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Four Bad Things Amateurs Say

by Ed Miller |  Published: Mar 19, 2014


Ed MillerElite professional players are much better than amateurs. That much everyone knows. What many amateurs don’t know, however, is that elite players use almost a completely separate strategic vocabulary from amateurs. In other words, amateurs and elite pros think about the game in completely different ways — and obviously the amateurs’ way frequently doesn’t measure up.

Here are four bad things that amateurs say when they talk about hands that you’ll never hear from an elite pro.

1. “I put him on ace-king.”

Amateurs say this one constantly, and it’s almost always completely wrong.

Ace-king, specifically, isn’t the problem. You could substitute any other hand for ace-king, and it’s just as bad.

Amateurs tend to oversimplify the game, and this is one of the big ways they do it. When they are hand reading, they focus on just a single possible hand to the exclusion of all others. Then they make whatever play makes sense against that hand.

The problem with this is that it’s almost never possible to narrow someone down to just a single hand and be consistently correct.

Elite players would be more likely to say, “I put him on a weak range.” This statement acknowledges that an opponent can have a number of different possible hands.

2. “I folded/just called to try to cut down on my variance.”

I’ve been hearing this one now for 13 years, and it’s just as bad today as it was back then. Here’s the idea. So-and-so doesn’t like the natural ups and downs of no-limit hold’em. Actually, the ups are fine. It’s the downs that are the problem.

The player starts to think, “Well, I can’t lose what I don’t put in the pot.” Little by little, she begins to play more passively. Instead of reraising Q-Q before the flop, she just calls with it. Instead of calling with a bluff-catcher, she just folds. Instead of playing that draw, she folds it. Whenever there’s a choice that seems close to her, this player picks the choice that puts less money in the pot.

If you ask her what she’s doing, she’ll tell you that she’s trying to cut down on her variance. “Sure, I know I may be giving up a little value here and there, but I play so much better without all those swings.”

This doesn’t work. Winning poker requires high aggression and much risk-taking. You cannot systematically reduce the risk and still play a strong game. It can’t be done. If you are shading all of your marginal decisions toward calls and folds, all I have to do is bet every time you check, and I will eventually beat you.

Elite players don’t have an analogous saying to this one. They play a particularly high-variance style because that’s the best, most profitable way to play. If you intentionally try to reduce your variance, you must accept that you will never play well.

3. “I raised to try to take it down right now.”

Amateurs often invoke this one when they have a strong hand on a dynamic board. For instance, they might hold Q-Q on a J-9-6 two-tone flop. Someone bets, and they raise because they “want to take it down.”

The whole idea behind this is kind of ridiculous if you think about it. Good hands only have value at showdown. If you raise the flop and take it down, you might as well have had 7-2. In fact, the only difference between Q-Q and 7-2 is that you win more showdowns with Q-Q. So it makes absolutely no sense to try to avoid showdowns when you have good hands.

Now this doesn’t mean it’s wrong to raise Q-Q on that board. But raising it to “try to take it down” is weak amateur logic.

Elite players talk about raising ranges. An elite player would look at that J-9-6 two-tone flop and think of every possible hand they could hold. Then they would mentally divide those hands up into a folding range, a calling range, and a raising range. (And they might split the raising range in two, choosing to make small raises with some hands and big raises with others.)

Typically, they would have done this mental gymnastics during study away from the table, so that approximate ranges will pop into their heads automatically as they play.
So an elite player might raise Q-Q because it’s a hand that’s in his raising range in this situation. At that point, any intention behind the raise is almost irrelevant. And the pro certainly wouldn’t intend to get a fold.

4. “I’m gonna look that guy up with anything next time. I just know he’s stealing.”

Humans easily remember things that have happened recently, and they tend to overweight these events when they estimate the likelihood of future events. If the New Orleans Saints have just won three games in a row by big margins, the average person will tend to overrate the chance that the Saints will win the next game. Sure, the Saints might be pretty good — but they aren’t as good as they’ve looked on their best winning streak. A single stroke of bad luck could derail them in any game.

It’s the same way in poker. One hundred poker hands mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. Seasoned online players talk about needing one thousand times that many hands to draw meaningful conclusions.

Yet amateur players draw wild conclusions all the time from just one hundred hands — or even fewer. He’s always bluffing. She plays only the nuts. He’s the tightest player I’ve ever seen. She makes bad calldowns.

Most of the time, you can’t legitimately draw these conclusions on just a single day’s worth of play. Yet amateurs do it all the time.

Elite players take a more measured viewpoint. Sure, they make reads on opponents and adjust their strategies. But these adjustments are layered on top of a base strategy that is strong and balanced.

For instance, an elite player is unlikely to look at a hand and decide before the flop that he’s going to “play it like aces” this time just to try to stand up to a bully. As I said before, elite players think in terms of ranges. If they think someone is bluffing too frequently, they will simply add more hands to their calling ranges and their bluff-raising ranges.

And they aren’t going to start with 7-2, 10-3, or whatever hand is next to come down the pipe. They’ll add hands in from best to worst. If their next five hands are all stinkers, they’ll just wait for one that’s not.

Final Thoughts

If you are an amateur player who wants to improve, the first step is to root out the fuzzy thinking that’s in your game. If you find yourself thinking and saying the things I listed, it’s time to rework your game. ♠

Ed’s brand new book, Reading Hands At No-Limit Hold’em, is available immediately for purchase at Find him on Facebook at and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.