WHAT POKER IS: The Art of Folding

This may sound like an oddly worded section, but it is far from unimportant. What must a fold accomplish?

A fold must occur when your equity in the pot versus your opponent’s most likely hand range is less than the price the pot is laying you. While that sounds simple, the art of folding confounds many “professional” poker players. You’ll often hear them say phrases such as, “You can’t win if you fold.” They assume that any time chips are being slid over to their opponent that they did something wrong. Nothing could be further than the truth. In the words of Phil Galfond, “One way to exploit your opponents is to fold.”

Have you ever flopped four of a kind and had no one put a chip in? Maybe it was a multiway pot and you checked all the way to the river, and they wouldn’t even call a one-eighth pot-sized bet. You probably were none too happy to have your opponents fold versus your range. These opponents exploited your range by giving you nothing for it. Remember our deconstruction of what poker was, where we carefully changed our coinflipping game into a card game? Do you recall how you were still making money when there was no forced bet by just playing the best hands?

There is a nasty secret many younger No Limit Hold ‘Em players don’t want to know – tight players win for a reason. In many cash games your forced blind bets are so small compared to your stack that you can afford to wait for a very long time. Of course, you need to keep up appearances. People should not think you’re only playing premiums. However, you can give off the impression that you’re in more pots than in actuality by talking it up between hands. You can play drawing hands and only continue if you hit gin. You can make small bluffs and eject if you run into any resistance.

This is a proven strategy for winning at poker. It’s not immensely profitable, nor will it launch you to the upper echelon, but it is effective. What all the Gus Hansen imitators do is much more difficult: they play every pot to inform everyone that they’re good enough to do so. This requires a far more calibrated game-playing style, which most of these players quite frankly do not possess.

A professional poker player I greatly admire once said, “I love folding. It paid for college. It helped me buy my band’s equipment. It did everything for me.” I’d never heard it worded in this fashion, but he’s right. The basis of a great poker game is patience. Even the best poker players fold preflop more than 70% of the time! That doesn’t even count all the times they get to a flop and just let it go to a single bet.

Many of the great rounders can sense something has gone awry and not even bother to fire a continuation bet. They see the flop is perfect for their opponent’s range, they’ve butted into a multiway pot with no equity, or for whatever reason they decide to check and fold. The amateur sees this as weak. He should protect his investment by firing out something! The astute professional understands that a dollar saved is just as capable of buying his daughter’s braces as the dollar earned.

I can attest from personal experience that folding is the way to make money at poker. When I began playing I knew next to nothing about the game. I lost frequently. Frustrated, I bought some of my first poker books. Since this was 2005 they were predictably basic. First I decided to try a simple strategy, with the idea that I could expand it once I’d mastered the fundamentals. If I tried to do everything at once I didn’t know if I’d ever learn anything. It seemed too overwhelming.

To my shock playing only the top 20 hands in No Limit Hold ‘Em brought me huge profits! I didn’t even know what to do with them and just fired until I met resistance or the board became horrible. As I moved into overseas condos and traveled the world my playing style didn’t change much. I was a nut peddler and proud of it. It wasn’t till I made a clean break from this style that I acquired my first real losses. Professionals told me at the time that I couldn’t fold certain hands, that they just had too much equity to throw into the muck. Even when I wanted to because I sensed something was up they’d curse me out for not getting the money in.

Unfortunately, some of these people were my investors, so I didn’t have a choice but to comply with their advice. I lost incredibly. Once I did get out of makeup and had some of my own money I decided to play in my own style. I’d noticed everybody had become a nit and decided to try to win every pot by bluffing. Because of my prior tight image I made large amounts at the beginning… then I couldn’t stop losing.

Now, I’ve come to a happy medium, the place where most professional poker players find themselves. I don’t enter many pots, but when I do I have a clear idea of how to win them. Nobody can bluff me indiscriminately because I fold so much. They know it’s statistically unlikely I have nothing, which allows me to steal pots a small percentage of the time. What if the player knows I’m employing such a strategy? What if the player remembers me from my wilder days? I fold more. I bring a Gatling gun to a knife fight when I finally do enter. All roads lead to folding. Be proud of your patience, and do it as much as possible.

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