The Cost of Giving Your Hand Away

This extreme example points up a basic online poker games dilemma. You want to make the most of your hands by maximizing your gains and minimizing your losses, yet what are you costing yourself when you play in such a way that your opponents should know what you have? The answer to this question is contained in the Fundamental Theorem of online poker games, which states that every time opponents play a hand differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play a hand the same way they would have played it if they could see all your cards, you lose.

The Fundamental Theorem indicates that when you play in a way that lets your opponents know what you have, you may be costing yourself substantially. If opponents know exactly what you have, they will never make a mistake except on very close mathematical decisions. The more your play gives away what you have, the less likely it is that your opponents will make a mistake. Yet you want them to make mistakes. Creating mistakes is, in a sense, the whole objective of the games. Clearly you might notwant to raise immediately with three aces rolled up because you don't want your opponents to know what a strong hand you have. You want to win more money from them on later betting rounds. At the same time, never raising with a big hand could be a mistake too.

An interesting example of such a mistake came up toward the end of the 1977 World Series of online poker games in a hand between two world-class players, Doyle Brunson from Longworth, Texas, and Bones Berland from Gardena, California. The games was no-limit hold 'em. Brunson had about \$20,000 in front of him, and Berland, about \$50,000. Before the flop Berland raised in early position, a hefty raise, and Brunson called him with two queens. The flop came J,5,2. Again Berland made a pretty good bet, and Brunson called him. On fourth street came another small card, and Bones made a gigantic bet, just about enough to put Doyle all-in. Doyle thought and thought and thought, and finally he pushed in his money and called.
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Okay, Podner, We'll Draw on the Count of Three"

Youngest-ever World Series of Poker Champion Phil Hellmuth is famous for his late tournament arrivals. He buys in the day before and has sometimes arrived as much as three hours late, finding his starting stack has shrunk to 65 percent of its starting size.

Hellmuth insists the late arrivals are due to his desire to get enough sleep. "The chips I lose are much less important than being well-rested," he says. His practice is so consistent, though, that most opponents believe he could arrive on time if he really wanted to and that the late arrivals are a psychological ploy designed to intimidate opponents. By arriving so (ate, Hellmuth is, in effect, announcing, "I don't need as many starting chips as you do to beat you." Once a wag criticized a late-starting tournament by saying "This tournament started so late, Phil Hellmuth was on time."

The rest isn't worthless, of course, but it's hard to put a price on psychological dominance. Beginners are well-advised not to try this one.