Mind the Gap
Monday, 1 August 2011
I played a live event last month – the Newcastle UKIPT, my first serious live event of the year. On top of that, I’ve played way less poker this year because I’ve been busy with other things. So I was excited to play and also a little rusty. It’s funny how that happens with poker if you don’t play – you don’t really forget any knowledge but your instincts get a little dulled.
One play caught my attention. It was a mistake I made, which was pretty small on the surface, but was the kind of thing that I wouldn’t have done had I been thinking properly. I’d flat-called a pre-flop raise out of the blinds and flopped a flush draw with an overcard. I checked and the pre-flop raiser bet. Now, my play here is to check-raise. Here was an aggressive player, who c-bet on autopilot, and I get a lot of folds either immediately or when I follow up on the turn.
Then, out of nowhere, a little voice of doubt started to cloud my analysis. I started to think, “But what if he 3-bets me? I have to get it in with only a flush draw when I have plenty of chips and lots of soft spots at the table.” In a matter of moments I went from knowing the right play to being filled with doubt, then making the wrong play and just calling.
In the heat of battle I made a decision I know to be wrong, that I wouldn’t have made from the rail (or the commentary box).
I call this “the gap”. I’ve called it the gap for some years. Sadly for me, some bearded bloke from Nevada called Sklansky coined the term even more years ago so I can’t claim it. But the thing is, his gap is pretty much outdated whereas my gap is still cutting edge, so I think I should inherit the term.
Unlike Sklansky, when I say “the gap”, I mean the gap between a person’s knowledge of the game when they’re away from the table and their actions “in the moment”, if you will. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of making bad plays or mistakes at the table that you would never have made from the rail. You’ve also probably seen really good players make bad plays and wondered how they got to be so good doing “that kind of nonsense”. The truth is no one plays perfect poker, but the good players have a smaller gap than the average player – that is, they make the right decision more often and are less subject to the gap than an average player.
The problem is emotion. When we’re on the rail, we’re not involved in the decision, so we can analyse the situation totally dispassionately. When our money or tournament is at stake and we’re facing an all in from the ugly dude who has been bullying us all night, it becomes a little harder to think clearly.
Often the biggest emotional problem is fear. We are programmed not to want to look stupid in front of our peers. It’s why public speaking is people’s biggest fear after death (which can make you look really stupid; especially if you’re one of the four people who die each year putting on their trousers). And most of us don’t want to be trapped around a poker table having to account for why we just went crazy with a huge five-high bluff that went wrong. Or have to skulk out of the tournament having busted after making a huge check-raise river shove. The upshot of this is that most players don’t make huge moves most of the time – especially in live tournaments. For example, ask yourself how many times you have gone out of a tournament making a big bluff. Unless you’re a particularly manic player, I’d bet it’s not more than once this year, if that.
You want to know how to close the gap, right? Well, luckily for me and unluckily for you, it’s easy to type and difficult to do. You just need to take the emotion out of your decisions and think as clearly as possible. The old adage “feel the fear and do it anyway” applies here. If you make a big decision you’ll feel some anxiety, especially if you’re making a big bluff, but the cards don’t know how you feel about them – if the move is right, it’s right, and you just need to pull that trigger. Easy, isn’t it?
So, as I was saying, I didn’t check raise, I flat-called. The hand got checked down and his ace-high beat my king-high on the river. My check-raise would have won the pot – and, as I’m an emotionally driven creature that plays results, I instantly felt worse about my play, obsessed over it, and have now forced you to sit through a column of it despite it being one decision in a pretty small pot. The point is, next time you’re assessing your play or even telling someone how well you played, ask the question: did I miss opportunities or fail to execute on something I should have done? You might get a different answer and start closing your gap.