February 08, 2010

An Onside Kick for Poker

“Fortune favors the bold.”—Roman proverb

The day after another in a recent string of entertaining and memorable Super Bowls, the buzz in the sports world is all about New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton’s “gamble” to open the second half of the game with an unusual and daring onside kick. The Saints recovered the kick, and took advantage of the resulting great field position to score a touchdown and take the lead. Although the Indianapolis Colts would answer the Saints’ score with a touchdown drive of their own, the Saints had established the momentum that would carry them to the victory.

Of course, it wasn’t just that one play that carried the day. Several other key turning points in the game included:  unsuccessfully going for the touchdown on 4th and 1 late in the first half (but pinning the Colts deep, leading to a field goal and momentum to close the first half), successfully challenging an official’s ruling on a two point conversion play (risking a crucial timeout in the process), calling blitzes against Peyton Manning (who is one of the best QBs in the NFL against pressure), and a interception by Tracy Porter who jumped a receiver’s route as the Colts were driving for the tying touchdown late in the game (if he misses the pick, the Colts likely score and tie the game). Although many commentators refer to these critical plays as “gambles”, in fact they are better regarded as calculated aggression—high risk, high reward decisions that take the initiative and force their opponent to react to them.

Aggression, of course, is widely touted as a key to success in poker. In the past, I’ve been widely regarded as an aggressive player. As one of my poker buds put it, “It’s not the $15 preflop that I mind. It’s that I know it’s going to be another $50 on the flop.” But, after a string of bad sessions last summer and fall, I have to admit I started shying away from aggression. I dialed the c-bets way back, and started running scared from raises. I still generally played a marginally profitable game by relying on getting paid off on big hands, but I knew I was leaving a ton of money on the table. The nadir came in November when I lost a big pot in a 2/5 NLHE game at the Meadows ATM, failing to c-bet with AK on a whiffed flop and check-calling a bet, turning a pair and check-calling again because the turn completed a flush, then losing to a rivered runner-runner straight. As I shook my head at the weird conclusion to the hand, an older gent whose game I respect quietly said to me, “You never gave him a chance to fold.”

That short sentence was an onside kick to my poker ego. At some level, I knew I had been playing passive, scared poker. I knew I was folding way too often, giving up on hands to avoid big losses, and in the process giving away chips $15 to $50 at a time. But, I justified it to myself by thinking of my play as "tight", "cautious", or "prudent". Over the long haul, that is a recipe for losing a lot of money. So, after that old gent's gentle critique, I made it a point to begin dialing the aggression back up. Not necessarily to a maniac level—being overly aggressive can be devastating both in poker and in football. But I definitely wanted players to fear me again when they call a preflop raise.

Being aggressive is tough and risky, but it’s the difference between being a champion and finishing in the middle of the pack. Always give your opponent a chance to fold.

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