Taking Your Hands Off the Wheel by Barny Boatman

There’s no question that poker includes an element of gamble. Any time you risk something of value on an event with an uncertain outcome, you’re gambling. But there is a way in which poker is the exact opposite of gambling, because poker is all about making intelligent decisions. It’s all about control.

Gambling, in its purest form – buying a lottery ticket or backing a number on roulette – is to deliberately relinquish control of your money and leave the outcome to fate. If it’s your day, if the Gods so wish it, you will get lucky. In poker, on the other hand, you’re always striving to leave as little to chance as possible.

So how do you achieve control in tournament poker? Is it by avoiding gambles? By only playing strong starting cards? Only betting made hands and never bluffing or drawing? Of course not.

If you sit and wait for good hands all the way through a tournament then, like the roulette player keeping faith with their favorite number, you’re leaving the outcome to chance. The great paradox of tournament poker is that in order to stay in control you have, amongst other things, to choose the right moments to gamble.

If you’re doing 75 on the freeway and are just a few feet from the car in front of you, then even if you’re the world’s best driver, you’re out of control because if the car ahead suddenly brakes, you can’t avoid a crash. So it is with a stack which is too short to make opponents pass for a re-raise. Any time an opponent applies the brakes, your stacks will collide – at a time of their choosing – and you will need luck to survive.

In order to stay in control, you must strive to maintain a playable stack, which can mean pushing over the top of a late raise with the worst hand when you have a good chance of making your opponent fold. You don’t want to have to make this play, but you have to recognize when it’s the right time to put your chips in the pot. Too soon and it’s a reckless unnecessary risk. Too late, and it’s transparent and unlikely to work. Too often and you develop a credibility problem.

Sometimes your stack has gotten so low that you know you’ll be in a showdown the next time you enter a pot. The only control you have left is the choice of when to push, and even there you are running out of room to maneuver. Don’t just wait until you’re all-in on the big blind. Instead, look for situations where you’ll be in a showdown with the best possible ratio of chips to opponents, and where your cards are liable to be live. A well-timed gamble will give you a shot at regaining a playable stack.

Some very good tournament players deliberately seek early gambles in big pots; happy to get all their chips in at the first level with a flush draw against two pair, because they feel the edge and extra control a big stack would give them is worth that early risk. That wouldn’t be my approach in a deep stack event, but I understand the reasoning behind that style of play.

In tournament poker the balance between gamble and control is constantly changing. Recognizing where you and your opponents are in this shifting landscape will help you make good decisions and give you a vital edge.

Barny Boatman