We all acknowledge that poker is a game of skill, but because of the uniqueness of each situation, we can often miscalculate our own skill when self assessing. I'm sure you have seen a bad player turn his hand into a bluff with no real idea why he's betting, have it work out, then pat himself on the back for his great play because it worked out in his favor. When the circumstances are right, turning a marginal hand into a bluff can be a very effective, high-level play. However, it can also be done randomly in spots by a bad player who doesn't know what to do. Without knowing what to do, he then bets or raises as a default.
So what is the difference between the skilled player that turns his hand into a bluff and gets his opponent to make the tough laydown and the bad player that accidentally wins the pot? If you guessed "intention," then you are correct.
The skilled player made an assessment of his opponent's range, analyzed how he would react to aggression, and then acted in a manner to get the desired result. The bad player acted on his emotions. He wanted a certain result to be achieved, didn't know how to achieve it, and reacted according to his feelings, which can result in any number of ways.
Let's look at an example so you can see what I'm talking about:
Hero opens to $30 at a $5/$10 table with an effective stack of $1,000 holding pocket sixes in middle position. Villain calls in the cutoff. The flop is . Hero continuation bets $40, and Villain calls. The turn is a . Hero checks, and Villain checks behind. The river is a , and Hero decides to turn his hand into a bluff and bet three-quarters of the pot. In this example, Hero is putting his opponent on some type of one-pair hand no better than tens. Hero realizes it is easier to represent a broadway combo that improved than it is for Villain to do the same. So, Hero took the opportunity to bet in order to get those one-pair hands — the ones that beat his pair of sixes — to fold.
On the flipside, a bad player could actually play his hand the exact same way, but his thought process would look something like this in his head: "I have pocket sixes. That's a pair, so I raise." The flop is . "I don't think he caught any of that. I'll bet $40." The opponent calls. The turn is a . "That's another overcard. There are so many hands that beat me now. I'll check." The opponent checks. The river is a . "He checked, so I can win if I bet. I'll bet $110." The opponent folds. "I did it!"
As you see in this example, there were a few flaws in the bad player's thought processes, but it did not hurt him in this hand. The over card queen on the turn was not a scare card because it hits very little of his opponent's range. He also did not think through what his opponent's range on the river was. He just simply reacted to his opponent checking back on the turn. Had the opponent bet the queen against the bad player, he would've been able to win the pot (especially if he was willing to follow up his aggression with another bet on the river) even though his line represents only a small range in reality.
Now, let's take a look at an example that shows how these leaks could cost money.
Hero opens to $30 at $5/$10 with an effective stack of $1,000 holding pocket threes from middle position. Villain calls from the cutoff. The flop comes . Hero continuation bets $40. Villain calls. The turn is an . Hero checks, and Villain checks. The river is a . Hero checks, and Villain checks. Villain shows pocket fives and beats us.
For the bad player, his thought process is as follows: "I have pocket threes. That's a pair. I raise." The flop comes is . "I don't think he caught any of that. I'll bet $40." The opponent calls. The turn is an . Now stop the tape.
From here, I have seen this play out two different ways. Either the bad player bets the turn because they think, "I still don't think he has any of that, and I want to find out where I'm at." And then the bad player will check the river when they realize they're probably beat. Or instead, the bad player will check the turn, and if the opponent checks behind, the bad player will bet the river. The reasoning for this river bet will be similar to the reasoning in the first example. The bad player is unable to see the differences in board textures, which affects the opponent's range in this situation. As you can see, either way the bad player is going to lose an extra street of value because of these flawed thought processes being exposed.
Everyone has tendencies similar to the "bad player" I've talked about, and I made these examples extreme to highlight my point. Sometimes you can get away with flawed thought processes, but over time, it will cost you money. Make sure that when you are self assessing, you do not place too much stock in the end result. Remember, poker is a game for the long run, and making the correct decisions over time will turn you into a profitable player. Being results oriented in the short term will do the opposite.
David Randall is an instructor for Pocket Fives Training and has shot over 100 hours of instructional video and coached over 120 students privately. His most recent project is called 3D Poker Training, which is centered around hosting poker camps in Europe alongside, Sorel Mizzi. The next camp begins October 4th in London. The 3D Poker Training method teaches players to develop adaptive thinking using interactive questions and examples from actual hands students have played. If you are interested in learning from Randall, you can contact him via 3D Poker Training's Facebook page or at the 3D Poker Training website.