Dealing With Unexpected and Crazy Plays From Your Opponents

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Poker is a technical game based on probabilities. This makes it challenging to learn for a couple reasons. Let me illustrate the idea with an example.

One of the biggest roadblocks to poker success is that humans have a spectacularly poor intuition for how probabilities work. This is both an impediment to developing sound strategy, as well as a significant mental strain for all but the most resilient players.

For example, when I watch football (soccer) I experience extreme ups and downs that many fans experience, however you may notice you experience the random events very differently when you have money on the line like playing in the Footy Accums Tournaments.

What we need to understand is that there is critical distinction between events that have happened and those that may happen. This may seem trivially obvious to you, but how often have you heard a poker player bemoaning their luck?

“The last fifteen pocket pairs I’ve picked up haven’t flopped a set once!”

“I’ve flopped six flush draws this evening and none of them came in!”

“My KK got cracked by AA! How can this possibly happen?”

The last complaint is, of course, particularly silly, but that doesn’t stop people from making it. And yet tell that same individual that there’s a 20% chance of showers tomorrow, they are not going to be stunned into disbelief when it rains.

Playing poker can be thought of as a long series of probabilistic events. The more hands you play, the more likely it is that an event with an extremely low a priori probabilitywill occur. This applies to everything from losing a near-lock when the board runs out “impossibly” bad, to a winning player suffering a mind-bending downswing.

And the reason the run-out or the downswing may bend the mind, or produce tilt is largely because of this business of humans not grasping the nuances of probability.

In the shiny new solver era of no limit hold’em, these issues are supposed to be mitigated. If we apply a strategy that cannot be exploited, surely we should be able to cast off these shackles of seeing poker through the lens of luck?

It may help. Knowing that there is a “correct” way to play the game, and that one can get close to it with dedicated study, is likely to represent a psychological step forward for many. That said, I think nearly all poker players could benefit psychologically and technically through a study of probability theory.

There’s another element to probability that also seems to stress even seasoned players. What do you do when an opponent does something out of the ordinary? Or recasting this question, what do you do when it’s not the random nature of the card distribution, but the action of an opponent that constitutes a low-probability event?

Let me expand this point through an example. You’ve been playing an online cash game for about an hour against the same opponents. You pick up AQs in the big blind. It folds to a player in middle position who shoves all-in for 100bb.

Up until now, this particular opponent has done nothing unusual. Now this!? What on earth do you do?

In the solver era, many of us are converging on having a back-pocket response to all standard situations. As noted above, this strategic solidity is a comfort to many players. But when something weird happens, these very same players will often feel at a greater loss than in the days when the answer to every poker question was “it depends”.

In the case of an out-of-the blue 100bb open shove, part of the problem is that such a move cannot be “correct” from a GTO standpoint. In other words, with such a massive deviation from GTO play, our solvers simply cannot tell us how to respond.

So how do we respond to these weird events? I’d suggest the following may help.

  1. Don’t sweat it. We’re talking about black swans here. By definition, something weird occurs at a low frequency, and as such, whatever we do will have a negligible impact on our long-term bottom line.
  2. How weird is it? Do you have additional context? Have you seen something like this before? If so, does that prior event inform your response here?
  3. Is the challenge primarily psychological? If you’re holding AQs in the face of this massive preflop overshove, and you genuinely have no additional information to arrive at a decision, admit that you’re mostly guessing. If calling and getting shown AA is going to be painful (“but I block AA! How can this possibly happen?”), maybe the simplest solution is to fold. And then spend the next week working on your mental game.
  4. Slow down. Perhaps this is the best practical advice I can give. In live play in particular, I’ve often observed players acting far too quickly in response to weird spots, particularly facing ultra-aggressive actions like overshoves. Again, I suspect this is a mental-game leak that causes some to react emotionally without engaging their brain. The previous points indicate you’ll likely need to dig deep into your intellectual bankroll of prior poker experience to negotiate this spot. So take your time.

Incidentally, for those of you thinking the 100bb preflop shove is an idiotic example because “that could never possibly happen”, it did in my last online session. That’s why I wrote this article.

(I folded.)