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Matt Matros -- Think The Unthinkable, Do The Unthinkable

What Makes Great Players Great?


Matt MatrosWhat makes the great players great? I get asked this question a lot, as if there were a secret response that, once unveiled, would magically transform an average player into an elite one. Of course there is no such thing. The great players have a dozen or more traits that help make them the best at what they do. Furthermore, the elite players are elite in very different ways. Erik Seidel’s skill set varies greatly from that of Vanessa Selbst, even though both are top-ten tournament players. There is, however, some overlap in what the best players do well; and there is one attribute that can be found in every world-class player’s game. They’re all willing to make plays that typical players wouldn’t even consider.

Strong players understand situations and hand ranges better than us mortals. When Galen Hall confidently folded a straight to Chris Oliver’s river check-raise at the 2011 PCA, he did so because he knew his opponent’s game so well that folding became the only logical play (see my column from this time last year). A strange decision seems a lot less strange if you’ve reasoned it out and you realize you have no other choice. But it’s not enough merely to decide to make an unorthodox move. You have to actually do it.

It’s hard to pull the trigger on a weird play, because obviously it might not work. The fear of losing is devastating to a poker player, but unfortunately it’s also one of the most powerful influences on the human mind. Psychologists have found that the thought of losing is so painful, most people would rather guarantee a small win than risk a big loss, even when risking a big loss for a potentially bigger win is the right thing to do. NFL coaches routinely punt in situations where going for it is the correct mathematical play. They’d rather lock in a small gain in field position than risk turning the ball over on downs — and they’re willing to give up the potential reward of keeping possession in order to do so. Similarly, tournament poker players would rather assure themselves of moving on to the next hand rather than put themselves in a position to possibly bust.

Maybe even worse than the fear of busting is the fear of looking silly. Any play out of the ordinary is likely to draw derisive mocking from those who see it, read about it, or watch it on TV. People don’t like what they don’t understand, and poker players especially seem to love declaring another’s play terrible.

Consider a hand Joe Tehan played at the last Epic Poker Tour event. With 13 players remaining, Joe had a large chip stack, while the short stacks were facing an enormous bubble. The next player eliminated would get nothing. The 12th-place finisher would get $50,920, along with equity in Epic’s season-ending million-dollar freeroll tournament. Bubbles this size are rare indeed. With blinds of 2,000-4,000, Faraz Jaka shoved in under-the-gun for 62,000. In the next seat, Vanessa Rousso min-reraised to 120,000, leaving herself 250,000 behind. Everyone folded to Joe in the big blind, who looked down at 4-2 offsuit. Try to forget, for a minute, that you think reraising here is the craziest play ever. If you somehow came to the conclusion that moving in made sense, would you have the courage to do it? Remember, this was a major televised tournament, and the entire poker world was paying attention. To even be capable of moving your chips in here with one of the worst hands in the game is a skill that very few players have. You have to believe in your logic above anyone else’s, and you have to be immune to what anyone else thinks.

In case you haven’t guessed, Joe moved in. It’s glorious when these oddball plays work out, and if Vanessa had folded people might still be talking about the genius of Joe’s bluff. But Vanessa, after a lengthy deliberation, made a good call with pocket queens. Joe ended up getting his chips in very, very bad, but he had a reason for making the play — namely that he thought Vanessa didn’t have aces or kings, and that she would fold the rest of her range a large percentage of the time. Whether he was right doesn’t matter much to me. What matters is that Joe was willing to go with his analysis, despite the avalanche of criticism he knew he would take if it didn’t pan out. To make Joe’s play look worse, Faraz had two aces. And to make things even more painful for his two opponents, Joe won the hand.

So how does one acquire the mental fortitude to make a nontraditional play? First and foremost, you have to trust that you’re a strong player. You have to know why you’re making every bet, call, raise, and fold. It’s not enough to know you’re doing the “standard” play. The best players know why a particular play has become standard, and they therefore know when it’s reasonable to depart from the normal course of action. A solid understanding of basic poker concepts will eventually lead to ideas about new and bizarre ways to play hands.

Now you just have to be willing to lose. Tournament players must train themselves not to be afraid to go broke, even with less than premium holdings, if the situation is right. The willingness to make a crazy play is an extension of the same idea. All but one player in the tournament will bust at some point. If you believe in what you’re doing, then why should a nonconformist bustout hand be worse than any other? And why would you care what someone else thinks? You’re the one sitting who’s sitting at the table, assessing all the information you have on your opponent, and coming up with what you think is the best plan. Speculation about what others will say should never cause you to disregard a play that you feel is right.

By definition, you can’t become a great poker player by doing the same thing everyone else does — you have to find the right spots to do something different. And then you have to do it. ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player. He is also a featured coach for