Decision-Based Thinking

If you have discussed poker with an experienced player, you may have heard about the concept of being decision-based, rather than results-based. It’s a concept that eludes many new players, but it is essential to learn if you are hoping to become adept at the game of poker.

Results-based players are simply players who focus on the result of a game or hand, rather than the decisions that they made to get themselves there. If a hand ends up in a win, the results-based player is pleased with his or her play. If it ends in a loss, the results-based player is unhappy and believes that he must not be playing well. In the end, the results-based player may even fool himself or herself by believing that (a) they are great, when they are not, or (b) that they are playing poorly, when they are not. Both traps are equally as dangerous and will prevent the player from advancing their game and improving their play,

In contrast, decision-based players are more focused on whether the decisions they made in a given session were correct. If a player makes the right play, but gets the wrong result (i.e., lose the hand) the decision-based player can still feel pride in the hand or play. If a player makes a terrible play but gets lucky, the decision-based player can still learn from the hand and use it to improve his game, rather than accepting blindly that he played well because he won the hand.

How it works

A fine example can be seen from a hand of No Limit Texas Hold’em I played in the Tropicana Casino Hotel in Atlantic City several years ago. Fortunately, I still remember the hand because of an old blog post.

It was my first hand of the session, and one of my first hands ever of live Texas Hold’Em in a casino setting. I bought in for $120 in the $1/2 game, since I was still learning the ropes of the game. I was initially ecstatic when I was immediately dealt AA. It was like fate was smiling upon me. I couldn’t lose!

I was two seats to the left of the big blind, so I was second to act when the action started. I opted for a modest raise to $7. There were three callers before a player who I nicknamed Sloppy Joe (because he was overweight and had a sloppy demeanor) raised from the button to $20. At that point, I re-raised another $20 on top, and all players except Sloppy Joe folded. The pot was just under $100.

The flop was 3 8 T, rainbow (i.e., all of different suits). It seemed like an ideal flop for my strong AA. I decided to lead out the betting for another $20. Sloppy Joe was shortstacked and raised me for the rest of his stack, an extra $26. I called...and he showed pocket tens, for a flopped top set (T T T). The turn and river did not help me and I lost the greater portion of my stack.

It was a difficult loss for a new player, and I spent a lot of time going through the hand to figure out where I went wrong. After a while, I came to the conclusion that the results were bad, but overall, my play was good. I had to ignore that nagging part of me that wanted to be results-based (I lost, therefore I played poorly) and I had to concentrate on the part of me that was decision-based (did I make the right plays?).

Preflop, my initial raise was a tad small, but that is more of a reflection on my lack of experience with bet-sizing, particularly in a live game. Still, that decision worked out well, since I was early position, and a player in late position raised me.

My re-raise was excellent. I did not want to play AA against four players (too many chances to lose), but I also did not want to lose all of my opponents (I wanted value for my AA). So, the raise to $20 was perfectly sized, insofar as it made it too expensive for the $7 callers to call (an additional $33, facing two raisers is scary) and too cheap for Sloppy Joe to fold ($20 more after he already invested $20 into the $60+ pot). I wanted to be heads-up, and I got what I wanted, all due to good decisions.

When the flop came down, there was really no reason for me to be overly scared. Other than the possibility of a set, I could beat anything my opponent held. So the bet of $20 was actually a good bet, because it would keep him in the pot. If I made a mistake it was twofold: (a) I could have tried harder to read my opponent for strength post-flop, and (b) I should have noticed that he only had $46 left. Given the amount of chips he had left, I probably could have checked to him to get all his money in the middle. Granted, the result would have been the same, but I believe that if I checked to him, he would bluff with any two cards, likely for his whole stack. So, given the range of cards he may have had (which included everything from AK to QQ to TT), my best strategy would’ve been to give him the opportunity to bet.

Once he pushed all-in though, I believe the call was warranted. The sum was small, $26 into an approximately $150 pot, and he was just as likely to have pushed with KK than with TT. In fact, with the T on the board, KK was statistically more likely than TT.

So, I lost the hand. The important thing, though, is not the loss, since that is only a result. The important thing is the decision-making process. Here, most of my decisions were correct; others are questionable. In either scenario, I lose the same amount, but the decision-making process is the crucial element, because next time, when my opponent does not hit his top set, I will make more money because of my altered strategy.

Think about decision

Next time you lose a hand or a tournament, take a deep breath and think about your decisions, not the results. You can do everything right in poker and still lose. You can do everything wrong and still win. But if you focus on doing everything right, you will win more than you lose. If all you focus on is results, improvement will not come and you will always be at the sole mercy of Lady Luck.


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