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The Bonehead Play

I get emails, which is nice for a bunch of reasons. First, it means that folks out there are actually reading this stuff. Second, it suggests that what I’m trying to get across is getting across. Third, these emails provide fodder for new columns. And that’s what we’ve got here today.

A reader (we’ll call him Max) asked me to go into more detail on the Brain Fart issue (insert url). The question he raised had to do with how to deal with some of the anxieties and tensions that are created in poker, particularly in No Limit Hold ‘Em (NLH) and Pot Limit Omaha (PLO). The ones that goad you into making one of those bonehead plays that are the signature of a Brain Fart.

Max noted that he’d had difficulties since he was a child dealing with these tensions and he tended to make poor decisions when they erupted. He was concerned that his tendency to get agitated at the table was keeping him from being a top level player. Well, it might be and it would certainly help his game (not to mention the rest of his life) if he could learn to remain calm in these settings. But this is almost beside the point. First, Max is not alone; the problem he cites transcends minor levels of agitation or nervousness and it abounds among our species.

Second, the problem is magnified because he’s playing NLH and PLO, games where you can lose all your chips in a New York minute. All it takes is one bonehead play. One brain fart and hours, days, of careful play, well-measured decisions and insightful reads get flipped into the dumpster, as worthless as a political endorsement from George Bush. In fact, I’ll go out on a (short, sturdy) limb here: The factor that most significantly marks the winning players in NLH and PLO cash games is their ability to avoid the bonehead play.

What am I talking about? Well, here are a couple of examples from a cash game. I was at the table and watched both. If you’re a top line player you will shake your head in disbelief. If you are an average hang-in-there kinda guy you may say, “So, what’s so awful about that? I’ve done it too.” Exactly.

Bonehead Play #1: Pete is in the BB with a bit over $600 in his stack. It’s a $2 - $5 game. He’s got J,3 and gets a free pass in a four way ($20) pot. The flop is a wonderful surprise: a three-suited J,J,5. Pete bets $15. The mid-position limper, Sam, who has him covered, calls (pot $50). Everyone else folds. The turn is an off-suit 9. Pete bets out $60. Sam calls (pot $170). The river is a 2. Pete makes a pot sized bet and Sam raises all-in. Pete calls. Brain Fart! Sam shows him J,9.

Bonehead Play #2: Maxine is in the hijack seat with about $700 in front of her. She finds big slick and makes it $20 to go. Everyone folds to Petunia, on the button with a slightly bigger stack, who calls. Both blinds fold (pot = $47). Flop is A,Q,7 rainbow. Maxine bets $40. Petunia calls (pot $127). Turn is another Q. Maxine slides a stack and a half of redbirds in. Petunia calls (pot $427). River is a 4. Maxine shoves. What’s worse than a fart? Petunia calls and turns over Q,Js.

In the first case I later asked Pete what he was thinking. “Well,” he said, “how often to do you flop trips? Who knew he had the case jack? Damn unlucky, if you ask me.”

In the second Petunia looked over at Maxine and raised an eyebrow. “You got really lucky, my friend,” she said. “I was way ahead on the flop. Is there a chip runner around here?”

What happened in both of these cases is similar. In both the players were aggressive, taking advantage of what looked like a good situation, but in both they failed to take into account what their opponents could have. What in the world could a reasonable opponent limp in with and then call two pot-sized bets from the BB with? What possible holdings could have called a raise from the hijack seat and two sizeable bets?

I don’t know if either Pete or Maxine was experiencing Max’s kind of tension but there was certainly a disconnect between their hopes and reality and a failure to hear the message being shouted in their ears —- psychological states that are characteristic of someone under stress.

There was, of course, nothing wrong with either flop or turn bet, but when both got called alarm bells should have gone off. You have to put the breaks on with a lousy kicker or with TPTK which, with the possible exception of bottom two, is the most dangerously vulnerable hand in hold ‘em.

Notice the damage wrought in these hands. In each our hero went broke, stacked, felted, and in each case it cost them hundreds more than it might have. Pete was going to lose the first $80 anyway; ditto for Maxine’s first three bets. These are routine losses. A 90 or 100 BB thumping isn’t; it stinks. If you’re a +5 BB/hr winner that’s like 2.5 days of play shot!

Like I said, I was in this game; I know these two. Neither Pete nor Maxine is a terrible player. In fact, each has a natural aggressiveness that bodes well for them down the line. But they are losing players and the reason is that every once in a while they lay a real stinker like these.

To reiterate the central point: preventing this kind of thing is a singularly important element in becoming a winning NLH or PLO player. You can learn every strategic move in the world, move chips like a chess master, mix up your play, keep the table off balance, understand position, whatever, but one bonehead play like this every two days and you’re a losing player.

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