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Post-flop Play – IV: Sunk-Cost Effect

Continuing with our on and off discussions of post-flop play. As before, we’ll look at a couple of strategic moves dusted with the psychology that helps us understand them. Here are two “don’t” situations, ones where the message is don’t ask for trouble.

Avoid problem situations and problem hands. Position and previous action are keys. If you want to make your life a living hell, limp into pots early with hands like K, J and A, 9. And don’t tell me they were suited!

These are problematical hands. They “look good” and have the potential for making big hands. The problem lies in the disjunction between the probability of the big hand and that of catching a minor piece of the flop. The former doesn’t occur often and when it does, it typically won’t win enough to cover the losses when you catch second best.

Here’s an example we’ve all seen (or done!): Mid-position limps with As,9s, gets raised 2.5 x by the BB and (reluctantly) calls. The flop is 9c,7s,2c. BB bets half the pot. MP calls. Turn is 4h. Another half-pot bet, call. River’s a brick. Bet, crying call. BB shows J,J. Reload.

Let’s dig into this situation a bit and see why it is creates such havoc. The initial limp isn’t awful. Sometimes we get away with it and see a cheap flop. The problem comes when we get raised pre-flop and call or when we hit a piece of the flop and end up calling several bets.

Why do so many players make these calls? Well, one reason is that this situation invites what behavioral economists call the “sunk-cost effect” —- that is, you get pulled into continuing with a line of action because you’ve already “sunk” costs into it.

It’s analogous to the notion of being “pot committed.” However, here we really aren’t pot committed —- certainly not pre-flop and usually not on the flop. But the tug to go with a hand that has outs after we’ve already “sunk” valuables into it has a strong emotional pull, partly because we tend to overestimate the potential positive outcomes. That is, once the slide into the sunk-cost dilemma starts, people caught up in it overestimate the potential gains.

Jackson and Dixon at USIC have looked specifically at how this effect plays itself out in Hold ‘Em ( And, for the curious, take a look at Dixon’s research exploring the psychological links between choice, self-control and gambling:

These problems are ubiquitous in economic settings and finance and haven’t been satisfactorily solved so don’t be too surprised when you see poker players falling into them.

There are, alas, other difficulties with these hands. Action junkies get pulled in because when they hit, they produce large “reinforcements” (flop two pair with A,9 and you can do a lot of damage to A,K). As we’ve discussed numerous times, large rewards have a significant impact on shaping our emotions and our approach to the game. But elementary game theory tells you that the play has negative EV.

Worse, these hands suffer from information poverty. You typically do not know where you are in them. Your opponent’s range of hands is large, as it often is when you’ve limped into a pot. In addition, you’re acting first in these situations and this is never good.

Save yourself a lot of heartache and cash and stay away from these hands. Even the very best players have trouble with them. If you don’t see a flop you don’t have to worry about post-flop play.

The half-bet from the SB, call or fold rags. This one has been hotly debated over the years. The standard argument for calling is that you’re getting attractive odds, particularly if there are several limpers and a relatively passive player in the BB. This isn’t crazy but it needs to be filtered through some subtle screens.

First, appreciate that you don’t really know what your implied odds are. If there are three callers and you’re looking at Ts,2d it’s bloody unlikely that you’re getting the 9-1 you need (against random hands) to justify the call (assuming that the BB doesn’t pop it).

Second, you’ll be out of position all the way to the river. I don’t know about you, but this rarely makes me comfortable.

Third, once you’ve made the call you’re going to be caught up in the “sunk-cost” problem. And if you catch a piece of the flop it’ll get even tougher to bail out of the hand.

BTW, I chose the T,2 example here for a reason. It is, of course, known as “Doyle’s hand” or “the Brunson” since he won the WSOP main event with it twice and found himself psychologically committed to it (as noted, “reinforcement works”).

If you saw a telecast of High Stakes Poker last year, it had a magic moment. Brunson picked up T,2, looked at it and dumped it in the muck while making the classic spitting sound people make to ward off evil. Later he said that he can’t begin to count the money he’s lost playing that hand.

Calling the half-bet with junk is a long-term risky play. Here’s a simple rule: Don’t call with any hand that you wouldn’t play for a full bet in early position.

Reader Comments (1)

"Here’s a simple rule: Don’t call with any hand that you wouldn’t play for a full bet in early position."

Dr. Reber,

Do you mean "late" position?

March 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterScott

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