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Which Help Should You Get?

Part VIII: Balancing caution and fearlessness (continued)

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: May 06, 2011


Alan SchoonmakerMy last three columns stated that you may need help with irrational attitudes toward fears. It’s destructive to be too cautious or too fearless. If you see “monsters under the bed,” you won’t take necessary risks; if you’re too fearless, you’ll take foolish ones.

You must understand your fears in order to control your reactions. Instead of trying to understand their fears, many people rationalize. Risk-avoiders give apparently sensible justifications for their timidity, while risk-seekers state plausible reasons for the actions that they take — at least partly — to get an adrenaline rush. Instead of yielding to your feelings, dispassionately select the degree of risk that fits all of these factors:

1. Your bankroll
2. Your stack size
3. Cash games versus tournaments
4. Your opponents’ styles
5. Your relative skill
6. Your motives and emotions

My last column discussed the first three factors. Now, I’ll discuss your opponents’ styles, your relative skill, and your motives and emotions.

Your Opponents’ Styles

Take more risks against soft opponents, fewer risks against tougher ones. And vary the type of risk.

Play most loosely against loose-passive players, but minimize bluffing.

You may want to gamble with tricky, aggressive players, but be careful, especially if you’ll be heads up. Because they can read you better than vice versa, they will often outplay you. Minimize bluffing.

Tighten up against tight-passive players, especially when they have raised, but bluff more than usual.

Be most cautious against tight-aggressive players. They play only good cards, and they play them well.

Your Relative Skill

I emphasized “relative” because it’s not how well you play that counts; it’s how much better or worse you are than your opponents. Unfortunately, most players overestimate their own skills and underestimate their opponents’ skills.

Fight that natural tendency and make two objective comparisons to your opponents:

• How do you usually compare?
• How do you compare now?

You may normally be much better than they are, but are playing poorly because you’re stuck, tired, had too much to drink, are distracted or upset, and so on. Constantly and objectively evaluate your own play. If you’re not playing well, admit it and adjust intelligently.

If you’re just slightly weaker than your opposition, tighten up. Let the strength of your cards compensate for your relatively weak skills. If you’re significantly weaker, change games or go home. Many people can’t admit that they are outclassed, especially when facing players they don’t respect. So, they keep playing, and usually get the losses they deserve.

If a strong opponent is playing poorly, attack him. Play more hands, and play them more aggressively, to exploit his temporary weakness.

Of course, in tournaments, you can’t choose your opponents, so you have to adjust to them. If they’re weaker than you are, avoid high-risk confrontations, such as getting all in with only a small edge. Why risk going broke when your superior skill should ultimately prevail?

Conversely, if they are much stronger than you are, it pays to shove preflop when the stack sizes and other conditions are right. David Sklansky made that point in Tournament Poker for Advanced Players. “With the exception of two aces, no starting hand can feel that comfortable if all the money goes in before the flop. And, if you feel you’re playing against superior players, you can take advantage of that fact.” (Page 134) If your opponents believe that they are better than you, they will generally fold, letting you take down many pots.

Your Motives and Emotions

You may wonder why I’ve urged you to fight your motives and emotions, but then told you to consider them when choosing your strategy. The unpleasant, inescapable fact is that you can’t change what you want and feel. You can change only how you react.

Your motives and emotions affect the stakes you choose, the games you select, the hands you play, and the way that you play them. If you don’t understand them and factor them into your decisions, you can’t control your reactions.

You therefore should ask yourself, “Why do I play poker?” If you don’t answer that question honestly, your motives and emotions will make you take too few or too many risks.

If you overreact to losses, avoid wild games. If you can handle large losses, place much higher value on big scores than on steady wins, and if you can adjust well, wild games may be just right for you.

If you want to grind out a steady income, minimize risks and swings by playing within your bankroll, selecting soft games, attacking the weakest players, and so on. But, if you want to become a top player, you must take chances, including the risk of going broke. Many top pros have gone broke repeatedly.

Daniel Negreanu explained why he took that risk in “Why Do Sharks Eat Other Sharks?” (Card Player, Aug. 29, 2007) He knew that he could not become a top player without the skills and toughness that could be developed only by challenging tougher players. He certainly didn’t like going broke, but he couldn’t reach his goal without taking that risk again and again.

Daniel is much more introspective than most players and writers. Thoroughly analyzing his motives and emotions increased his self-control. You should be equally honest with yourself.

If you are, you will understand and accept that your flexibility is very limited. For example, you may have enough money to play larger or wilder games, but your “psychological bankroll” may be too small. I coined that term many years ago. It’s the amount of money you can lose without becoming so upset that your play deteriorates. It’s almost always much smaller than your financial bankroll.

Your psychological bankroll is an important part of your “comfort zone.” Poker players normally use that term only when referring to the stakes, but it’s much broader. It includes the stakes, number and styles of the opponents, and many other factors, especially your own preferred style.

Although I’ve urged you to select a strategy that fits this situation, your ability to do so is severely limited. If a situation requires going too far outside your comfort zone, you’ll either select the wrong strategy or execute it poorly.

If you’re naturally conservative, you almost certainly can’t gamble wildly and well. You may play more hands more aggressively, but you’ll probably be so uncomfortable that you’ll make serious mistakes.

If you love to gamble, if you need that kick, you may tighten up, but you probably can’t become a rock, even if you know that the situation demands a hyperconservative strategy.

Be ruthlessly realistic about your motives and emotions. Understand and accept that you can act effectively in only a narrow range of situations and styles. Generally stay within those ranges, while trying to expand them.

Experiment with new strategies, evaluate their objective and psychological results, and slowly increase your ability to balance caution and fearlessness. It won’t be easy, but no sensible person ever said that it’s easy to beat our game. ♠

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