June 21, 2010
Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: What is it, in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?*
Clarice Starling: He kills women.
Hannibal Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?
Clarice Starling: Anger, um, social acceptance, and, uh, sexual frustrations, sir ...
Hannibal Lecter: No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.
Clarice Starling: No. We just ...
Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don't your eyes seek out the things you want?
—The Silence of the Lambs
I have often thought of this movie scene when confronted by one of poker's extreme playing styles—the calling station. When confronted with an uber-calling station—an ET, if you will—the standard poker advice is: "Never bluff a calling station." Why not? Well, what do calling stations do? They call. Clearly, an opponent calling is a poor result if you are bluffing.
Although this is sound advice, the tactical analysis is misplaced on the proper response to calling stations, without focusing on the reason calling stations call. Calling is regarded as an independently meaningful action, a product of rational thought, when it is actually a mere reaction, a manifestation of a player's underlying psychological state. A calling station isn't calling because it is a logically sound play. Instead, a calling station calls because something in his nature makes him call excessively, to his detriment.
But why should we care why an opponent is a calling station? Because knowing the underlying reason for excessive calling can help us tweak our tactics at the table to maximize our value from these players. Consider these different psychological types of typical calling stations:
- Donkey Calling Station—The classic calling station, this is the player who calls because he has an irrational fear of folding a winning hand. The Donkey calls preflop with marginal cards, because if he folds and the flop would have hit him with two pair, trips, a straight, or some other monster hand, he feels he has made an error. Postflop, the Donkey calls with any draw or pair, because he fears if he folds, his hand will improve to a monster. On the river, the Donkey calls because he is afraid of being bluffed. Being bluffed means you were hoodwinked, and the Donkey fears looking like a fool; losing a pot is not just losing money, it's losing face. A Donkey calls out of fear.
"Oh well, maybe he's bluffing again."
- Scrooge Calling Station—This is a slightly different kind of donkey, usually a decent to good player who has allowed catching a string of bad hands or being slapped around by a table bully to alter his natural style of play. The Scrooge calls preflop with a wide range of hands, because he has seen his premium hands lose to "junk", and he is desperately trying to connect with flops to get some momentum rolling; surely this is the hand that turns it all around and gets his money back. Postflop, when the Scrooge connects with the board at all, the Scrooge eschews betting and raising because he is afraid of building a big pot he will only lose, or because he is afraid he will get raised back and be forced to lay down his hand and give up his investment. The Scrooge also calls much more loosely than he usually would, because he is looking for a reason, any reason, why he might win the pot just this one time—just this once, his opponent won't have pocket Aces, an overcard won't flop, he'll catch his draw, or his middle pair will pick off a bluff. The Scrooge is calling solely because of the money; he can't lose every hand, can he? A Scrooge calls out of greed.
"Call big or call home!"
- Hero Calling Station—This player should be regarded as a particularly aggressive caller. Although that concept may be a bit counterintuitive, the Hero is not calling out of fear of being bluffed, but because he enjoys picking off bluffs. Preflop, the Hero calls with a wide range because he expects to outplay you postflop, rather than beating you with a better hand. Postflop, the Hero is not a player who upon occasion analyzes a hand and concludes he is most likely up against a bluff. Rather, the Hero is a player who actively seeks opportunities to strut his stuff like a poker peacock, calling big bets with bottom pair or King-high just to show off his superior poker hand-reading ability. The Hero loves to "put players on a hand" he can beat—Ace-King, busted draws, "air"—and will often go to extraordinary lengths to rationalize making a spectacularly thin call. A Hero calls out of hubris.
Captain Hero makes the call.
Each kind of calling station requires a slightly different response. Preflop, if you are playing a relatively tight style with good starting hand selection, you should raise more liberally against a Donkey or a Scrooge, as both of those players are playing too many marginal hands, just hoping to connect with a flop. There is good money to be made by building pots knowing that the Donkey or Scrooge will miss the flop and fold to a c-bet more often than not, and that even when they hit a flop, they will likely still be behind. You should want to play big pots against calling stations willing to chase draws or call down with less than top pair. By contrast, a Hero is not paying much attention to hand strength preflop, and building a big pot might play into a Hero's aggressive postflop style. The key to maximizing value from a Hero is to have a good hand by the time the big bets get made on the river. So, raise only your very best hands, and limp the rest. There will be plenty of time to build a hand after the flop.
Popstflop, the Donkey and the Scrooge are fairly similar before the river, willing to overpay on the flop and turn to chase draws (including two pair "draws"), just in case they "get there". By contrast, a Hero calls (or "floats") on the flop hoping their opponent is continuation betting with "air" or a weak hand, and might show weakness on a later street. If their opponent bets the turn, the Hero calls, certain that their opponent is still weak, maybe even being a bully and trying to buy the pot. In any event, all three kinds of calling stations will call larger than normal bets on the flop and turn. The Donkey and the Scrooge will call up to pot-size bets because they want to get to the river and see if they make their draw or their hand is good. The Hero calls because he is looking for weakness, and an overbet of more than the pot looks weaker than a standard half to three-quarters pot sized c-bet.
On the river, the differences between the kinds of calling stations truly become important. The Donkey and the Scrooge are willing to pay off a moderate value bet, usually up to about half the pot, with a marginal hand. But neither will pay off a large bet on the river, as paying off a big bet loses face for the Donkey and money for the Scrooge. However, because the Scrooge is generally a better player and more motivated by money, he is less likely to call with a weak hand unless presented good odds, so dial back the size of the value bet more for a Scrooge than for a typical Donkey. By contrast, in the case of a Hero, it pays to overbet for value on the river, as the Hero is more likely to smell a bluff, is actively seeking out a bluff, and will seek the bigger psychological thrill from picking off what looks like a big bluff.
Looking at it in terms of postflop betting patterns, the different styles might look like this in terms of percentages of the pot:
- Donkey: Big-big-medium (75-100% / 75% / 50-65%)
- Scrooge: Big-big-small (75-100% / 75% / 25-30%)
- Hero: Big-bigger-huge (75-125% / 100-125% / 75-150%)
Calling stations are the most lucrative type of opponent over time. Extracting maximum value from the ETs you encounter is a major key to profitable poker. Doing so is certainly easier than dealing with maniacs!
ET tries to cure Isildur1's bankroll "Ouch".
After that donkey sucked out on the river, I ate his
liver with some fava beans and a nice vodka-Red Bull.
* Lecter was apparently referencing this quotation from the Stoic philosopher:
This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what its causal nature [or form]? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?
—The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (translated by George Long)