Doyle Brunson Education

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Accepting a gift

“Don’t accept a gift in the big blind in hold ‘em,” Kelly told me years ago. He was wrong. In hold ‘em there are no antes. Without antes or something to replace them, there’s nothing to fight over, and if you’re against wise opponents who are playing perfectly, you should sit hand after hand, badly bored and mumbling mantras about your cattle farm. Finally one hand you’ll find a pair of aces. Logically, only then can you play, because you can defend aces against other intelligent players with equally perfect patience. Against such players, you shouldn’t even start with the second-best hand – a pair of kings. The only time you’d get action would be against a pair of aces and you’d be a decided underdog. All other times, you’d win an empty pot and gain nothing. That’s why the ante was invented: to give poker players a motive for war. Human nature being as it is, I believe that most players would find reasons to play inferior hands sometimes, even without incentive. They lack patience. But, poker would be a pretty pitiful game without something in the pot to fight over. Well, in hold ‘em there isn’t an ante. So what motivates players to enter pots? Not optional

It’s the blind bets, .There are two of them in the seats to the dealer’s left, a small one and a big one, usually twice as large. You must make these bets before seeing any cards. They aren’t optional.. In most hands, there’s going to be a raise before the action gets back to the big blind player. Whether to call or not will be a matter of judgment. But there’s a time when players, like Kelly, often misjudge. And that’s on those occasions when there’s no raise at all. If opponents just call the big blind, there’s a special rule in hold ‘em that can get you in all manner of trouble. Normally in poker, if you’re just called, then the betting ends. You move along. But in hold ‘em if the player in the big blind isn’t raised, there’s a peculiar option. That player – who’s been merely called – can continue the wagering by doing the raising himself. It’s called the “live blind” rule. Free gift

My lesson today is that you should usually treat this situation as a gift when you’re in the big blind. You’re about to see the flop that happens next for free. Yes, it’s sometimes tempting to raise your opponents right out of their chairs, and that sort of aggression is in my nature. But usually, I decline. I accept the gift and see what happens at no cost. It’s often bad to try to bully the game when you’re in the big blind with the opportunity to see a free flop, because on all following betting rounds, you’re going to act first (unless it was the small blind who called you). That’s a big positional disadvantage, making it harder for you to take charge. Another caution is that players who just call are frequently laying traps. They’re hoping you’ll raise. Put it all together and you’ll fare better ignoring Kelly’s advice and following mine. Unless you have a powerful hand in the big blind, whenever you’re merely called, think, “Thanks for the present, buddy,” unwrap the flop, and see how you like it. — DB

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The road game route to profit

Everyone starts somewhere, and it’s never at the top. If you don’t like the idea of beginning at the bottom and working your way up the poker ladder, let me present the alternative. It’s beginning at the top and working your way down. Now that’s not a pleasant prospect, but I’ve lived enough years to see it happen to young players again and again.

Great musicians didn’t begin by picking up a violin, taking a seat in the London Symphony Orchestra within a week, and becoming legends. They need to train. You don’t wake up one day, decide you’d like to run long distances, enter the Boston Marathon at noon, and conquer the world’s best-conditioned athletes. You need to train. You need to experience running, learn when to accelerate and when to cruise, how to finesse, and how to get the most out of yourself. I know. I was a star athlete in college, but I didn’t get that way overnight. I had to start somewhere.

Siphon all the money

At poker, you don’t decide you have a flair for the game, take a seat at the biggest limit table in Las Vegas and siphon all the money away from top pros the first week, remaining a superstar for years. Sure, it’s a fantasy, but it never happened that way.

I learned poker on the road along the dusty trails of Texas. There were some great players, and I learned from them. But, I never would have survived without facing weak opponents, too. It took me years before I was ready and my bankroll was suitable for the big games in Las Vegas. I learned on the road. I got better.
I still remember a conversation I had in the sixties with Carl, a proficient player who seemed impressed with my poker and thought I was ready to try Las Vegas. “In Vegas, there are some fair games. Pretty tough, but worth your while if you can hold a few hands. You gotta pay your dues on the road and, Doyle, I think you’ve paid yours.”

I didn’t heed Carl’s advice for a couple years and then I found his words to be correct. Vegas was tough and it broke me a couple times before I got the hang of it and then never looked back. Instant stardom.

Today, I see young players take fortunes to the big tables, reaching for instant stardom on their first poker excursions, only to fall flat. Soon their dreams fail and are forgotten. And you never see them again. I wonder how many of those players might have succeeded had they walked up the ladder cautiously, learning comfortably at easier and smaller games, rather than racing to the unfamiliar top rung and loosing their balance.

What I call “road games” might not actually be distant games, as they were for me in Texas. Maybe you can find the equivalent of your road games on the Internet or at your friend Fred’s house on Friday night. Wherever you find it, take advantage of the training ground.

Poker is no different from other worthwhile endeavors. Short-term luck abounds in poker and it creates the illusion that anyone can win. It’s an illusion that makes some folks believe they can start at the top. They can’t.

In Carl’s words, “You gotta pay your dues on the road.” — DB

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The wrong reasons to bluff

Something that can destroy a bankroll in a hurry is bluffing for the wrong reasons. Bluffing successfully can be gratifying. But it can also be addicting. And I’ve seen an addiction to bluffing humble the proudest of players.

I remember playing in a private club in Corpus Christi Texas about 1971. Now, there were seldom any onlookers in poker games back then, but there were a few at this game – mostly attached to Kelly. His wife was there, as were several of his friends. They actually cheered whenever he won a pot, something that is more commonplace today with the wide exposure of big-league poker, but seemed peculiar back then.

It was no limit hold ’em and I held 6-5 suited before the flop. The pot was $330 and Kelly attacked it with a $5,000 raise. Well, of course, I folded. And Kelly smirked and showed me his meager 9-8, receiving applause from his gallery. In cases like that, it doesn’t make sense trying to bolster your ego by saying, “you had the best hand,” as so many amateur players are inclined to do. Your opponent probably won’t believe you, and nothing is accomplished, even if he does. Just buckle down and wait. When players are over-betting in an attempt to impress people, just let them succeed most of the time. When they fail, they’ll fall flat and hard. Just wait for it to happen.

Dangerous ride

I guess it’s the thrill of getting away with a bluff that makes a player want to saddle up and go for that same dangerous ride again and again. It’s exhilarating when the horse

An hour later, I had A-K, bet $2,000, and was called by Kelly. The flop was excellent for me: 4-A-K, giving me the two biggest pair. I made a small bet, hoping Kelly would bluff back at me with a large raise. And that’s what happened. I responded to his $12,000 raise by moving him all-in. He appeared stunned and hopeless, and he actually turned white. I’d heard that expression before, about a person’s skin turning pale with terror, but I’d never actually seen a player turn white in a poker game until then.

Kelly hadn’t learned a necessary lesson in poker: Always let good sense, never ego, be your guide. He fumed and then folded. He had demonstrated the first terrible reason to bluff: Pride.

Caught

His composure diminished, he finally got himself caught in another pot against a different player. When it was clear he couldn’t win and was going to be left desperately short of chips, he fired the last of his stack into the pot in a futile quest to survive. He didn’t.

Kelly had demonstrated the second terrible reason to bluff: Panic.

His wife walked away with him in silence, his friends following farther behind than seemed necessary. It was a pitiful exit. And it was totally unnecessary.

The three most usual reasons that players bluff are what I call the three P’s: Pride, Panic, and Profit. Only Profit makes sense to me. — DB

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The Fifth Fear

I once wrote that there are five great fears that haunt gamblers. They are: (1) The fear of getting broke; (2) The fear of getting robbed; (3) The fear of getting arrested; (4) The fear of getting cheated; and (5) The fear of not getting paid.

Of course, I was writing about my early career as a poker player in Texas and the southern United States. There were no legal casinos there to protect you against robbery, arrest, cheating, or deadbeats. You were on your own. If you always play in a licensed casino, I guess the only real fear remaining is #1 – getting broke.

But, gamblers being gamblers, not every wager you make will be governed by the niceties of written rules and procedures. So, this column mostly is about fear #5 – not getting paid.

Armed groups

This happened so many years ago, I’m not sure exactly when. I’d guess it was in the late sixties and we worried a lot about armed groups invading our games and taking our money. Games were frequently hijacked, which is the word we used to mean robbed.

The fear of hijacking got so severe that when I called to see if there were seats open in “Old Man Don’s” game, he said, “Yes, but the rules have changed. There’s a $20 limit.”

He paused, anticipating my surprised response, which came several seconds later after I’d had time to absorb the impact of his words. After all, the game had always been sizable and played no limit.

“Isn’t there quite a bit less gamble to that than our usual game?” I pressed.

“No,” he quickly responded, savoring the fact that I’d fallen into his word trap. “We’ll play the same game as usual, but I’ll keep the results on paper. Nobody’s allowed to bring more than $20 with them. Anyone that has more than that $20 limit in his possession gets barred permanently. You pass the word along – Old Man Don’s game just ain’t worth the trouble, if you’re a hijacker.”

The library

“How do we settle up?” I wondered.

“At the library,” Don said. “And don’t worry, I’ll stand behind all payments.” The idea sounded crazy to me, but since Don was fairly rich, his guarantee was good enough.

Well, the game went late into the night, and it seemed new stacks of chips were ordered more often than they would have been if players actually had to use money from their pockets. When it’s just ink on a notepad, it’s not as painful, I suppose. The result of the game was that I won about $2,000 and there was only one loser, Phil. He owed $28,000. The biggest winner turned out to be Don himself, scoring $20,000.

As agreed, at 10 the next morning, we sauntered into the library, attempting to be inconspicuous while browsing the shelves. Only one player didn’t show up. Guess who? You’re right, it was Phil who owed the $28,000.

Don kept his word, paying out $8,000 and suffering the $20,000 setback by not getting paid himself. And the very next week, the game returned to cash. No credit. No pen and paper. We still had to worry about being robbed, one of the five fears on my list. But we didn’t have to worry about not getting paid, also on my list.

In gambling, just like in life itself, there are tradeoffs. — DB

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A state of mind

I’ve always been a believer in attitude. If a man thinks he’ll win a poker, then he’s more likely to prevail. Confidence won’t make you any luckier, but it can make you play better. Assuming you have enough skill to win, confidence will keep you from turning against yourself and letting self-doubt and panic prompt you to make poor decisions.

I guess my ultimate recollection in this regard happened years ago when a young man came to Las Vegas and conquered the seven-card stud games. His name was Keith. And I’m here to tell you, Keith just couldn’t lose. He destroyed those games. You knew from the moment he strode into the poker room that he expected to win. He acted as if it was his destiny to win.

I befriended Keith briefly. Beyond just being confident, he had a keen interest in learning the best tactics and would ask me for advice. He confided that he always psyched himself up before games. In fact, he told me that he used mental tricks to get himself into the “perfect winning mood.”

A trance

Once I found him in the men’s room minutes before the first deal, gazing into the mirror and saying, “I will win!” He repeated it over and over. Then he concluded solemnly, “Keith, you cannot lose.” And he left for the game in what appeared to me to be almost a trance of invincibility.

And, of course, he won.

He even convinced me to try a few of his experiments in self-confidence, such as imagining myself with all the chips piled in front of me. It seemed to work. As I’ve said, a player with confidence has a long-term advantage over one without it. There’s nothing supernatural about that, either. It’s simply that confidence is a psychological force that keeps you on target and unnerves your opponents.

Then Keith’s behavior tilted toward bizarre. He once rose from his seat across from me in a restaurant and shouted, “Win! Win! Win!” After that, I never socialized with him. His mind was clearly cracking. Everyone could tell.

Play even better

Then he decided that he’d play even better if he could convince himself he was losing a little in the beginning of a session. That way, he figured, he’d have to be even more dedicated to win his way back to even. Even that mental trick seemed to work for him — for a while.

Then, one day, he tried his biggest psychological gambit ever. He spent hours making himself believe that he was an enormous $100,000 behind in a $300-limit game. Clearly he had bought into his own fantasy, because when he won the first pot and was ahead $2,000, in his mind he was still $98,000 loser and he still appeared desperate. That’s when he crumbled like sod squeezed through your fingers during a drought. In less than two days, he unloaded his bankroll. All gone.

I suppose playing mind games can be helpful or harmful, depending on how you use them. Personally, I stick to the simple stuff and leave elaborate mental experiments to more the more adventurous – like Keith. Poker players should have faith in their own abilities. That helps. And that’s as far as I take it. — DB

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Doing the right thing

Back when I was growing up in Texas, women fretted about doing the proper things on dates. They didn’t want to seem too adventuresome or appear immodest. They cared about how others would perceive them and how they would perceive themselves. And the words you heard over and over were that they “wanted to feel good about themselves in the morning.”

That sentiment may be ancient history today, judging by what I’m told about the modern dating scene. But maybe that’s unfortunate. Feeling good about myself has been a guiding principle throughout my life. I even think you should expand upon it and apply it to poker. If you play poker the best way you know how, making the decisions that seem logical and right to you at the moment, you’ll feel good about yourself in the morning. If you don’t, you won’t.

I think a big part of not feeling good about how you played, when reflecting on it in the morning, stems from words like these: “I knew he had me beat, but I had to call with three aces.” Or these: “The pot was so big, I had to play jack-seven.” Or these: “I was pretty sure I had the best hand, but my cards just weren’t strong enough to call.”

In poker, you don’t have to do anything based on your hand or the size of the pot. There are no rules that dictate that you can’t lay down a big hand or call (or even raise) with a weak one. Poker hands aren’t weak or strong based on their rankings. They’re weak or strong based on how they fit the situation right now – considering your opponents, their moods at the time, the way the action unfolded, and your assessment of how your hand relates to all of that. Yes, the size of the pot matters, but it’s only one of the measurements to consider.

Sometimes you can tell that players are off-track just by listening to the things they say when the hand is over. Often I hear a player complain in words similar to, “You got lucky. I wanted to call, because I was sure you missed your flush, but I couldn’t with just an ace-high and no pair.”

When you say that, it isn’t so much that the opponent got lucky; you made your opponent lucky by not calling. Again, there are no strategic rules that dictate ace-high, no pair, is too weak to call – just as there are no rules that say a flush is too strong to fold. You should never go by how high your hand ranks on a chart, isolated from the circumstance that you face. In order to win those chips, you must go by what your hand might be worth at the moment.

The secret to winning at poker is for you to play your cards, not to let your cards play you. When you make decision in accordance with “I couldn’t call, because I only had a small pair” or “I had to call, because I couldn’t fold a straight,” you’re letting your cards play you.

And if you do that, you won’t feel good about yourself in the morning. – DB

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The Rock

Let me tell you about Quincy. He was a young, studious player who came to Las Vegas years ago to make his mark on poker. The trouble with Quincy was this: He was a rock.

You may not know what the term “rock” means in poker. It defines a player who is very conservative, refusing to risk money unless he figures to have way the best of it. Sometimes these players can sit for hours without entering a pot. Playing as a rock can win against weak competition that generally calls too often. Then, there’s frequently so much money in the pot on the rare occasions that you do get a huge hand, that it’s enough to compensate for all the lesser opportunities you missed.

Being a rock isn’t the right road to profit, but it can be a road to survival in the low-rent district. But, again, that assumes you’re playing against weak opponents. Against world-class foes, forget it.

One thing top players will take pride in doing is gobbling up rocky players alive. They’ll wait for the rock to finally decide that a hand is big enough to play, then crush his spirits with a raise so compelling that courage drains away and all that remains is to fold.

Quincy was that kind of a rock. He looked studious and conservative, complete with thin-rimmed glasses. So, he got in our game. This was years ago, and it wasn’t a big game by today’s standards. It was no-limit with blinds of $25 and $50. That meant pots grew to be thousands of dollars large and sometimes tens of thousands, but you didn’t see any million-dollar pots, as you might in the biggest games today.

Anyway, Quincy didn’t play any hands until he finally decided to double my big blind in a late position. I was holding ace-ten of diamonds and I called the $50 raise. The flop was perfect for me – all low diamonds. I had a flush, the best one possible. I bet $400 and Quincy raised $1,000. That’s when I moved in big with $12,000 more – enough to almost break Quincy. And I mean break him not just at the table, but leave him broke as flat as an Armadillo unsuccessful in crossing a Texas highway at night. Flat broke.

He thinks and thinks, then folds. And he shows me what he folded. Amazingly it was K-Q of diamonds – the second best hand possible. Yes, it was a great lay down under the circumstances, but why did he show me the cards? I guess it was because he was proud of his decision. But when you’re a rock, you can’t afford to reinforce knowledge of that fact in your opponents. They’ll eat you.

And that’s what happened over the next two hours. Quincy continued to be a rock. And, like most rocks bumping up against the living monuments of poker, he eventually crumbled. Sad but certain.

I guess there are two lessons entwined here. Lesson one is that you can’t earn the most profit – and often can’t earn any at all – by just waiting for the sure hands. World-class play is sensibly aggressive. And lesson two is that if you’re going to play like a rock, you shouldn’t advertise the fact.

Keep it your secret. — DB

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The right time to raise

I was only 18. I was fascinated by poker and took it seriously. At that age, some poker concepts had already jelled in my mind and some hadn’t.

This story shows a little of each. It’s about a businessman named Ken who, every week, came to our game in Sweetwater, Texas. He always lost, and it wasn’t because he was unlucky. He just flat out always got drunk and played poorly.

Today was no exception. He had gotten up from the table numerous times to walk to the bar across the room. He’d finished off several strong drinks and had even been in a scuffle that left his shirt torn. So, he wasn’t exactly the image of suit-and-tie composure he had been a few hours earlier. And his poker playing had deteriorated, too, although you couldn’t really praise it much to begin with.

And now he blustered, “Raise again!” as he faced me down in a seven-card stud hand. He had about $2,000 in $100 bills he’d earlier flashed, and I wanted my share. At that time, I had only a few hundred dollars in front of me, and that was the extent of my bankroll that day. These were the lean days of poker for me, in smaller games, before I had acquired a permanent bankroll or turned pro.

I had a pair of aces after the fourth seven-stud card had been dealt. All he had were two low-ranking diamonds and his two face-down secret cards. I raised and he raised again. Now I started to ponder. I was worried that this might be the one time he actually held a big hand, like three-of-a-kind or two pair. But, then, unexpectedly, he showed me the rest of his hand – two more diamonds. Well, I had two diamonds myself and this meant I would win about 53 percent of the time. So, I had an edge.

Well, I raised and Ken raised and I raised and Ken raised and we just kept going until I was all-in. Then it got scary, because I had to escape without Ken catching another diamond. Unfortunately, he caught one on the sixth card.

I was broke for the day. I’d learned enough about poker to realize when I had an advantage and that if I kept raising when I had one, every wager was bringing me a little profit – in theory.

But there was something I hadn’t learned. Gloomily, I sat and watched another player, Percy, who had years of experience, win all of Ken’s $2,000.

As the game was breaking, Percy told me, “You shouldn’t have kept raising against his four diamonds.”

Well, believe me, I was in no mood for this criticism, especially since I was sure Percy was wrong. “What are you talking about?” I fumed. I had two of his diamonds. I was a favorite!”

“True,” acknowledged Percy, “but now you’re broke and I have his money.”

“What’s your point,” I wondered, impatience and irritation punctuating my voice.

“My point is you only had a small advantage and you risked it all. Don’t you think you would have had better opportunities and bigger edges against someone who plays as bad as Ken? Why settle for a little edge instead of a big one?”

Well, I just nodded grudgingly. I didn’t really have a good answer for Percy back then, and I don’t really have one today, either. He was right. – DB

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Don’t take your troubles to the table

When you’re emotionally upset, you just can’t play poker the right way, the profitable way. I used to back players I believed in. One was a kid named Craig who impressed me with his discipline. I mean, he was just unshakable, never getting out of line. He would siphon off the money from the table so methodically that it became a fearsome thing to watch.

But nothing will derail your poker train as fast as problems at home. Business problems, romance problems, it’s all the same. And all that stuff needs to be packed away and left at home. At times when a man’s heart is heavy or he has too much on his mind, there’s a danger that his bankroll will die. Craig’s died. Suddenly.

We used to call him “Super Rock.” Now, in poker terminology, a rock is a name for a player who plays very conservatively, reluctant to risk his money on anything other than big hands. Well, if you looked in the dictionary under “rock,” you’d probably find Craig’s picture. He was simply one of the most solid, sensible players who’ve ever played the game. You had to admire him…

Self-destruction

I believed in him so much that I sometimes took pieces of his action when he played in big games. Not tonight, fortunately. This was about to become the worst case of self-destruction I’d ever seen. You see, Craig was also a ladies’ man. So, there he sat in at big-limit seven-stud table, playing his usual fine game. He was totally in control, a picture of decorum and concentration.

Then storms in this young woman, eyes fiery, clearly in a rage. She hurls her key’s right into his pot, interrupting his raise, yelling, “Keep these! I don’t want them anymore!” She also called him a few choice names.

At first, Craig seemed to act as if it didn’t matter. He kept his cool. But the anger must have been smoldering within him, because pretty soon he started to play poorly, erratically. In a display of something I’d never suspected was part of his personality, he’d throw cards, curse, lose his concentration. His hand selection deteriorated so badly that he became a “live one.” And every time he lost a pot, he’d say, “Stupid broad!” He lost the money in front of him. Bought more. Again. Again.

So silly

I’d watched Craig accumulate his bankroll over a year of hard work playing poker. And I watched him lose it all in five hours.

Just as he was leaving the table, broke and miserable, his girlfriend returned. She looked cool, composed, and loving. “This is so silly,” she told him. And she apologized and hugged him adoringly.

Craig rose from the table, beaten and trembling. She wanted to know how he’d fared, and I still remember how peculiar his words sounded. “I lost a little,” he said. “You shouldn’t play when you’re upset,” she admonished him. Watching them walk away together, I had the dark feeling that I’d never see Craig again. And I didn’t.

But it’s the memory of that sad scene that punctuates my advice to poker players today. It’s pretty much the same advice that Craig’s girlfriend gave: “Don’t play poker when you’re upset.” — DB

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It’s foolish to flash money

Young poker players do foolish things. I wasn’t one to frequently flash money, but it seemed to be a costly habit that a lot of up-and-coming players had. Perhaps it was their way of announcing that they were somebody — before they actually were anybody.

I remember traveling the Texas poker circuit very briefly with a kid named Red. We were both in our mid-twenties. He was too flamboyant for my tastes, and I had already decided to dissolve our traveling partnership. We pulled into a small café a few hours out of Amarillo. It was Red’s turn to pay the check, and he tried to impress a matronly waitress by flashing all of our bankroll of $100 bills — roughly $5,000.

The woman seemed stunned, and then recovered by saying, “You must be from Amarillo. I hear there’s a lot of money there.” She walked away.

Hijacked

“Why did you do that?”I asked Red, annoyed. You’re going to get us hijacked. “Hijack” was the word we used back then to mean robbed.

Red said that we were in a small, friendly town and hijackings just didn’t happen there. “Besides, it probably gave her a thrill,” he speculated. But I noticed a couple of mean-looking kids nearby, about our age. They didn’t seem to be paying attention, but I had the suspicion that they had seen Red flash the money.

We drove toward the $500 buy-in game we’d been invited to that night, hoping to extend our shaky, but growing, bankroll. It started to rain. Really rain. Torrents. My windshield wipers were failing, almost useless. I had to slow to a crawl.

Then a car roared from behind us, coming side to side. It was a newer car than mine, and I’m sure the wipers worked, so outrunning it in the rain wasn’t a practical option. Besides, there suddenly was a gun pointing at us through their rolled-down passenger-side window. It didn’t take me long to decide what to do. Sometimes you can’t afford to face down a bet. You need to fold your hand. And, so, I pulled over.

Dying was possible

It was a painless hijacking by Texas poker standards back then. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to face machine guns and to be beaten. And dying was always possible. But this time it was just a matter of Red handing over the money and them driving off into the rain. No one was harmed. There wasn’t even a scuffle.

Well, they’d gotten the $5,000, but had missed an extra $550 we kept separately in the car for emergencies. We both agreed that we’d separate then and there. One would get $500 as a buy-in for that night’s game and the other would get the remaining $50 to take a bus home.

Who got what was decided by a single hand of showdown poker. I won. And I managed to quickly build that $500 into a more substantial bankroll.

As for Red, I left him at the nearest bus depot. I’m sure he was humbled by counting out the money for his ticket and hoarding a little of what was left over for food. I’m guessing he was less conspicuous about that purchase. I guess the lesson is: You can’t flash a bankroll you don’t have. — DB

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Participating in the party

Most players will participate in private games sometimes. These may be played among friends – your typical Friday night variety of poker. The purpose isn’t only poker; it’s purpose is also bonding.

Although I never play in that sort of game anymore, most readers occasionally will. And I’m going to share something that happened back before I played poker for a living that changed my perspective on how you should treat that common type of game. This is the story of Scotty and Professor Math.

Just a college student

Now Professor Math wasn’t really a professor. He was just a college student, like myself and all the others in the game. We called him that, because he was quick to calculate. He would then point out poker mistakes, aggravating the other players, even he thought he was being friendly. Oh, and P.M. was frail, really scrawny.

Then there was the other character who played a part in this unexpected poker lesson. His name was Scotty. He was double P.M.’s size, strong, and temperamental. Most of the time, he was friendly, but you tried not to get him mad.

Games like this tend to be experimental. It was dealer’s choice, meaning that after each hand the deal was passed to the next player, who could choose any form of poker he liked. At first, we just played hold ’em, but predictably, the dealers became more inventive, and there was draw poker, seven-card stud, lowball, and a couple other ingredients added. That was fine with P.M.; he was familiar with these games.

Then a dealer chose seven-card stud with deuces wild. Now wild card games are a staple of many Friday night poker game. So, everyone readily adapted, except P.M., who complained that it made it too hard to calculate odds and asked to be dealt out. A few players grumbled, but we played without him. The laughter grew along with the size of the pots, and all of the next deals were wild card games, some with both deuces and fours wild. Finally, the deal returned to Professor Math. He announced the game, “Draw poker, nothing wild.”

The glare

Scotty glared at him. The glare continued and turned stone cold and he snarled, “Deal me out.” Almost immediately, everyone else asked to be dealt out, too, so P.M., embarrassed, slammed the deck to the player on the left.

“You deal,” said P.M.

“No,” Scotty retorted, reaching across the table and returning the deck to P.M. “It’s your deal.” So, ludicrously, P.M. was intimidated into dealing five cards to just himself.

“You forgot to ante,” Scotty reminded him. So P.M. anted. And then Scotty made P.M. wager right to the end, then show his hand and take his own pot. Then, finally, the dealt was passed to the next player.

After that, P.M. played all the hands quietly. He was uncomfortable, I’m sure, but the point had been made, and he was – at least – participating.

In home games, you don’t only need poker skills –you need public relation skills, too. You can’t always have things your way. The whole purpose of that sometimes weird and inventive poker gathering is enjoyment. Everyone’s enjoyment. It’s a party in which unexpected things can happen – a poker party in which unusual forms of the game are dealt. And you’ve been invited to participate in the adventure. Ignore that simple truth and you’ll not only be unpopular, I’m betting you’ll cost yourself money. — DB

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No-limit confusion

The difference between limit and no-limit poker can be as broad as a Texas pasture stretching from here to the horizon.

Rochester Ricky didn’t understand that difference. He was from New York and talked his way into our game in Fort Worth in the late sixties. He strutted in proud – some local champ from far away – and sauntered away quite sadly. He’d chosen a tough game. Besides me, there was Amarillo Slim, Puggy Pearson, Johnny Moss, and Sailor Roberts. All would turn out to be world champions in the future.

Slim kept chatting at him, seeming friendly, but really trying to unravel the mystery of this stranger. Usually, the more you can get a man to talk, the more he’s likely to give you the keys to his destruction. And Slim was the best at extracting such information. Rochester Ricky revealed that he was quite a local star and was proud of the fact that he had brought $10,000 to our table. In fact, he’d slapped it down in front of us as if expecting surprise. Mostly, we stifled yawns. We’d seen that kind of money often.

No-limit hold ’em

What we discovered was that he played a wide variety of poker games, but he always used language like, “I bet the $50 limit” or “He called my $100 and raised, so I reraised once more, making it $300.” Well, it was powerfully clear that he wasn’t accustomed to no-limit poker. So, that’s what we dealt from then on – no-limit Texas hold ’em. And Ricky just couldn’t handle it.

Once he called a $400 bet that Slim had aimed at a $400 pot and announced that he didn’t expect to win, but it was worth the 2-to-1 odds ($800 to $400). What he failed to realize was that, although what he said had merit, you don’t figure it the same way in no-limit games. You have to suspect that the bettor has a stronger hand than he would in a limit game. The difference is that in limit games, you can wager with the luxury of knowing the worst that can happen is that you can face a raise the same size as what you wagered. Considering the size of the pot, that’s often an easy call.

In no-limit, you suddenly can get raised a fortune, and you’ve got to take that into consideration when you wager. So, you need a stronger hand to call in no-limit, because the bettor is representing a stronger hand himself. Ricky didn’t grasp this.

Adapting

Also, he didn’t understand the art of bluffing in no-limit. I’ve known some successful players in limit poker who almost never bluff. But, you can’t succeed in no-limit poker like that. Bluffing is a primary element of no-limit. You’ve got to do it, and Ricky didn’t do it. He didn’t know how.

To adapt to no-limit:

  1. You need stronger hands to bet.
  2. You need stronger hands to call — or to raise with an advantage.
  3. You need to bluff more often and more wisely.

Rochester Ricky left the game with words I still remember: “Don’t bother looking me up if you come to Rochester. I’ll never play hold ’em against Texans again as long as I live.” For his sake, I hope he stuck to that promise. — DB

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Should you increase the limits?

In a game long ago, the late world champion Sailor Roberts was losing and proposed that we raise the stakes. That’s when a player whose face and name I’ve long forgotten uttered words I’ll never forget.

“There’s only one door for this poker game.”

“What?” mumbled Sailor, as confused by those words as we all were.

“You have to get out the way you got in,” the player explained, meaning that Sailor had gotten behind (got in) at the stakes we were playing and if he wanted to recover (get out), he’d have to do it the same way – exiting through the same door.

Now, while that might seem like a man just having fun with words, I realize that there’s a lot to ponder in his statement. You see, there are many times when players want to change the stakes at poker. Sometimes, you’re lobbying for the change yourself. Sometimes it’s other players at the table who want the change and your opinion may matter in regard to whether or not it happens. The change proposed will almost always be an increase in stakes, never a decrease.

Should you agree?

Although I confess that my gambling nature makes me eager to increase the stakes, I realize there are times when doing so works against you. Suppose you’re against a weak opponent who’s been losing for hours. Now he proposes that you double the stakes. Should you agree?

Probably not. At that point, your opponent is likely to be desperate as a calf surprised by an early winter blizzard, trying to find a way to shelter, but blinded by the snowflakes. If you raise the stakes, it’s like making the snow stop. Your opponent – who has been betting recklessly and losing – can suddenly see the path ahead. And he’ll play a more disciplined game, hoping that path will lead him home.

Conversely, there are times you want to raise the stakes. This happens when opponents are already playing too conservatively to expect a profit. Then, raising the stakes will make them even more timid and can work to your advantage.

Guidelines

Years ago, I developed some guidelines to help determine whether you should go along with a stake increase or try to persuade players not to do it. Here are the things you should consider:

  1. When average opponents are playing at limits above their comfort level, they’re easier to bluff;
  2. When average opponents are playing at limits below what they’re accustomed to and can afford, they’ll usually play poorly and less selectively;
  3. When too-loose players are forced to play limits higher than their comfort level, they become more selective and actually play better;
  4. When too-tight players are forced to play limits higher than their comfort level, they become even tighter and have less chance of winning;
  5. When a game is very loose, it usually works against you to raise the limits;
  6. When a game is very tight, it usually works in your favor to raise the limits and play aggressively.

Keeping those factors in mind help me decide whether or not I want poker limits increased. Once I know what I want, I can use my influence to try to make it happen. — DB

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Don’t wait yourself to death

Back in Texas many years ago, a player gave me a poker book. He said, “Read it, Doyle. It will tell you how to make big money at poker.”

Although I nodded gratefully, I really didn’t have the time to read it. It was my junior year at Hardin-Simmons University and, in addition to my academic studies, I was well along with my basketball career, and several professional teams were already interested in me.

One day, I found a moment to open the book, though. I can’t remember the exact title, but it was something like, “The Learning Experiences of a Poker Master.” I was appalled by what I read. The author stressed sitting tight in your seat and hardly ever playing a hand. Patience would eventually bring all the profit your way, he contended.

Well, it’s true that you can beat up on some weak opponents by simply playing more conservatively than they do. But there’s much more to big-league poker than that. I was already beginning to discover the truth about how to win big. And it wasn’t sitting and waiting.

I knew that if you wanted to target all those chips on the table you had to go out and get them. That often meant aggressively betting and raising. Of course, you can’t do that if you lack a solid background in the basics of poker or don’t know which hands have an advantage under the circumstances.

But if you’ve advanced beyond the beginner level, patience isn’t good enough anymore. You need to make moves and you need to do it at the right time.

Especially in no-limit poker, you can potentially wait yourself to death.

Wait until your chips dwindle to nothing. Wait for the perfect hand that never comes. Wait and be conquered. Yes, you need to be sensible about the hands you play, but as I learned in Texas, there’s such a thing as being too sensible.

When I got all my expert collaborators together to create my first book, Super/System – A Course in Power Poker in the 1970s, one thing was clear. We were all gathered in a room together, all the best players in the world, and not one of us believed that the key to winning was to sit and wait. That’s why we coined the term “Power Poker.”

Probably the best illustration I have of the effectiveness of Power Poker is the time I was playing heads-up hold’em, no-limit against a millionaire from Canada. I had an appointment, but just then along came one of friends who – at the time – hadn’t played much hold’em, although he was a world-class player in general. Well, my opponent was extremely tight and passive, meaning he didn’t play many hands and when he did, he’d prefer to call rather than raise. This is the easiest kind of player to beat in poker.

So, I asked my friend to just raise every hand. Now, I was exaggerating to make a point. I didn’t mean that literally. But he apparently took it literally. When I returned from my appointment, my stack had grown huge and my opponent had left the table broke. “Hold’em is easy,” my friend laughed.

“I just kept betting and raising.”

Well, hold’em isn’t really that easy, but Power Poker can be, when you’re against opponents who are scared of their own shadows. If you want to beat that kind of opponent in a no-limit game, just raise every hand. And, no, I don’t mean that literally today either. But maybe I should. — DB

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Count your money when you’re sittin at the table

Here’s some advice: If you’re coaching a basketball team in the summer Olympics, don’t look at the scoreboard. Just tell your guys to use the same strategy, all the time, whether they’re up by two points or down by two points as the final buzzer approaches. Oh, and here’s some more advice:

Never look at your bank statements until you’re ready to withdraw your money.

I said it was advice. I didn’t say it was good advice; and I didn’t say it was my advice. Kenny Rogers sang about poker advice. Remember the song, the Gambler? In it, there’s the line, “You never count your money while you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.” That’s one of my favorite songs, but that line runs contrary to poker wisdom. In fact, I don’t know of a single top-ranked poker player in the world who heeds it.

In poker, just like any other sport, you need to look at the scoreboard. You want to know how you’re doing. World-class players, whether they’re completing in a regular poker game or in a tournament, almost always have a good idea how big their stacks are at all times. Many can tell you right to the penny. Furthermore, the best players try to keep track of how their opponents are doing, too. They want to know which players are succeeding, which are surviving, and which are suffering. That’s because your opponents play in different ways, depending on how fate is treating them at the moment – and you need to adapt to that present reality.

In no-limit games, it’s critical to know how many chips you have and how many your opponents have. For example, it’s not possible to determine if a flush draw is worth playing unless you know what’s the maximum you can win.

This reminds me of a game back in Texas. A young man seemed shocked when another player, Kentucky John, began to carefully count down his chips.

“Don’t count!” the kid warned. “It’s bad luck!” Well, John politely told the kid in a fatherly way that counting chips was just part of the game. But the kid argued, “No it isn’t! All the poker books tell you not to count.”

That common piece of flawed poker logic predated Roger’s song by many a decade.

The kid had amassed a whole lot of chips and they tottered in disorganized stacks in front of him. But then this apparently good-hearted, but naïve young man’s luck changed. He unraveled. He cussed and threw cards. When his chips had diminished to a tenth their previous glory, he put a lucky penny atop the only stack he had left. That penny just followed his remaining chips down to the cloth.

In the end, Kentucky John couldn’t resist. As the kid was walking away broke, John chirped, “I see what you mean about not counting chips at the table. If you wait long enough, it’s much easier to do.”

I always keep track of how much money I have at the table. If you treat the game of poker seriously, then you need to see the scoreboard. – DB

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The right time to call

In poker, there are times when it makes sense to call a bet and times when it flat out doesn’t. What I’m about to tell you happened over 30 years ago, and it remains one of my favorite educational stories.

Into the Dunes casino in Las Vegas saunters this young man in Western attire, with an oversize belt buckle. He strides in exaggerated splendor up to our no-limit hold ‘em table, reflecting a city slicker’s impression of a cowboy — one that nobody in Texas would take seriously. And he says, “I’m Clarence, from Florida, and I’m here to play poker.”

To this day, I can’t remember the actual name he used, because he only played that one night, but this story has two main characters. I do remember the other one’s name, but I won’t use it, because he developed a solid poker reputation over the years that followed and my intent isn’t to embarrass anyone. In today’s column, he’s Pete. Clarence and Pete – oh, it was something to watch!

Clarence may have come to play poker, but it was soon obvious that he didn’t know how. He seemed as if he were trying to portray the lead character from the then-popular TV Western series Maverick – largely about poker in the mid-1800s – because he kept saying similar things like, my pappy taught me this and my pappy told me that.

Pete made a big bet, and Clarence tried to stare him down. But Pete just looked smugly away. Perhaps too smugly. “Pappy said if a man won’t look you in the eye, he’s probably bluffing,” chimed Clarence, calling.

And Pete fumed, “It don’t mean nothin’ that I didn’t look at your eyes. I could have had a huge hand and done it the same way. But you got lucky, so you win this one.”

Shortly thereafter Clarence threw a large bet at Pete, who proudly showed that he was laying down three aces, being that there were four diamonds on the board and surely Clarence had the remaining ace – a diamond. Said, Clarence, “Pappy says if a man shows you his hand, you should be polite and show yours, too.” And he then showed the bluff.

After that, it was all downhill for Pete who seemed more and more unraveled each time he faced Clarence in a pot. But, eventually, Clarence did go broke. It was inevitable, because he didn’t really have a clue about how to play no-limit hold ‘em. But, when he walked away, much less proudly than he’d strode in, all of us had won a little bit of his money – except Pete.

Later, I asked Pete why he had kept calling Clarence with such weak hands over and over and losing. He said, “I’ll be hanged before I let that idiot bluff me again and laugh about how he done it to me.”

And that’s what I meant in the beginning. There are plenty of right reasons to call in poker – times when calling makes sense, but Pete hadn’t chosen one of them.

Whenever I tell this story, I explain that there’s another bonus lesson therein. When a stranger comes to town and shows you a big bluff, it’s highly unlikely that he’s planning to bluff you again in the near future.

So, don’t call. – DB

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Superstition can destroy

Some things don’t mix. Wine and whiskey. Concentration and loud music.

Superstition and poker.

Superstition is so destructive to poker profit that I believe the costliest thing a player can bring to the table is a good-luck charm. When I’m in doubt, I generally go with my feelings, but that’s not the same thing as superstition. I’d prefer to make decisions based on percentages and perception, but when those don’t point to a clear choice, I let gamblers’ intuition be my guide. I figure there might be something that I’ve unconsciously observed steering me in that direction. Maybe it’s wrong and maybe it’s right, but since I don’t have a more scholarly reason to make a decision, I’ll go with that feeling.

But superstition is quite different. When you’re superstitious you do things that are contrary to common sense and analysis. And you lose money. I’m not saying I’ve never had any mild superstitions. But you’ve got to fight them back and not let them guide you.

I once had a woman come complaining to me about her luck at roulette. She said, “Doyle, it isn’t easy finding the lucky numbers. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they change on you.” Doesn’t that point out the futility of superstition? The only winning road in poker is to make logical decisions. Everything else will lead you toward ruin.

I once became briefly acquainted with a kid named Alexander. He drifted into our games years ago, then was washed away in the same poker tide that sucks so many ill-prepared poker players out to sea. It drowns them. Alexander was so superstitious that he panicked whenever anyone called him Alex. In fact, he got downright angry. He thought it was bad luck.

For the most part we respected his wishes, but one day he was in a game with me and the famous U.S. player, Amarillo Slim. Well, Slim was bluffing and Alexander thought and thought. As soon as he slowly moved toward his stack of chips, indicating that a call was pending, Slim blurted, “Come on, Alex, it’s up to you!” Well, of course, Alexander flung his hand into the discards, apparently believing it was bad luck to call.

That wasn’t the weirdest of Alexander’s superstitions, either. One night he sat in our game looking ridiculous because he had worn a special shirt with all kinds of pockets sewn onto it. Big ones and small ones of poorly matched material. He just sat and watched a few hands. Anytime he saw a big hand win a pot, rip, he tore off a pocket. It startled us at first, but none of us said anything, due to Alexander’s demonstrated knack of throwing a tantrum when anyone called him Alex or interfered with his superstitions.

Finally someone got the courage to enquire and Alexander explained that his father advised him to tear a pocket every time he saw a poker hand he wanted, and then his luck would get better. It didn’t turn out that way. He joined the game and lost most of his remaining bankroll before drifting away to the blackjack tables, never to return.

That was the end of Alexander. Surely, he was more superstitious than most poker players. But I believe that any superstition can destroy a player who fully surrenders to it. — DB

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Settled disputes

On the dusty plains of Texas, poker wasn’t like it is today. You played mostly private games and you didn’t have a large selection of tables to choose from. Most games were attached to bars or pool halls. Some were in private homes. Often you settled disputes among yourselves.

I realize that some players seldom see poker competition beyond their homes. That’s why I’m revisiting a chapter from a book I wrote almost 25 years ago. It’s about some of the stickier situations regarding home poker.

First, I can’t help but relate one of my favorite home-poker stories. Frank, a mature player, growled at the much younger Baker, “Kid, you didn’t ante.” Well, Baker argued that he had anted and the debate escalated. Finally, Frank hurled a coke bottle angrily in no particular direction and it hit Baker squarely on the forehead. The kid slumped and seemed unconscious, maybe dead.

There was a medical student upstairs and we called him down to the game. When he asked what happened, three of us blurted at once, “He forgot to ante.”

Baker turned out to be all right. But it shows how overly serious home poker can be without guidelines and someone in charge.

Let me answer a few questions I’ve seen come up in home games.

Q: Does a player have to call whatever’s bet by going into his pockets or can he just call whatever chips or money he has on the table?

A: Players should never be allowed to go into their pockets to bet or call bets. Only what’s on the table in front of them should play.

Q: In casinos, they always throw away the top card before dealing. This is called “burning” a card. In home games, must you burn a card before dealing?

A: It’s a good idea, but decide in advance and insist that everyone deals the same way.

Q: In dealer’s choice games, where whoever deals the hand gets to declare the form of poker, are there any special provisions that should be adopted?

A: Yes. A list of allowable choices should be agreed to in advance. Dealers shouldn’t be able to invent games or suggest unfamiliar ones. And the game chosen should be dealt once by every player (a whole round). Just playing one hand of the game gives dealers the opportunity to choose games that favor the last (dealer) position, such as hold ‘em and draw poker. (Games like seven-card stud give no advantage to the dealer.) So, if everyone has a chance at each position for a given game, that’s fair.

Q: Who settles disputes?

A: Someone should be appointed or elected before the game starts to settle disputes, but there should be alternates who decide whenever the main decision-maker is involved in the controversy.

Q: When should a private home game adjourn?

A: At a predetermined time. Otherwise, there are apt to be hard feelings when losers are cut off arbitrarily.

Q: What’s a good excuse for leaving a private game early if you’re a winner?

A: You never need an excuse to leave any poker game. This needs to be understood by all players, everywhere. There’s nothing rude about leaving a game winning. Players who complain that winners are leaving with their money don’t understand a central truth about poker. When “your” money is in somebody else’s stack, it’s not your money anymore. — DB

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