Last issue my article, “Thinking Like A Loser,” was about how players undermine themselves with some of their attitudes about the game. I singled out the ever-popular rationale for folding, “I decided to wait for a better spot.” In the vast majority of situations, waiting for a better spot is a nonsense concept, and I thought I’d devote an article to explain why.
Weighing Gain Against Loss
Let’s lay down some assumptions. Most people use the rationale, “I was waiting for a better spot,” to justify folding in a situation where they felt calling (or possibly raising) had more value. For example, “I really thought he was bluffing, but I decided to give him that pot and wait for a better spot.”
By definition, then, you think you are giving something up by folding. You don’t think he’s bluffing every once in a while. You think he’s bluffing so often that calling will make you money on average. But you’re folding anyway, presumably because you are averse to risking your entire stack. So what are you losing? You’re losing the share of the pot that would have been yours (on average) had you called. And what do you gain? You gain the piece of mind of knowing you won’t get stacked on this hand. If you weigh gain versus loss objectively in this scenario, you are losing much more by folding than you are gaining.
You win at poker by risking money in situations where you will profit on average. This is true when you’re risking just a $50 flop call, and it’s true when you’re risking your $800 stack. You risk money in favorable situations, situations where playing gets you more money back on average than folding does. Nothing changes just because your stack is at risk and you aren’t a lock to win. If you win more money on average by playing than by folding, then playing is virtually always the best play. It’s really that simple.
Cash Game Excuses
But Ed, you may be thinking, I can think of many scenarios where you’re better off not taking the gamble. I disagree. I won’t say it’s impossible to find such a situation in a cash game, but they are rare—rare enough that you can play for a hundred hours and never once be correct to “wait for a better spot.” I’ll discuss two of the false scenarios.
1. You’re in the hand with a bad player and you’re worried that if you break him (or double him up) he’ll leave the game.
Ok. If you somehow knew for certain that your target would leave if he busted/doubled up, and if you knew that your target would stay in the game for a certain period of time if you folded, and if you knew that a much stronger player would replace your target if he were to leave, then keeping him in the game would have some quantifiable value. However, even then the value of winning the current hand could be greater than all the possible future value you could extract from your target.
In practical terms, you can’t possible know all of that. You don’t know if a player will leave when he busts out, or if he will rebuy ten times. And even if you fold to wait for a better spot, your target could bust out to someone else on the very next hand and all your theoretical future winnings would go up in smoke. Moreover, if you play $1-$2 or $2-$5, chances are the next player on the list is nearly as bad as the player you’re worried about, so who cares if he leaves?
In the overwhelming majority of real-world scenarios, folding a good hand to try to keep a bad player in the game is a fool’s plan. It’s a case of a bird in the hand almost always being worth more than two in the bush.
2. But I’ve built a stack much larger than the buy-in cap, and if I lose the hand I won’t be able to rebuy what I’ve lost.
This is another excuse that could possibly have merit if all the pieces were to fall into place, but that in the vast majority of real-world circumstances ends up being a lot of hot air.
You have $2,000 in a $2-$5 game. The buy-in cap is $1,000. If you lose the hand, you can’t rebuy. When does this hurt you? It hurts you only if:
- A particularly bad player at your table also has $2,000.
- This particularly bad player doesn’t decide to blow off his stack to someone else on the next hand or just get up and leave. (See above.)
Just having a big stack by itself isn’t worth anything. You need someone else to have a big stack with you, and that person needs to be bad. That person also needs to play long enough with the big stack for you to get a good shot at winning it.
In most cases, you’re better off gambling on your current hand rather than playing for some theoretical future hand that most likely won’t materialize.
Waiting for a better spot is nearly always a bad idea in a cash game. Because you can always rebuy, it takes a truly extraordinary circumstance to justify passing on a winning situation in the hope that an even better one comes along.
In tournaments, waiting for a better spot more often has merit. But even in tournaments, “I’m waiting for a better spot” is usually just a flimsy rationalization for timid play.
Say you’ve just entered a major tournament with lots of entrants. Before the first hand, the tournament director offers to let you flip a coin. If it lands heads, he’ll double your starting stack. If it lands tails, you’re out. Most players would never dream of taking the gamble, but mathematically flipping is basically just as good as not. Now say instead of flipping a coin, the tournament director let you run pocket queens against ace-king for double or nothing. I’d guess that still most tournament players would turn it down, even as a 56/44 favorite, wanting to “wait for a better spot.” But this is a gamble everyone should take. In a large field, a double stack is worth twice a single stack, and 56/44 is a huge edge on an even money proposition.
More generally, during the early and middle stages of a tournament when the prizes are still far off, “waiting for a better spot” is typically as bad an idea as it is in a cash game.
If you are fond of folding in tough situations, rethink your strategy. I’m not arguing for or against folding, just that you shouldn’t play timidly. If you think your opponent is bluffing, don’t fold, waiting for a better spot. Take a chance. It’s how you become a better player.
[This article appeared in the December 29, 2010 issue (Vol. 23, No. 26) of Card Player.]