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Losing With Style

by Ed Miller |  Published: Dec 12, 2012


Ed MillerHere’s something that’s true for darn near every regular small stakes no-limit hold’em player. They don’t lose enough.

“What?” You say. “Ed, you’re nuts! I lose all the time. I’m trying to lose less, not more.”

Trying to lose less, unfortunately, doesn’t work. If that’s your goal, you’re doing it all wrong.

Instead of trying to lose less, you should be trying to lose with style.

What I Mean

Lose with style? What the heck does that mean?

There are two ways to lose in no-limit hold’em. The first way is to be reactive. With your good hands you try to end pots early and nurse your lead to showdown. With your weak hands you usually back down. You fold a lot. You get coolered some. This is how most players go about things, and it’s a terrible way to lose.

The second way to lose is to see opportunities, try to exploit them, and to fail spectacularly. This is losing with style, and it’s often how the best no-limit hold’em players do their losing.

When you play reactively, you’re protecting your downside, but you’re simultaneously destroying your upside. In many cases, you’re simply locking in your losses. Losses will perhaps be smaller and fewer, but they will also be balanced by much smaller and many fewer wins.

Exploiting the players who play reactively requires taking chances. Often the bold plays work. Sometimes they backfire. But if you’re picking your spots right, you’re much better off taking the chances.

The Math

The math is simple enough to understand. Let’s say you’re contemplating a bluff. There’s $500 in the pot, and you’re thinking about bluffing your last $500 to try to win it.

It’s an even money bet. If it works, you win $500. If it doesn’t, you lose $500.
An even money bet. The simplest gamble of them all. If it works more than half the time, it’s a winner.

Think about it. When was the last time you bet $500 in a $2-$5 pot and lost? What’s your success rate on $500 bets? If you’re like most people, when you put $500 in the pot, you almost never lose. Because, consciously or subconsciously, you’re waiting for a near lock before you risk that much.

But the math says you don’t need anywhere near a lock to make a bet like this. All you need to be is slightly better than 50/50. If it’s 70/30 or 65/35 or 60/40, bluffing $500 to win $500 is a slam dunk. Billion dollar casinos are built on edges much thinner than these.

So if it’s 65/35 in your favor, do you pull the trigger? You may be thinking “yes,” but I bet you really don’t. Because when you make a 65/35 bet, you lose it one out of three times. One out of three times, your $500 will go up in smoke as you get snapped off. If you’re really making these bets when they arise, you will be able to recall numerous hands you lost where your big bluff got snapped off. After all, 35 percent is about the same chance someone has to draw to a flush from the flop, and I’m sure you can remember times opponents hit flush draws on you. (Granted, your opponents will be drawing to flushes more often than you’ll have opportunities to launch big bluffs, but the idea still holds.)

If you’re playing this game well — truly well — then you will play hands where you go down in flames on a very regular basis. You won’t have to struggle to recall three hands where you put it all on the line and looked silly. You’ll be looking silly on a regular basis. Because there are a lot more “just” good gambles out there than there are nearly sure things. And merely good gambles often don’t pan out. Yet if you pass on them, you’re leaving so much money on the table.

An Example

Here’s a simple example of a not particularly bold bluff that, despite it not being particularly bold, most small stakes players routinely pass on.

I have KDiamond Suit KSpade Suit and open for $15 in a $2-$5 game. A tight regular calls next to act, and we see the flop heads-up.

The flop comes AClub Suit 7Spade Suit 3Diamond Suit. I check, he bets $20, and I call.

The turn is the 9Spade Suit. I check, and he checks.

The river is the JClub Suit. I check, he bets $40, and I check-raise to $145.

Why do I play the hand this way? On the flop we have a binary situation. Either my opponent has an ace or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, my only real chance at upside is to get him to fire at the pot. If he has an ace, I want to let him take a tell-tale betting line to tell me that’s what he’s got, and then I sometimes want to fire a bluff at him.

So I check the flop. He bets. It’s likely an ace, but I’m getting $50-to-$20 odds to call, and I can still win one of three ways:

1. Win at showdown when my opponent decides to check down a bluff.
2. Run a bluff if my opponent defines his hand as a weak ace.
3. Catch a king.

Add all these ways up, and it’s worth hanging around for the relatively small price I have to pay.

The turn bricks, and it goes check-check. Given the player I was up against, I now think a strong ace, two pair, or a set are all unlikely. I think he would have chosen to bet these hands in an attempt to get maximum value. So I expect he was either bluffing the flop or he has a weak ace that he’s trying to pot control.

If I fire the river, he folds the bluffs and calls with the aces, so that does me no good. Instead I check. If he has an ace and checks it down, God bless him. But I expect this player to be unwilling to check an ace down a second time. When he bets $40, I expect it to be a value bet from a weak ace.

Calling the bet is no good, as I think I’m beat against this action the vast majority of the time. But I can run a bluff.

It’s far from a sure thing. He could have A-J or J-J and have walked into two pair on the river. He could have been playing deceptively on the turn and river and show up with a slow played monster. He could simply see through the bluff and elect to hero call with A-8 or whatever weak ace he might have.

But I think he usually has a weak ace in this situation, and I think he usually folds it. I’m laying $145-to-$110 on my bluff, and it could certainly backfire. But I think it’s thinly profitable.

Learning to add plays like this will have you losing with style. But more importantly, it will also have you winning more consistently. ♠

Ed’s newest book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is on sale at Find Ed on Facebook at and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.