The Donkey In The Mirror: In Defense of Novice Poker Players

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Let’s begin this poker rant with a few examples:  What would your response be if the coach of an adult recreational basketball team came to you and said, “We played that high school basketball team ten times, and lost all ten times because they are such a horrible team.  They played by all the rules and had no unfair advantage over us, still, the only reason they won is because they kept getting lucky with half court shots at the end of the game.  They can’t play defense, their offensive schemes are atrocious, and they wouldn’t know a zone from a man-to-man, even if you tattooed a defensive playbook on their forehead.  We didn’t deserve to lose those ten straight games.  We are much smarter, faster, and better at this game than they are.  We only lost because they played so badly.  I realize other teams beat them consistently, but we can’t win because they play the game awkwardly.”

Any sane person would respond by laughing out loud.

Imagine an amateur boxer telling you one day that he lost 10 straight matches to a homeless guy who had never boxed before in his life.  “We fought in the boxing ring under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules, but he throws punches so awkwardly, and has such illogical footwork, that it was hard for me to time him with clean shots.  He would throw overhand rights from odd angles, catching me with lucky punches that I hadn’t trained for.  He’s the worse boxer I have ever seen in my life, but he beat me 10 straight times because he didn’t throw his punches at me in the way I wanted him to, in the way I had prepared for punches to come at me.  He’s not a better boxer than me, he only won those fights because he kept catching me with weird, non standard (but totally legal) punches that no other serious fighter would consider throwing.  He doesn’t deserve to be recognized for beating me 10 times because he didn’t fight in a way that caters to my strengths as a fighter.  If he started fighting the way I want him to, throwing punches in a way that allows me to predict his shot, I’d win all the time.  It doesn’t matter that other fighters know how to adjust to the homeless guy and win consistently, I just hate that he doesn’t fight in a way that allows my superior skills to defeat him.”

What would your honest response be to a fighter who contaminated your eardrums with this nonsense?

And lastly, imagine an NFL football team losing 10 straight games to a junior high school football team, while competing under NFL rules.  Imagine also that the NFL team played hard and competitively, treating their young opponents like division rivals, yet lost all ten times.  If a defensive lineman of the NFL team suddenly came up to you after the tenth loss and said, “We only lost because they kept doing silly trick plays on the offense.  We don’t do trick plays that much in the NFL.  It’s legal to do, and every NFL team does it sporadically, but these stubborn young brats kept doing Quarterback sneak plays, Fake field goal plays (like in September 30, 2012, Seahawks at Rams), Hidden Lineman plays (like in September 7, 2008, Seahawks at Bills), Reverse passes plays (like in February 5, 2006, Seahawks at Steelers), Fake spikes (like in November 27, 1994, Dolphins at Jets), Fake reverse hand-off (like in January 12, 2008, Jaguars at Patriots), Misdirection Punts (like in September 25, 2011, Packers at Bears), and even executed a version of the Music City Miracle (like in January 8, 2000, Bills at Titans).  These kids aren’t good football players, they just do so many trick plays, it’s hard for our defense to predict what’s gonna happen each play.  If they played in a normal way, in a way that allowed us to prepare for their offense and use our natural quickness, size, and experience to our advantage, then we wouldn’t have lost a single game.  But instead, these malnourished misfits kept playing in such a wild, unpredictable way that it threw off our defense, creating giant leaks for the kids to score easy touchdowns.  Our team is a far superior team to theirs, even though we are unable to beat them in an actual game.”

Be honest.  What would you say to someone with an excuses this absurd?  If any son in America had made even one of these excuses on Father’s day, every sports Dad worth his salt would’ve shut down the grill, set aside his beer, and given his future superstar athlete the classic “Man Up” speech.  Take responsibility for your shortcomings in life instead of blaming others.  Excuses will always be there for you to wallow in, Opportunity won’t.  Win and lose with class, not excuses.  Improve yourself, not your excuses.  Excuses is the park bench where sore losers slumber.

Why is it that we tolerate the same type excuses when it comes to the game of poker and poker players?  You can’t visit a poker forum online without stumbling over the hysterical ravings of some recreational poker player acting offended about losing to perceived “Donkeys.”  Stop by any YouTube poker channel and you will see the comments section spray painted with people blatantly calling professional poker players “garbage,” or even “fish.”  Take a tour of bar poker leagues across the country, and you will hear pseudo poker experts chastising new players, defiantly believing that the reason these rail vets never win is because the competition is so bad.

It’s almost as though they live in a fictitious, alternate universe where the most profitable form of poker is found against stiffer, more skilled and experienced players.  Their excuses seem to hint at a misunderstanding of the game of poker that’s completely devoid of facts and reality.  They sincerely believe that their best chance of winning in poker is against far superior talent such as Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, or Doug Polk.  I’ve actually heard poker players bust out of tournaments at the casino saying, “I can’t win against bad players.  I hate playing against players who don’t know how to play; I always lose.  I’d do better against Doyle Bronson because he knows how to play.”  Only in the universe of poker can a player admit that she can’t consistently beat newbies, yet follow that fact up with faux confidence that she’d fair better when matched up against a legend of the game.

I officially call B.S. on this line of poker reasoning.  If you can’t consistently beat beginner poker players over the long term, you are not as good or as skilled at the game of poker as you think you are. Period.

Doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read or how many poker buddies you have that pat you on the back for pulling off a few insane bluffs, if you are consistently getting crushed by people who don’t know how to play the game, you are a mediocre poker player at best.  Chances are, you haven’t divorced your ego from the game enough to learn how to adjust your skill-set to the table dynamics, learning how to use tools of the trade to implement pot control on wet flops and studying new players to discover what mistakes can be profitably exploited and what situations you should avoid to keep new players from realizing their full equity against you.

In poker, consistency matters because the long term matters.  You are either playing a certain situation profitably over the long term or you aren’t.  If you are always losing against worse players over the long term, you simply don’t have the skill edge over those players that you imagine you have.  You are fooling yourself into delusion of grandeur to think you are a far superior player, yet always losing to the same novice beginners.  If you play a hundred games against the same 20 new players, and rarely win, then that’s a sign that you have leaks in your game that you need to plug, leaks that reduce your supposed skill edge to zero. Instead of crying about someone calling your river bluff with bottom pair, (“I represented AK the entire hand,” you argue from the rail, “how could he call?”), ask yourself why you imagine yourself to be a great poker player but still haven’t learned that bluffing a calling station is generally unprofitable.

I’ve played in free poker leagues across the country, from Memphis to Atlanta, from Florida to California, and I’ve always found it counter productive to use the term “Donkey” or “Fish” to describe novice, non-standard poker players.   The terms are relative.  Anyone can be a “fish” or an exceedingly unprofitable player, depending on the skill level of the competition.  A guy who cleans up in one tournament against mediocre players can instantly be transformed into a “Fish” in another game if the the players are advanced enough.  I’m not sure the players who toss around these derogatory terms understand this basic poker fact.

A lot of players with armchair poker degrees seem to play systematically unprofitably against novice players.  They volunteer their chips into overly inflated pots pre-flop with marginal hands, they allow one bad beat to trick them into emotionally tilting, they respond to so-called “bad” play by playing worse themselves.  Oftentimes, there are fundamental leaks in our game that get exposed when we play novice players and lose consistently, but we can’t focus on fixing these problems if all our energy is aimed at insulting or degrading or blaming others for our losses.  That’s often why you will see players making the same identical mistakes against beginners, year after year after year, because they aren’t actually improving or adjusting or fine tuning their game, they are playing the same way every time, expecting different results.  It’s a form of poker insanity that gets obscured because, too often, it hides behind a barrage of insults and excuses.

Allow me to be clear.  New poker players are supposed to play “bad” and unprofitable poker.  And as a seasoned poker player, you are supposed to have developed the tools necessary to exploit their mistakes over the long term.  They are doing their job by playing unprofitably, so why aren’t you doing yours?

Is it possible that you don’t know how to truly exploit players’ mistakes?  Is it possible that you haven’t developed the tools necessary to play profitably on a consistent basis?  These are questions that force you to examine your game and make the appropriate changes.  Simply put, there’s a reason why you aren’t winning more consistently against novice players over the long term, and whining about imaginary “donkeys” under the bed won’t improve your game.

This also explains why these imaginary poker gurus hate keeping poker stats.  The numbers don’t lie.  These players are experts at losing tournaments and insulting new players, but utterly incapable of consistently winning over the long term.   I often tell my new poker players to ignore the temper tantrums of sore losers because if you keep a running tally of the win/losses, you’ll see that the complainers may appear pissed, but instead, they are actually more comfortable exiting poker tournaments early, because that’s all they’ve ever really experienced before.  Every blue moon these cry babies win 1 tournament out of 50, often by pure chance, and then mimic the comedic Al Bundy character, reliving that one win for multiple years afterwards.

Almost three years ago, a new player came to me after being insulted for cracking pocket aces with J7 offsuit.  I worked hard at that time to weed out self proclaimed poker savants from our league, as these type players aren’t interested in learning or having a good time, they only want their ego stroked at the table.  In response, I asked the new player to do me a favor and record how many times the perpetrator of the insults actually won a tournament.  In a year’s time, he never won a single tournament.  No more needed to be said or done.  At other times I encourage new players to have pity on these obnoxious complainers, as they are the miserable, experienced players who have been forced by their ego to consistently lose for a living, unable to soak in the full beauty of the game because victory is so painfully elusive for them.  It has to be terrifyingly humiliating to think you are so great at a a particular game, yet rarely ever never win at it.  They resort to these childish verbal attacks because they don’t know how to actually win on a consistent basis against players they are convinced are horrible.

Truth is, we’ve all been novices before.  The seasoned players who are able to humble themselves and remember back to that time are better equipped to understand the mindset of new players and adjust accordingly.  Sometimes there is no reason for a call preflop other than a gut feeling to novice players.  Add that random scenario into your range of possible hands the new player could have.  Tighten up your live reading skills a bit more, as novice players are notorious for giving off tells at the table.  The list is long, but most of them start with looking in the mirror and asking ourselves what we are doing in certain situations that keeps us from maximizing our profitability against new players.  That donkey we venomously accuse others of being might just appear, after a careful analysis of our own game, to stare back at us in the mirror.

Stay classy poker players.  Win or lose.



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