As a coach, there are certain common pitfalls that I expect my students to fall into before I even get to know them. One of the most prevalent of these pitfalls is, without a doubt, small pot neglection. It is all too natural to obsess over a large pot where you got check raised on the river and folded your third nuts. Very often, when I ask a student to tag five assorted hands from their most recent session for review, I’m shown five massive excruciatingly painful pots that are too close and/or too rare to matter in the long-term. Nowadays, I tend to set some homework where I prohibit the student from tagging any hands where the pot is more than 40BB to escape this almost irresistible trap.
Why does the human mind have a large bias towards reviewing big pots? Because these are more memorable. The brain is designed to discard common and mundane events in order to free up capacity to deal with more pressing and unfamiliar situations. When asked how your day has gone, you are much more likely to talk about having to phone an ambulance for a collapsed old man on the street than you are to recount taking a slightly awkward amount of time to find your train ticket when asked by the inspector. The former event is rare and underlined in bold. The latter is tossed in the garbage with hundreds of other mundane events from the day.
To become a strong poker player, we are required to focus on many mundane and tiny pots because these are the ones that really matter. Your mind does not think that these are worthy of your attention because it assumes you have mastered them to the same degree of competence as you have mastered mundane life events such as brushing your teeth or putting your shoes on, but you have not!
What would you do if you had a massive health setback and had to learn to do everything all over again? If you could no longer walk properly, talk properly, or get dressed on your own, would you spend all of your time worrying about how to survive bear attacks or escape from sinking ships? No, of course not. The mundane situations are essential, we just assume they don’t matter because we have mastered them in life. In poker we are learning to walk and talk for most of our career, so focus on those small to medium common spots.
Close Spot Obsession
Sometimes the stressful massive pots are only difficult because they are literally too close to call. When an aggressive regular fires three barrels in a 3-Bet pot and we find ourselves humming and hawing with top pair, the reality is that whatever we do, it probably does not matter much. Presumably, a strong aggressive regular will have a roughly balanced range in this situation, will value bet competently, and bluff enough that we cannot simply fold all of our bluff catchers.
We can assess this spot by examining our blockers and how suitable a bluff-catcher our hand makes, but if we do decide to call, it will only be a microscopically profitable choice. If we make a mistake, it will be a tiny one.
What makes this pot feel important is its size, but its EV is close to zero. Spending an hour discussing this hand with a friend is a waste of time when there are hundreds of small common spots where you make large mistakes on a regular basis. It is these mistakes and this misallocation of your review time that holds you back.
Small Pot Auto Pilot
Another outcome of neglecting small pots is that, in-game, the student actually switches off during them. Again, the mistake here is the subconscious assumption that because the mundane events of real life are solved, that those of poker must be too. Therefore, the student checks down the limped pot without even thinking twice about whether bluffing might be profitable.
I played a hand this morning that went as follows:
I was in the big blind with 5♦4♣ and the BU, who was unknown, limped into the pot. The SB folded and I checked. The flop came A♣9♥7♠ and I checked. Villain checked behind and the turn was the 10♦. Again, it went check-check. The river was the 9♣ and now my decision is a no-brainer. I must bluff. Five-high has zero showdown value and so my EV from checking is zero. This means that if I can make Villain fold more than 40% of the time by betting two-thirds of the pot, then this is what I should do. In limped pots, most of your opponents will have the same neglectful disinterest for the pot that we observed earlier. Therefore, bluff catching with speculative hands like K-high and Q-high is probably not on many players’ agendas. My bluff is going to work more than half of the time here and print me money.
Had I been on autopilot and allowed myself to become bored and detached due to the pot-size, I would have missed this bluff. If I did this every time a spot like this came up, I would lose a lot of EV in the long-term. Avoid auto-pilot by reminding yourself that every pot matters; if not due to its size, then due to its high frequency of occurrence.
Be a Scavenger
Winning poker is all about ruthlessly seeking out lots of little edges in mundane looking spots. One thing I have always considered a big strength in my game is my ability to fight for every scrap of EV over and over again in small pots. I actually enjoy this a lot more than playing high variance large pots. If you scavenge successfully for a long period of time, you will gradually amass so much extra profit that you can survive downswings in big pots. This in turn will cause you to obsess less about those near coolers and focus your energy to where it really matters – common spots.
- We neglect small common spots in poker because we don’t need to think about common spots in real life. In poker, though, we still have lots to learn.
- Sometimes a really gross spot only feels difficult because it is close and barely matters on the long run.
- Getting away from the habit of autopiloting is the only way to win more than your fair share of small pots.
- Scavenging extra EV over and over again is more important in the long run than running good in a massive pot.
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