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Am I Too Tight?

by Greg Raymer |  Published: Mar 11, 2020

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Greg Raymer Please let me encourage you to reach out to me with article ideas and questions for future columns. You can tweet to me at @FossilMan, or send me a message at info@fossilmanpoker.com.

This article was written partially in response to a question from a reader.

“I’m retired and conservative, and my poker reflects it. I tend to fold a lot often thinking my opponent has the nuts no matter what the board reads. I tend to avoid risks. I know in theory they can’t always have the nuts and that aggression is important in no-limit hold’em, but my progress is too slow. (I play in local casino $50 tourneys). Maybe you could write about some practical ways to counter the conservative way I play.” — John

I have taught hundreds of poker seminars now, and many of the students there seem to feel like you, John. They often say something like, “I’m too tight, and need to learn how to loosen up and play more hands. I always outlast most of the field, but never get a big stack, and either blind out short of the money, or crawl into the money, and bust soon after. Or, I seldom go deep in a tournament, and pretty much never win.”

As I discuss in of my book, FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, you are not too tight. In fact, I’ve never seen a player who is too tight to be a winning player. At least, not too tight in terms of starting hand selection. All of us play too many hands. What I do see in some players, however, is a tendency to play too tight in certain situations. Most commonly, they play too tight when it comes to risking all, or a large fraction, of their chips.

Let’s say we are deep in a tournament. A player has bet or raised enough to put us all-in. While it isn’t always easy to know the right decision, the basic concept is simple enough. We know that if we call and lose, our stack is worth $0. If we fold, how much is our stack worth? If we call and win, how much will our stack be worth? Finally, what percentage of the time do we estimate we will win when you choose to call?

If we have put the opponent on a reasonably accurate range of hands, the rest is pure math. Imagine your stack is worth $1,000 if you fold. If you call and win, it will be worth $2,500. If you estimate you have a 50 percent chance of winning, the clearly correct decision is to call. Half the time you get chips worth $2,500, and half the time $0, for an average of $1,250. Since $1,250 is more than $1,000, calling is better than folding.

The mistake I see from the players who are too risk averse is they make these estimates, but then add in the extra factor that it is their tournament life on the line if they call, and decide to play it safe and fold. This sort of thinking is what can make you too tight.

The player who does this probably still plays at least a few too many starting hands, they aren’t too tight in that sense. But now that their tournament life is at risk, they have become too tight. In the above example, we took into account the $0 value when you call and lose. You can’t do all that math, and then add extra emphasis on folding just to ensure survival. Survival has been fully considered, and calling was calculated to be the right play, even though it included a 50 percent chance of being eliminated.

John, I suspect your question is more of the same. You get involved in a pot, hit the flop, but then get worried that you are behind, and fold to ensure survival. This is more of a psychological problem than a strategy problem. You even say in your question that you know aggression is important, yet you fold to that aggression when directed at you. My best suggestion is to try to completely ignore the concept of survival. This isn’t life, where if you die, that’s it, game over, no second chance. This is just poker. If you bust in this tournament, you take a break, and play the next one.

Forget about survival. It is a null concept. Instead, focus on equity. Do your best to estimate the equity of each choice available to you, and always pick the decision with the most equity. If the decision with the most equity also includes a higher risk of busting, that’s irrelevant. All you care about is equity. If you truly always pick the decision with the highest equity, you can’t help but be a winning player.

Fear is meaningless, fear is for the other player, the losing player, not for you. In the film A League of Their Own, the famous line by Jimmy Dugan was, “There’s no crying in baseball.” For us, the saying would be, “There’s no place for fear in poker.”

Work on that, good luck, and play smart! ♠

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He recently authored FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.