanenbaum is the author of Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy, and collaborator on Limit Hold’em: Winning Short-Handed Strategies. Barry offers private lessons tailored to the individual student. Please see his website,, or write to him at