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Poker Myths

Myth 1 – The best poker players bluff a lot.

Let's face it–bluffing is fun. And, when used with discretion, it's an important part of a winning player's arsenal. That having been said, the art of the bluff is only one bullet–and a low–caliber one at that–in the winning poker player's gun. The fact is, most players just love to call. Remember, the majority of your opponents are not playing for money. They may think they're playing to win, but they're really playing because they enjoy the game and the action if provides. And, since getting bluffed out' of a pot is most certainly not enjoyable, they'll find any number of excuses to call you even when they know they shouldn't. This means, of course, that you're only going to find a limited number of profitable bluffing opportunities in any given session. In big–bet poker, where you can push all your chips in the middle at any given time, the art of the bluff is much more important. But in limit poker it's just not all that valuable.

There are other factors other than your opponents' predisposition towards calling that make bluffing of limited value. For one thing, you'll often find yourself involved in a pot with two or more opponents. This means you need to calculate the probability that all players still contesting the pot will fold. If you're 'heads up' and you figure your opponent will fold 33% of the time, you can expect to drag the pot one in every three trials. If, however, you're up against two opponents, each of whom can be expected to fold 33% of the time, you're now looking at an 11% success rate for your bluff–or once in every nine trials. Trying to run a bluff in this second scenario is obviously tougher than trying to run one in the previous example. Yet in the course of any given session you'll probably find yourself faced with two or more opponents a majority of the time.

You also need to understand that the farther you get into a hand the more expensive your bluffs become, while at the same time your chances of having your bluff succeed usually decrease. If you bluff the flop, for example, and get one caller, you'll often be tempted to follow through on the turn (and sometimes on the river as well). Thus, the bluff in its entirety will often cost you either 1 ½ or 2 ½ small bets. The problem is that as the hand progresses the chances that your opponent actually 'has something' go up, since you usually reason that he wouldn't be in there calling with a hand worse than yours. Further compounding matters is the fact that in limit hold 'em the bets double on the turn. You have to put in twice as much money on the turn as you did on the flop, while the odds that your opponent likes his hand have increased. For obvious reasons this argues against trying to run a bluff.

Thirdly, limit hold 'em becomes an extraordinarily tough game to beat once you've acquired a reputation as a habitual bluffer. Because the pots often get so big before the flop, you would usually like to see your opponents fold on the flop when you bet with a good–but vulnerable– hand. If, however, you've been 'caught stealing' a few times, the chances of having your bets respected have gone way down. Let's say you raise before the flop with Ac Kh, and get four callers. The flop comes down As Ts 7h. If you bet, you'd probably like to see all of your opponents fold–or at least most of them. But players who bluff a lot are almost always going to get calls here from hands that they would like to see fold (hands like Qs Td, for example, or Th 8h), whereas a player who's considered a 'nut hugger' might get some of these hands to drop out. True, a habitual bluffer will occasionally drag a monster pot when he flops the nuts. But flopping a good–but–not–great hand is much, much more common than flopping a huge hand, and the pots the bluffer ends up losing with his good–but–not–great hands far outweighs the extra chips he collects when he flops a 'gadget'.

Myth 2 – Poker is a game of tells.

I'll try to keep this a brief as possible. Simply put, tells are probably the least important part of limit hold 'em. Consider the following example; you have 4c 4d, and the flop comes 4s 4h 5h. The turn brings the 6h. When the six drops you see one of your opponents' hands start to tremble, which often indicates a big hand. Are you just going to check and call here, since the 'tell' indicates that your opponents has a monster hand? Of course not! In fact, you'd probably lose a ton of money on this hand if it turns out your beaten even if your opponent screamed 'ship it!' and started doing the mamba around the table. Sure, you picked up a 'tell', but so what? You're not going to give him credit for the straight flush, since that 'tell' could easily indicate sixes full. If you're like me, you'll probably cap it on the turn, and take it six or seven bets on the river no matter how your opponent reacts.

This may sound like an exaggeration, but the concept outlined here applies to less dramatic–and therefore more common–examples as well. Let's say you have the Kh Th, and the flop comes 8h 5s 3h. The turn is the Js, and the river is the 7h. When the seven hits you get a tell that indicates your opponent liked that card. Well, who cares! You liked it too. The fact that you picked up a 'tell' probably won't inform your play that much, since you're likely taking this hand to three bets anyway.

Myth 3 – The best player always wins.

Uh, no. Trust me on this one–this is not true. Most winning limit hold 'em players will win around 60–80% of their sessions, depending on their playing style. This leaves 20–40% where their wallet leaves the casino lighter than when it first arrived. Bad players can and do get lucky–and often they keep getting lucky for weeks or even months on end. If you haven't started seriously playing yet, you'll soon see what I mean. If you're already a regular player then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Myth 4 – Great poker players are born, not made.

It is true that some great poker players seemed destined for greatness. Stu Ungar, for example, appears to have been such a player. But most solid poker players became winners by making a study of the game and working diligently on improving. I think it's probably safe to say that people who are born with a phlegmatic disposition have an easier time becoming winners, but having the proper mind–set is only a step one requirement. With a steady diet of practice and study I'm convinced that anyone can learn how to beat the game. I've run across plenty of winning players, and a lot of them had the 'card sense' of a koala bear. But they beat the game because they worked hard at it.

Myth 5 – You've got to advertise.

This gets misinterpreted into meaning that you need to bluff a lot so your good hands will make mucho money. My quarrel with this thinking is that the purpose of a bluff is to win the pot. It may not work, but there should be a reasonable chance of success. Those who bluff to advertise bluff too often and in situations where success is remote. A little bit of bluffing is enough to get you action on your good hands. Advertising is only a byproduct of bluffing, not the main purpose.

Myth 6 – Confidence is very important for a player.

Even though it is helpful in any endeavor to have confidence, we must ask, "Where does that confidence come from?" When you see Tiger Woods get up on that eighteenth tee on national television and whack a big drive right down the middle, he looks confident. The reason for this confidence is certainly not that he hits slices into the boondocks on the practice tee, but thinks he can do well under pressure. No, no, no. The reason is he has performed so well on previous occasions that he feels he can do the same thing when the chips are down.

I would argue that it is vital for a poker player––or any gambler––to have a realistic view of his own strength. Should a $5–$10 limit player go into a trance, mumble fifty times to himself "I am the greatest," and then take a seat in a tough $50–$100 game? Would you want to stake him? Confidence is something that flows naturally as a result of successes. You don't swell your chest with confidence and then become successful; it's the other way around. The maxim should read, "A realistic appraisal of one's abilities is important for a player."

Myth 7 – The best players are all super–aggressive.

This is simply not true. There are only a few successful players that are super–aggressive. These players are better performers at tournament play than money play, and also are better at big–bet poker than limit play. Three–time World Champion Stu Ungar is a good example of this. A look at the guys who get the money year after year shows that being selectively aggressive works better than unrelenting pressure, if steady long–term results are the criterion. Look at such players as Chip Reese and Daniel Harrington to see what I mean.

Moreover, even when this hyper–aggressive style is made to work, it will surely not be harnessed by ordinary mortals like you or me. You need to be a real poker genius to know how to extricate yourself from the tough situations this style of play will continually place you. I'll guarantee you the ten most aggressive poker players in America are all busted! Don't be a wimp, but don't try to play in fast forward the whole session either.

Myth 8 – You must pay to learn.

This saying makes it sound like you need to blow thousands of dollars to become a good enough player just to break even. While this maxim certainly applies if you feel the need to start playing right away for high stakes, I don't believe it applies to low stakes––which is the level where most beginners belong. The cheap poker games have a lot of undisciplined players. I believe newcomers can at least break even simply by reading a book on poker and playing only good hands. The shield of good starting hands should be enough for somebody to hold his own at games below $5–$10 limit, even without knowing the fine points of poker.

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