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Which Help Should You Get?

Seeing “monsters under the bed”

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Feb 18, 2011


You may need help against “monsters under the bed,” but not admit or even realize it. Lee Jones, author of Winning Low-Limit Hold’em, and his friend Roy Hashimoto said, “Don’t let MUTB [monsters under the bed] slow you down when you’re probably ahead.”
“Scared with Aces” asked for my help: “Over the past few months, I’ve developed a ‘monsters under the bed’ mentality. I play soundly, with mostly premium hands, but feel that every card that hits could hurt me.
“Unless it’s the most innocuous possible card, I start thinking of how I can be behind. I get brave enough to press the action only when I have almost a lock. How can I adjust my thinking?”
Because he requested help, he is way ahead of anyone who sees those monsters but won’t admit it. To protect their egos, many players rationalize checking when they should bet, or calling when they should raise. Until they admit their problem, they will keep making fear-driven mistakes.
Do You See MUTB?
You may think not, but your play may suggest otherwise. How would you play red aces in these limit hold’em situations? Say what you would probably do, not what you think you should do.
1. A rock (extremely tight-passive player) limped in from UTG [under the gun], and you slow-played, hoping the maniac behind you would raise. Unfortunately, everyone folded, and the BB [big blind] checked. The flop was 3♠ 2♥ 2♦. Your opponents checked, you bet, the BB folded, and the rock check-raised. What would you do?
If you didn’t three-bet, or call and raise the turn, you’re seeing MUTB. Rocks rarely limp in from UTG with a deuce. Even if he would limp with A-2 suited, you’ve got two aces, so he probably has an overpair.
2. The flop was 9♠ 4♥ 2♦. You bet, and the rock called. The turn was the 3♣. He checked. What would you do?
If you didn’t bet, you’re seeing MUTB. Rocks don’t call with nothing but gutshots in tiny pots.
3. A rock limped in from UTG, another player limped in, and you raised. Everyone folded, and both limpers called. The flop was A♣ 8♣ 2♠. The rock bet, the limper folded, you raised, the rock reraised, and you capped it. The turn was the J♣, and he checked. What would you do?
If you didn’t bet, you’re seeing MUTB. Rocks don’t bet and then reraise when they are out of position, heads up, with flush draws.
4. You open-raised from UTG, a rock to your immediate left cold-called your raise, and everyone else folded. The flop was A♣ K♣ 9♣. You bet, and he raised. What would you do?
If you slowed down, you’re seeing MUTB. You should either three-bet now or check-raise the turn. Rocks in early position don’t cold-call raises with mediocre suited cards, and the best clubs that he could have are Q-J. He probably has a set of nines, top two pair, or A-Q.
5. You raised three limpers preflop, and the blinds and limpers called. Your opponents are straightforward players. The flop was 8♣ 7♣ 3♥. Everybody checked, you bet, and everyone called. The turn was the terrible 6♣. Everyone checked. What would you do?
If you didn’t bet, you may not be seeing MUTB, but you’re certainly playing too timidly. You can easily be behind, but the pot contains nine big bets. A straightforward player who’s ahead would probably bet to protect his hand. If you bet and get check-raised, you’ve lost one bet if you fold, and more if you call. If you check, some hands that would fold can draw out on you.
Some opponents would fold straight draws, many pairs, or a tiny club. Betting would have to be wrong several times to make up for the pots and bets you’d lose by checking. If you check, and someone rivers a tiny flush, a straight, two pair, or trips, you may believe that you saved a bet, but you’re rationalizing. If the winner would have folded, your timidity cost you the entire pot. Betting won’t win the pot immediately, but every player who folds increases your chances of winning.
Checking also invites a river bluff, which you would have to call. Would you rather bet the turn, when your chances of being ahead are greater, or call the river?
If you misplayed the first four hands, you’ve got a serious problem. Rocks are easy to read, and you were almost certainly ahead.
No. 5 was much more difficult, because you faced more opponents, they weren’t rocks, and the board was scarier. In fact, thinking you were behind would not be that irrational. But, checking would still be a fear-driven mistake.
How Can You Fight Your Fears?
If you have MUTB or general timidity, what should you do?
Obey Your Brain, Not Your Gut: Your brain acts logically, while your gut reacts emotionally. So, “tune out” your gut and force yourself to think logically, even when you want to yield to your emotions.
Dispassionately Estimate the Probability That You’re Behind: Assess your opponents’ styles, review the betting, and then cold-bloodedly estimate this probability. Simply assuming that you’re beat guarantees:
• Losing bets
• Losing pots by giving free or cheap cards
• Losing pots by fear-driven folding
Avoid Loose, Aggressive, Tricky Players: Because they play more hands, go further with them, and are unpredictable, it’s much harder to estimate the probability that you’re ahead. This uncertainty will reinforce your timidity. In addition, some of these players can sense and exploit your fears by floating the flop, check-raise bluffing, and other moves. They can outplay you, and you had better accept that reality.
Calculate the EV [expected value] of Fighting and Yielding to Your Fears: If you’re timid, you’ll remember when your fears were right and forget when they were wrong. You’ll remember betting and getting check-raised, but forget betting, getting called, and winning a bet or two. And you won’t even think about the times that you bet, some or all of your opponents folded, and you won a pot that you would have lost by checking.
Make those costs and gains more visible. Multiply the amount that you gain or lose by betting or raising by the probability that you’ll win, and compare it to what you gain or lose by checking or calling. When you see how much your timidity costs, you’ll probably become tougher. You still may want to act timidly, but you’ll be more motivated to act aggressively.
Focus on timidity’s largest cost: losing a pot that you would have won. Losses are greatest before the river, because giving free or cheap cards lets opponents draw out, hurting both your bankroll and your self-respect. So, write down exactly what happened, what it cost you, and vow, “I won’t lose any more pots by being a wimp!”
Final Remarks
You may believe that you don’t need help against MUTB. Perhaps you don’t, but you may be protecting your ego by denying reality. Look more critically at your play, especially when you lose a pot that you might have won by betting. If your fears are costing you, learn how to fight them. ♠

Dr. Al ( coaches only on psychology issues, such as controlling impulses and emotions and coping with losing streaks. He is David Sklansky’s co-author of DUCY? and the sole author of four poker psychology books.