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Cashing in on Confidence

Yesterday I was playing in a lively no-limit Texas hold’em game with $2 - $5 blinds at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas when a well-dressed gentleman sat down with $700 in chips. The man (who I later leaned was named Jack) smiled and nodded to those who happened to be observing him as he unracked his checks. He posted $5 from late position and limped along with three other players. The small blind opponent wasn’t in the mood for a multiway pot. Holding the largest stack at the table, she raised to $50. All folded to the new player who immediately reraised to $180 and picked up the pot.

When I’m out of a hand, not only do I observe mannerisms and betting patterns, but I play along with my opponents the same way I do when I am in a hand. Getting inside players’ heads is the best way to develop a read on your adversaries. Thus, I asked myself, “What type of holding could the reraiser have had to limp in after three others, and then pop the pot after getting raised?” I came to the conclusion that I didn’t know enough about his style of play to put him on a hand, although I suspected he did not hold A-A. Perhaps he was testing the initial raiser and attempting to better define the hand that he was up against.

Learning Curve

We played for nearly six hours. Along the way I familiarized myself with Jack’s style of play. He was solid, as opposed to aggressive, but he pushed hands when he was in the lead. He was not much for checking with intention to trap—he preferred to bet out, a wise strategy since most of the players in this game enjoyed action. He had built his stack to almost $2,000 during his fourth hour of play. I had been bouncing up and down from my $1,000 start, and had nearly $1,200. He and I had gone heads-up four times, splitting the results almost evenly. Since he had moved to my left an hour into the game, we chatted at various times, mostly about things other than poker. (He was an investment banker from Chicago on vacation with his wife.) I classified him as a knowledgeable, straightforward, self-assured player who had a few minor leaks.

During our fifth hour of play, everything changed. In the pivotal hand, I found pocket aces and took $1,160 from my new acquaintance when he picked up Q-Q and the flop came from heaven—As-Qd-2c. Jack proceeded to count his remaining chips twice in the aftermath of the carnage. He appeared to have close to $750. He played another two rounds. No longer was he talking, nor was he playing past the flop. He had tightened up in every way. A slight nervousness had replaced his air of quiet confidence. Jack’s hesitant play seemed to be stemming from a loss of confidence, not a “protection of winnings” plan. Finally, he departed with $650, quietly wishing me good luck.

The Smell of Fear

Jack was a winning player when confident, but a mere shell of a combatant when deflated. Savvy opponents sense fear and capitalize against apprehensive foes. Playing confidently is an underrated aspect of poker.

We know aggressive play is rewarded in poker. Early on, we are taught that when we raise, we can win in two ways:

1. By inducing our remaining opponents to fold

2. By holding the winning cards at the end of the hand

Conversely, when we call we can only win when we hold the best cards at the conclusion of the hand. So, who are we most likely to fold against—a strong, confident player or an indecisive, insecure adversary? Who are we most likely to raise or reraise? Most of us would rather avoid confident opponents and push players who seem unsure of their actions when we are attempting to gain the aggressor’s advantage.

How do we maintain confidence in this roller coaster game? Simply by adopting the attitude of the duck that lets water roll off its back. Never allow a bad run of cards to chip away at your confidence level because that would lead to more bad results. If you find yourself playing not to lose (as opposed to playing to win) get up from the table. Preventative defenses rarely work in football, and they definitely do not work in poker. Come back when you can focus on playing your best game, not on past results. There is a direct correlation between playing with confidence, maintaining excellent focus and playing your best. Contrarily, when you’re distracted by losing three straight coin flip type hands or getting your stack halved by a bad beat, you are not playing your “A” game since part of optimum poker strategy is flawless focus.

Nature of the Beast

We play a game where we lose more hands than we win. It’s a game where the best players focus on making correct decisions, not on results. They know that in a game that is comprised of skill and chance, we’ll all experience good and bad streaks. We may lose for days at a time, a normal occurrence, even for the top players in the world.

We should accept the fluctuations inherent to poker, play with confidence and stick to our “A” games: the styles of play that we have developed through reading, discussing poker with friends, honest self-assessment, experience, and implementing/fine tuning winning strategies. We will be successful in the long run, and that’s what counts.
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