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The Pitfall of Discomfort in Poker

December 10, 2019
by Pete Clarke

In these articles, I frequently share my experiences from coaching the game day in day out and today is no different. Students often refuse to make what is quite plainly the best play due to their dislike of the type of spots and pot-sizes that can arise by doing so.

Branches and Trees

First, some jargon. Let’s call the sum of all the different outcomes of a hand the ‘tree’. We shall refer to each possible outcome at each juncture on the tree as a ‘branch’. In this language, the tree of 4-betting KK pre-flop is a very positive one, but there are some rare branches that are very negative, namely when we run into AA. The point is that a single branch is just one possibility out of many, where as the tree is the overall situation. It is a thought process crime to make decisions based on just one branch while neglecting the bigger picture, but this is what students do every day. What causes them to commit such madness you might ask? Emotions – and in particular – fear, which is designed to keep us alive and is, therefore, the most influential emotion of them all. Now, let’s see a few examples of this leak.

Flop Passivity

Yesterday I had a lesson with a student where we focussed on rewiring his thought process from branch focus to overall tree focus. In one hand, my student’s discomfort caused him to make a mistake on the flop. Hero opened in the CO with J10 and a weaker player who had been passive and call-happy came along on the BU. The blinds folded.

The flop came down 1064 and Hero checked. Let’s start by quantifying why this is a clear mistake. Against a more aggressive recreational player, and even against a regular, we would expect Villain to fire quite a lot when checked to and our hand would perform well as a bluff catcher with our T serving as a very good blocker to sets and better top pair. In this case, checking would be fine. However, this opponent had been a passive calling-station thus far meaning that he was keen to stay in hands, but not to force action. Consequently, when we check here, Villain is likely to bet with a strong range and simply check behind to take free cards when he is weak. This completely devalues the idea of bluff-catching and gives up a lot of equity realisation to Villain. When our hand is vulnerable to a myriad of overcards and gutshots, it is vital that we protect our hand against players who will not do the betting for us.

So why did my student check? In his own words:

“I thought that if I bet, it would be terrible if Villain called and then a bad turn came and I checked, and then he made a big bet that I’d probably have to fold to.”

It would indeed be a bad result if this happened, but such an outcome is a tiny branch on the overall tree that happens hardly ever. Firstly, Villain must call the flop for this to be possible (which is clearly not a bad thing in most cases). Secondly the turn card must be something that hurts our equity like an Ace. There are relatively few bad turns for us here. Thirdly, after we check, Villain must then make a big bet. That’s three specific things that need to happen in quick succession for the student’s paranoid nightmare to come true, so why does his brain focus on just this one rare scenario; is he crazy?

Far from it. He’s behaving as many less experienced players behave. When our logical ability is not yet good enough to see the spot clearly, we often let our emotions do the reasoning for us. The mind logs the unpleasant events that happen to us from time to time because one of its innate functions is to protect us from danger. Therefore, my student scans for the ugliest branches first and makes shortsighted decisions based solely on those.

Fear of Bluffing

Later in the day, I worked with a different student who had been running bad lately. He described having recently experienced the type of variance where it feels like all your bluffs are getting called. We then looked at a hand where Hero was the BU aggressor with 109 against a BB caller. Having c-bet one third of the pot on K72 and getting called, Hero decided to check behind on the Q turn. I deemed this a small mistake because this hand is a very frequent double barrel in game theory. This is due to its inability to win at showdown but it’s four outs making it one of the more improvable semi-bluffs in our range – it is hard for us to have a lot of outs when we’re bluffing such a dry board. This does not mean we shouldn’t bluff. Villain should be folding plenty of his range on this card and many people fold more than would be optimal.

What was Hero’s reason for checking? Once again, fear and discomfort were to blame. My student explained:

“I felt as if my bluffs had just been burning money all day and didn’t want to go through that again.”

Once again, here, we see the brain using negative memories as reasons to avoid similar situations in the future. This is a process that protects us very well in most real-life situations, but in poker, it’s a very unhealthy way to think. Logically, my student understood that chance has no memory and running into his opponents’ calling ranges in similar spots that day had no effect on the likelihood of doing so again. Yet, his subconscious was hellbent on avoiding discomfort.


Watch out for discomfort-based leaks in your own game. They are largely based off irrational fears and are certainly not statistical thoughts. As poker is a game of probabilities, we need to shun thoughts that radically prioritise rare outcomes and make them into the full story.

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