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Staying Within Your Means

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: Aug 07, 2013


Matt LessingerI used to play $5-$10 no-limit hold’em with a player we’ll call Harry who would always buy in for $2,000 thinking that the sheer number of chips would intimidate his opponents. Or maybe he wanted others to believe he was an action player. In reality, Harry was extremely tight, and hardly ever came close to going all-in. Only once did I ever see all of his chips go in, and that hand stuck in my mind for years.

Several players limped for $10, including Harry in the small blind (SB), who had 7Spade Suit 6Spade Suit. The flop came 8Diamond Suit 5Club Suit 4Club Suit, giving Harry the nut straight, and he checked. Everyone checked to an opponent we’ll call Sam, who held 9Club Suit 7Club Suit for a flush draw and a gutshot, and he bet $40. Everyone folded to Harry, who check-raised to $120. Sam called.

On the turn came the 10Heart Suit, and Harry bet $300, protecting his hand strongly, as he normally did.

Sam, who had improved to an open-ended straight draw to go along with his flush draw, then put in a huge all-in semibluff raise, figuring that Harry would likely fold anything other than the mortal nuts. Sam had been running good all session and therefore had Harry covered.

Unfortunately for him, Harry happened to have the nuts and instantly called all-in, but just as quickly he motioned to the dealer not to deal the last card. Once they flipped their hands up, I could see him counting his opponent’s outs (14) and trying to figure out his odds of winning (30-to-14). He immediately turned to a deep-stacked regular and asked for insurance at 2-1 odds. The regular just shook his head.

Now Harry seemed a little panicked. He looked around the table, and no one seemed interested in laying insurance. “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said Harry, making sure the dealer was still waiting, “Someone give me 3-to-2 odds. Come on, that’s a good deal.” In truth, it was a very good deal. I almost spoke up, ready to grant his request. Then I realized I didn’t have enough money for the kind of action he wanted, so I kept my mouth shut. No one else was interested either.

“Come on, let’s go,” said Sam. We could all see Sam getting worked up. Looking back, I think part of it was impatience, and part of it was disgust that he ran a failed bluff and might be about to turn a huge winning session into a losing one. But somehow I believe another part of it was that feeling poker players get, when they are running good and think their card is going to come even when the odds are against it.

I think Harry felt the same way too. There’s no logic to it, just the irrational feeling that since Sam was running so hot all night, why wouldn’t he win this hand too? Maybe we all felt a little of that, and that’s why no one wanted to offer insurance, even at a very favorable price.

You can probably guess what happened. The river was the JHeart Suit, for a final board of 4Club Suit 5Club Suit 8Diamond Suit 10Heart Suit JHeart Suit, giving Sam the winning straight with his 9Club Suit 7Club Suit. Both players acted professionally. Sam tapped the table sympathetically, acknowledging that he got lucky. Harry said, “nice hand,” in a dejected monotone, then quietly got up and left.

The whole table was silent for a while after that. It was the most anyone ever lost in a single hand in that game. Harry had always carried himself confidently, sometimes with a bit of a swagger, but his attitude changed for a long time after that hand. He continued to frequent our game and still bought in for $2,000, but he never wore the same old confident look. Already a tight player, he now played even tighter, which caused the better players to run over him whenever possible.

The image that stuck with me was the look on Harry’s face immediately after he called all-in. Even before that hand, Harry obviously didn’t intend to put all of his chips at risk unless he was certain he held the best hand. Now it became clear that, even with the best hand, the idea of risking all of his chips scared the crap out of him. The immediate impact, besides the obvious blow to his bankroll, was that his panicked scramble for insurance damaged his table image forever.

I learned a few things that day, about myself and my opponents. If I had $2,000 in my pocket, I probably would have given insurance at 3-to-2. It’s such a favorable proposition that I’d absolutely do it today if given the chance.

But once I saw the JHeart Suit fall, I breathed a sigh of relief and realized that I had just saved myself from the pain that Harry was feeling. But would it have affected me the same way? It made me think about the bet from an expected value (EV) perspective, not just in immediate dollars won and lost, but also in terms of future ramifications. How would I have dealt with losing $2,000 psychologically? Would it have forever changed the way I played the game, the way that it changed Harry?

I thought about it and realized that, although it would have sucked on that given night, I would have been fine with my decision. It would have been no different from all the times I played a hand, got my money in good, and lost to a fateful river card. Knowing that I got my money in good was what mattered.

But I also knew I couldn’t take that concept too far. In theory, I always believed that I would be willing to risk any money at my disposal as long as the odds were in my favor. If I was getting 51-to-49 odds on a pure coin flip, I should be prepared to take that bet for any amount. But if it was an amount that would affect me psychologically, then it was too simply too much.

That’s a lesson that Harry probably didn’t learn until that night. Theoretically, he was willing to risk $2,000 on a single hand as long as he knew he had the best of it. But based on the way his whole attitude changed as a result of losing, $2,000 was clearly more than he was willing to risk.

How do you know if you’re risking more than you should? Reflect on the times when you’ve gotten all of your money in the middle with the best hand. How often have you wished you could take insurance? If the answer is not zero, maybe that’s a sign that you were playing above your means.

Sure, putting $5,000 on the table doesn’t mean you’ll frequently be putting it all into action. But “frequently” is not what matters. All it takes is one hand to go a certain way, and you might have no choice but to risk it all. And if you find yourself wondering how you reached that point in the first place, maybe you’ll know for next time to buy in for less, or else find a smaller game. ♠

Matt Lessinger is the author of The Book of Bluffs: How to Bluff and Win at Poker, available everywhere. You can find Matt’s other articles at