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Five Poker Player Biases

by Ed Miller |  Published: Nov 07, 2018

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“Money not lost is just as good as money won.” You’ve probably heard that idea before, and it’s a good one. Poker players can get carried away sometimes trying to win pots, but it’s important to remember that winning an extra $20 is just as good as not losing an extra $20. At the end of the day, it puts you $20 toward the green.

The reality is that no poker player obeys this logic truly faithfully. All players have biases. They all have ways they like to win money, ways they like less to win money, ways they are willing to lose money, and ways they try to avoid losing money. Sometimes because of these biases they will value, say, not losing $20 over winning an extra $30.

They never think of it in those terms, of course. But that’s the whole point. They implicitly value certain ways of winning and losing money beyond just the pure dollar value involved. Here are a few common biases I’ve seen.

The “Don’t Draw Out On Me” Bias

This is a common one. You see this one particularly on the flop in multiway pots. Say someone has A-10 preflop against four opponents and the flop comes 10Spade Suit 8Spade Suit 7Heart Suit. The player with top pair says, “Oh boy, I gotta protect this hand,” and comes out firing big.

The way firing big can work out is you can make money from people who call you light. The way it can backfire is if you’re already behind, and you end up stacking off with a second-best hand.

To figure out the best way to play the hand, you have to take into account how your opponents play and take an approach that maximizes how much you win when ahead and minimize how much you lose when behind. The exact approach can differ depending on exactly who your opponents are, how they play, and how deep the stacks are.

But then the bias kicks in. Some players overweigh the “not getting drawn out on” part of the equation, and they underweight the “already behind” part. They think, perhaps unconsciously, “Well, if I’m beat, I’m beat, but I’m sure not gonna let someone draw out cheap.”

When they think this way, they’re putting their finger on the decision-making scale in favor of firing away and come what may. This will tend not to be best for the player with the bias. And having players like this in your game should make you want to see more flops.

The “Don’t Bluff Me” Bias

Poker is a game of information management. A game theoretical analysis of poker focuses on an idea called “optimal bluffing frequency.” If you bluff in various situations with just the right frequency, it doesn’t matter whether your opponent calls or not. Either way you do just as well.

Same goes for the opponent – there’s also an “optimal calling frequency.” The idea is that you call potential bluffs just often enough so that your opponent isn’t particularly inclined to bluff more or less often than what is optimal.

Real life poker players are terrible at “optimal calling frequency” however. There’s way too much ego involved surrounding bluffs.

The first bias is the “don’t bluff me” bias. This opponent, as you might imagine, cringes at the thought of folding a hand and then having a gleeful opponent turn over 7-2 to needle them. So they call. When in doubt, call. Even when there’s not much doubt, call.

Obviously if you have a player like this in your game, bluff less.

The “Don’t Pay Off Obvious Hands” Bias

The ego on bluffing goes both ways, and some players have a different bias surrounding it. Some players dread paying off “obvious” hands more than anything. Say someone raises preflop and you call with JClub Suit 10Club Suit.

The flop comes JDiamond Suit 9Spade Suit 6Heart Suit. Your opponent bets and you call.

The turn is the 7Club Suit. Your opponent bets and you call.

The river is the 3Heart Suit. Your opponent makes a smallish river bet and you call.

Oops, he has A-A. Didn’t everyone already know that?

Some people absolutely hate paying off these “obvious” hands. This bias gets reinforced because often at small stakes you shouldn’t pay off obvious hands because players don’t bluff often enough (another bias).

A lot of the players with this bias go out of their way to fold the turn with any iffy hand. “If I’m not gonna call the river, I won’t call the turn either,” is the thought process. The bias causes this thinking to go too far and results in a whole lot of unnecessary turn folds.

The “Don’t Pay Off The Suck Outs” Bias

This one is similar to the last one, but psychologically different. The bias sort of woks in the other direction. In this bias, an opponent with A-A “deserves the win” and paying them off is no big deal. But someone who may have drawn out is a “suck out” and doesn’t deserve a dime. You’ll see players with this bias angrily fold face up on the river when the flush card hits.

As far as they’re concerned, as soon as that flush card hits and you bet, they’re done. If you’re bluffing, good for you. If you had them all the way, good for you. But they are not, absolutely not, paying you when you hit that flush draw you were chasing them down with.

Presumably it’s easy to see how to exploit this bias—bluff every flush card you see.

The “Don’t You Outplay Me” Bias

Some poker players absolutely hate to get outplayed.

What does it mean to get outplayed? It’s not so clear. The gist of it is that your opponent pulled a “move” on you when you were caught with a weak range, and you were presented with a Sophie’s choice.

Whether this “move” was an actual move or just the natural course of play is always blurry. Which is sort of the point.

Regardless, this player will be extremely quick to “take a stand” as soon as there is any whiff that someone may be “outplaying” them. In my experience, at least at small stakes, what seems like “outplaying” is really someone making a few good hands in short succession and putting in un-callable raises with them.

This is a metagame-based bias. There has to be some history – the player with the bias has to feel wronged in at least one previous hand before it will kick in. But be on the lookout for players who read more into random events than one should and who seem ready to throw caution to the wind to prove a point.

Final Thoughts

Money not lost is the same as money won. But real poker players never really value all these ways to lose and win money the same. It varies from player to player, but if you can identify a consistent bias in one of your opponents, you can construct the perfect counter-strategy. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.