Commitment and consistency
On last week's first installment of the Poker Edge show for ESPNRadio.com, Andrew Feldman (or should that be "Feltman"?) and I spoke at length about bluffing. I've even written about it before in my column here. Although we nailed the first show, something was missing in our discussion about bluffing that I want to get right.
One of my favorite books is Robert Cialdini's important work, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion." In my mind, it is a must read for all serious poker players. In this book, Cialdini explains the principles at work in getting people to do what you want them to do. I use the techniques in the book at the table all the time: I get my opponents to fold when they have the best hand and I get them to call or bet when I have the best hand. Influence -- nothing could be more important at the poker table. One of the principles, what Cialdini calls "Commitment and Consistency" is vital when playing no-limit hold 'em. I commit to a plan and then I do my best to ensure that my bets are consistent with the hand I'm representing. Howard Lederer summed up C&C very nicely a few weeks ago when we were talking about Phil Ivey: "Phil can play any two cards like they are pocket aces. Once he plays a hand, his bets are completely consistent -- the bets tell a believable story." Telling a story is all about getting the details right. If there is even a small part of the story that is inconsistent, your opponents will catch on.
Consider a hand I recently played on Full Tilt Poker. It was a six-handed no-limit hold 'em game, $5 and $10 blinds, and I'd been running pretty good -- I had about $1,500 in front of me and I hadn't shown down a loser in about 30 minutes. My opponents were very capable players for the most part.
Everyone folded to me on the button and I found 8c-5c. Not a great hand, for sure, but I decided that I would try to steal the blinds. I hit the "Bet Pot" button and raised to $35. The small blind folded and the big blind, a little looser than the rest of the players at the table, called the raise. He had about $1,000 left.
There was $75 in the pot, and the flop was not at all pretty for me: Jd-8h-2c.
This is good news, bad news. The good news is I made a pair on the flop, something that will happen only about one out of three times my hole cards are unpaired. The bad news is that it seems like my opponent likes his hand as well. He bet $35, a little less than half the pot, bringing the total to $110. The action was on me.
Mentally, I committed to telling a consistent story. I was the preflop raiser, and I would take back control of the betting. There is no way in the world this player slowplayed A-A, K-K, Q-Q or J-J. If I had one of those hands, I definitely would have the best hand. I raised before the flop, and I can represent that hand right now if my betting is consistent.
I thought to myself, "How much would I raise if I had A-A here?" Well, the board is not at all scary -- it is very disconnected. There are no flush draws, only a few straight draws that make sense, and it's very unlikely my opponent has top pair (jacks) with an ace kicker, a hand he'd probably move all-in over the top of me with (he didn't reraise before the flop). With all that in mind, and $110 in the pot, a raise of about $80 seemed about right. That's what I'd bet if I had pocket aces. I raised.
My opponent called, not at all what I expected. He must have a hand like J-10, Q-J, J-9, 10-9, or K-J, or a stubborn A-8. He might also have a gutshot like Q-10, Q-9 or 9-7 and be trying to make a move. Nothing else makes much sense.
I held my breath and prayed for an 8 or 5 on the turn, with the five being most likely to be the best card that could come for me. Instead, the 3 of diamonds came on the turn. That card is very unlikely to have helped my opponent, who thought for a few seconds and checked to me.
The pot is $270, and the board is Jd-8h-2c-3d.
This is a good thing. When he checked, I know I can win this pot. I have control of the betting, position, and thus far I've told a consistent story. Again, I thought, "How much would I bet with A-A here?" and I decided that number would be about half the pot, $135. I bet, and once again, my opponent called, and rather quickly at that, bringing the pot to $540. Yes, I've invested $270 with this piece-of-crap 8-5 suited. I'm aware.
The river came the 3 of spades which was, in my mind, a very good river card. That card will allow me to continue my consistent bets. There is just no way that card helped my opponent.
The pot is $540, and the board is Jd-8h-2c-3d-3s.
I was thinking about how much I was going to bet on the river when my opponent surprised me and bet $200. I did not expect that, and something smelled like rotten tuna:
• I raised preflop, he called out of position. I've been playing tight, he's a little loose.
• He bet the flop, I raised, he called.
• He checked the turn, I bet, he called.
• He under-bet the pot on the river with a bet of $200.
This smells like a bluff: nothing about my opponent's betting is consistent. Notice how he gave up control of the betting after my postflop bet and on the turn. Now he comes to life when there is no real plausible way for that 3 to have helped his hand? No, this smelled like a bluff, and a pretty poor attempt at a bluff at that. A lot of loose players make this kind of play to "slow down" their opponent when they are afraid of a very big bet. I really felt like this was one of those times. I decided to tell a consistent story: the big premium pair in the hole like I'd represented from the first action in the hand.
"How much would I raise if I had A-A here?" I asked myself again for the third time this hand. I decided I would raise to about $600. I'd make it look like I was begging for a call. I gathered some courage (definitely a prerequisite when about to put $600 into the pot with the second pair and no kicker), and made the play.
My opponent hemmed and hawed. Finally, he was giving my set of plays ample consideration -- this is a really good thing, by the way. I want him to think about my hand -- not the hand that I have, but the hand that I've represented. At this point, believe it or not, there is nothing bad that can happen to me:
1. My opponent folds and I win the pot. 2. My opponent calls with a hand like Q-J and wins the pot, but that will pretty much ensure that I'll be able to win all the chips back and more without much effort.
With that in mind, it really doesn't matter what happened. I played the hand well by committing to a plan of action and betting in a consistent manner with the hand I represented. I fired four bullets at the pot -- if my gun needed a reload, I'd be simply the "Cashier's Button" away from back in action.
From the back cover of the book:
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Robert B. Cialdini, PH.D.
" with more than one quarter of a million copies sold worldwide, Influence has established itself as the most important book on persuasion ever published. In it, distinguished psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D., explains why some people are remarkably persuasive and how you can beat them at their own game. You'll learn the six psychological secrets behind our powerful impulse to comply, how skilled persuaders use them without detection, how to defend yourself against them -- and how to put those secrets to work on your own behalf. This indispensable book guarantees two things: You'll never again say "yes" when you really mean "no" and you'll make yourself more influential than ever before. "
Phil Gordon is a World Poker Tour champion, co-host of The Poker Edge on ESPNRadio.com and plays online exclusively at FullTiltPoker. Phil Gordon's educational poker DVD, "Final Table Poker", is available at ExpertInsight.net and his "Little Green Book" is available now.