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Playing it Safe

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: Feb 05, 2014


Andrew BrokosIn life, I’m a nit. Some might even say a cheapskate. I only drink tap water at restaurants. I never go to night clubs or trendy bars. When poker tournaments take me to expensive casino resorts, I bring a lot of my own food.

Despite all the time I spend in casinos, I’ve never touched a pit game in my life: no dice, no blackjack, no roulette, and certainly no slot machines. I’ve never purchased a lottery ticket. I work hard to find every edge I can when I play poker, so why would I knowingly give away two or three percent in the pit?

Yet at the poker table, I’m capable of anything. I’ll check-raise bluff four players on the flop if I think no one has a set. I’ll bluff twice the pot on the river if I think I can get you off of your set. In my first World Series of Poker main event, when the $10,000 buy-in represented about a quarter of my net worth, I (correctly) called off 15 percent of my stack with king-high on the river in the first level.

How do I reconcile my seemingly risky approach to poker with the way I treat money in other aspects of my life? My philosophy is actually very consistent: I hate letting money slip through my fingers, and that’s exactly what happens if I miss a positive expectation play at the poker table.

This is why I bristle when people talk about checking or folding being a “safe play.” It’s safe in the sense that it won’t cost you any more money from your stack, but what about your equity in the pot?

I understand the temptation of this logic, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself. Your chips are something real and tangible, already in front of you, whereas your pot equity is distributed across a range of possible outcomes with uncertain probabilities. Still, it is real, it is worth money, and most importantly, it already belongs to you.

Every time you are dealt into a hand of poker, you have some chance of winning, and hence some equity in the pot. Just like when you make mortgage payments on a house, your equity in the pot is worth something. Folding doesn’t cost you nothing, it costs you your equity. Losing this equity is exactly as expensive as losing chips from your stack if you call and end up losing the pot.

Unlike with a house, you generally have to make further investments in a pot to realize your equity. Often this represents too high a price, in which case the safest play is indeed to fold.

Other times, your opponents will give you the opportunity to bluff them, which is like buying out their equity at a bargain price. Not taking those opportunities is akin to turning down a deal whereby you pay $1 to buy $2. Actually, it’s more like turning down a coin flip where you pay $1 if you lose but stand to win $2. There’s risk involved, but as long as you’re properly bankrolled, it’s a good investment, and not taking it is akin to turning down free money.

Think about the feeling you get when you fold only to have your opponent show you a bluff. Probably there is a visceral frustration that comes from seeing quite clearly what you have lost and how easily it could have been yours.

Maybe you feel the same way when you check the river and win at showdown against a hand that would have paid off another bet. You can see how you could have had more money, and you know that you don’t have it, and that hurts.

I get that same feeling when my opponent wins at showdown with a hand that I think he would have folded to further pressure. Had I applied that pressure there would be more chips in my stack, so by not applying that pressure, I functionally lost those chips. I let money slip through my fingers. I hate that!

The immediate impetus for this article was a comment on my blog. I posted a hand where I held a pair of jacks on a 9Spade Suit 7Diamond Suit 3Spade Suit AHeart Suit KDiamond Suit board. On the river, I was out of position to two players, and based on the action so far, I was far more likely to have a flush than were either of my opponents. With $655 in the pot and nearly $5,000 in the effective stacks, I asked readers what they thought was the best play.

One commenter said that checking was “obviously” the safe play, but that’s not obvious to me. I estimated that I might have the best hand as much as 20 percent of the time in that spot. I’d probably fold to a bet, though, so I can’t expect to win even that often at showdown. If my read about neither opponent having a flush was right, however, then a big bet could succeed nearly always. This makes bluffing much less risky in the sense that I would hardly ever lose, whereas checking would cause me to lose the vast majority of the time.

The real risk, I suppose, is that my reads are off. If someone actually did have a flush, or just refused to fold a weaker hand to a big bet, then I could lose not just the pot but also my bluff.

That’s a risk you take whenever you play poker, though. If you aren’t comfortable backing your reads with the money you have on the table, then you have too much money on the table.

The alternative approach is to hope to win simply by getting dealt better cards than your opponents, and that strategy is about as risky as they come. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He blogs about poker strategy on 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.