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The Price is Wrong

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: Nov 01, 2013

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Andrew BrokosSeveral of the more common justifications I hear for poor play revolve around the concept of being “priced in,” meaning committed to call off the rest of your stack, if raised, because of the pot odds you’d be getting. This can be an excuse for a bad call (“I was priced in”), a weak check (“I didn’t want to price myself in to call a raise”), or a poorly sized bet (“I wanted to price myself in to call a raise”). This article will address several common misunderstandings about the concept of pot commitment and situations in which you do or don’t want to be “priced in.”

Right off the top, I want to establish that being priced in is not in and of itself a bad thing. It means that you have the opportunity to make a call with a positive expected value (EV). Players tend to think otherwise for one of two reasons.

The first is simply that they, like the average human being, are loss averse. They’d rather have a 75 percent chance of winning a $100 pot than a 25 percent chance of winning a $310 pot. In the latter case, your EV is slightly higher, but three-fourths of the time you will lose money, which is why many people don’t like these sorts of wagers. This is the sort of situation you’re in when your opponent bets the river and you suspect that you are behind but are getting 3-to-1 odds on a call.

You’ll even hear people say, “I wish you had bet more so that I could fold.” If you actually believe that you’ll have the best hand more than one time in four, then you should be glad that your opponent bet the amount that he did rather than a larger amount that would have forced you to fold away the equity that you stand to gain from the times that you catch him bluffing.

If you don’t think that you can win more than one time in four, then you aren’t priced in, and you don’t have to call simply because you have a hand of a certain strength, or because you checked the turn, or because you are getting “good odds” (which in fact are not good enough given the premise that you can’t win more than one time in four). This brings us to the second reason why people aren’t happy when they say they’re priced in: they know that they’re beat and are simply calling for curiosity or confirmation, not because they actually believe it’s a profitable call.

There are a few strategies for combating your loss aversion. The first is simply to recognize it for the irrationality that it is. After nine years as a professional poker player, I still find that I dislike losing disproportionately more than I like winning. However, I also know that this doesn’t actually make financial sense, and I’m pretty good at getting over it. I recognize what I am thinking and feeling, I acknowledge it, and then I make the right decision in spite of it, whether that be calling or bluffing or thin-value betting.

The other important strategy is to have a bankroll that is adequate for you psychologically. In other words, you need to have enough money set aside solely for the purpose of playing poker that the prospect of losing whatever portion of that money you could realistically lose in whatever game you’re playing won’t materially affect you. This amount varies from person to person. The idea is just that you need to look at your money as a tool that you use for playing poker, one of whose purposes is to be lost. If you think of it as your rent or a vacation you could take, then you’re going to be irrationally worried about losing it.

Combating the second problem is more difficult and requires understanding what being “priced in” means. There aren’t rules in poker saying that you can never fold a flush or never fold getting 6-to-1 or anything like that. If you can’t beat anything that your opponent would play in the way that he has played, then you can fold even if you’re getting 10-to-1. If you’re not happy about being “priced in,” then maybe you aren’t.

I often hear players say that they didn’t value bet the river because they’d be priced in to call a shove. This is usually poor reasoning. Many players will not raise the river either for thin value or as a bluff, and against such players it is fine to value bet as much as you believe they will call with worse, no matter how large a percentage of your stack.

For example, if you have $400 in your stack, it’s often fine to bet $300 into a $400 pot with bottom two-pair and fold to a shove. There are many cases where an opponent will call $300 with many one-pair hands but never move in for that last $100 unless you are beat. If he does put the last of the money in, he is neither bluffing nor raising a worse hand for value, so you can fold even if you are getting 11-to-1. If you are confident in your read, then you are not priced in just because you are getting good odds.

On the other hand, if you believe both that your opponent will often call your bet with worse and that you truly will have the correct odds to call if he raises, then you still have no reason not to bet. Assume that in the above example, of the times that your opponent does not fold to your river bet, he calls with worse hands 75 percent of the time, raises with better hands 20 percent of the time, and raises as a bluff five percent of the time. If you bet and call a raise, you win $300 75 percent of the time, lose $400 20 percent of the time, and win $400 five percent of the time, for a net gain of $165.

Note that if you believed his bluff percentage to be so low that you couldn’t profitably call a shove, then you’d lose $300 the 25 percent of the time that he raises, plus an additional $400, the pot that you would have won had you checked the 5 percent of the time that he bluff raises, for a net gain of $130. In other words, you are better off being priced in to call his shove than having to fold to his shove, but even in the latter case you are much better off than had you not bet at all.

Pricing Yourself In

All of this assumes that the size of your original bet is the ideal amount you’d want to bet against his calling range. A common misapplication of this principle is to bet more than you otherwise would for the purpose of pricing yourself in to call a shove.

This doesn’t make sense because you are deliberately losing more than you have to to the top of your opponent’s range. The only reason you find yourself priced in is because your initial bet was poorly sized.

Let’s return once again to that example with a $400 pot and $400 in your stack. Suppose you conclude that a $200 bet is the best way to maximize value against the (large) part of your opponent’s range that you’re beating, presumably because you suspect that he’ll fold very often if you bet larger. Of course he is never going to fold the hands that beat you.

If you bet $200, we stipulated that you make more from his calls than you would with a $300 bet, so the only question is whether pricing yourself in to call his shove makes up the difference. A shove over a $200 bet would lay you 6-to-1 on a call, so you must believe your opponent’s bluff-raising frequency to be lower than one-in-seven but not lower than one-in-thirteen, which is what it would need to be to justify calling after betting $300 (we’re assuming for the sake of simplicity that he bluff-raises with the same frequency whether you bet $200 or $300). Let’s say that he’s bluffing one-in-ten, or ten percent of the time.

If you bet $200 and he raises, then you fold and lose $200 to his value raising range, which would have beat you at showdown anyway, and $600 to his bluff-raising range, against which you could have won the $400 pot at showdown. So 90 percent of the time you lose $200 and 10 percent of the time you lose $600, for a net loss of $240 against his raising range.

If you bet $300 and call a raise, then you lose $400 to his value range 90 percent of the time and win $400 from his bluffing range 10 percent of the time, for a net less of $320. You would have been better off letting yourself get bluffed than pricing yourself in to call, and that’s before we consider that you are also winning less money when called because your large bet is causing your opponent to fold disproportionately many worse hands that would have called $200.

Poker is about taking advantage of profitable opportunities. If you make a good bet and then have the opportunity to make a profitable call, there’s nothing to complain about. If you make a bad bet for the purpose of denying yourself the opportunity to make a profitable fold, then you’ve made a mistake. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He blogs about poker strategy on ThinkingPoker.net and is co-host of the Thinking Poker Podcast. Andrew is also interested in education reform and founded an after-school debate program for urban youth.