Poker, Pavlov’s Dog and Me

After stuffing myself Thanksgiving Day with oysters on the half shell, crab legs, chilled shrimp, shrimp sautéed in chili sauce, frog legs, and Peking duck, I relaxed in our Panama City hotel room by watching a rerun of the 2009 Foxwoods World Poker Tour final table. I’d not seen it before and it became heads up between Russian émigré Vadim Trincher and Amnon Filippi.

It didn’t take me too long to decide that the Russian would win. Because I notice that he’s playing “rope a dope” with Filippi.  Trincher is an aggressive player, often raising with nothing.

But I notice that when he hits a big hand, he checks. Filippi might check once after that, but if Trincher checks again, then Filippi makes a big bet. Which Trincher then re-raises big. You’d think that Filippi would have noticed the “tell” but he never did. And so the Russian did win the tournament.

Filippi apparently did not remember Pavlov….

Although I was never interested in “hard” science at any time during my formal education, I did take notice of  “Pavlov’s dog” (actually, dogs) when that subject arose.  The idea that folks’ behavior could be conditioned was intriguing to me because it counters the ideas of free will, rationality and similar concepts.  The lesson I learned from Pavlov’s dog is that there are techniques which can be used to “control” people.  And in poker, control is very important. Often, even more important than your hand.

So how does Pavlov’s dog have relevance for poker? It’s been said that there are at least three levels of poker play.  The first level is when you focus only on the cards and hand you have or are trying to draw to.  The second level is when you begin to consider what cards and hands the other players may have. The third level is when you think about what the other players think you have.

It is at that third level where the principles of behavior conditioning come into play.  Because if you can control what other players think you have, then you have significant influence over them. I’ve incorporated behavior conditioning into my poker play and it seems to be successful.

For Pavlov’s dog principles to be effective, you need a somewhat controlled environment. That’s why I play only single table tournaments.  Unlike multi-table tournaments, where new folks come to the table as the number of players drops, there are only nine players in a single table tournament.  No new players will join the table as players are eliminated.

The static nature of the table allows me to observe  the other players’ style of play over the course of the tournament.  The patterns I detect in their style of play will help me decide how to respond to them towards the end of the tournament, when the pots are very large and one good (or bad) hand can have a huge influence on whether I finish “in the money” or not.

Of course, the other players are observing me too.  So, my style of play changes as the tournament progresses and blinds (forced minimum bets) get larger and larger. Some players may detect that change; many do not until it is fatal for at least one of them.

Once the table recognizes my playing style, the players will change their play towards me. Once I realize they are playing differently (which is exactly what I want), I then change my play again to take advantage of their new behavior.  Deception is key in poker.

My initial play is very conservative.  With a  full table and low blinds which encourage many players to come into a hand, there is simply too wide a range of hands to be comfortable playing anything less than super premium hands, especially if there’s a raise. So if I don’t have a large pair, or can play a small pair or at least A-10 for just the blind, then I’m folding.  Consequently, I’m usually folding in the early part of the tournament.

The other players of course notice that.  They mentally note that I’m a “rock” who only plays top hands.  But a good starting hand may not be good after the flop. If I play a hand, the more aggressive players will then test me post flop if they hit middle or bottom pair, or even just a flush or straight draw.  Especially if I’m first to act and just check. They think: he missed top pair or he’d have bet, so let me bet into him and see what he does.

And if I don’t have top pair, or a flush or straight draw, I do fold.  And on a flush/straight draw, I need “pot odds”…. a pot four times larger than what I need to call a bet since the mathematical odds of making that straight or draw is 1 in 4.  If I have to call a bet of 50 for a pot of 100, then I’m going against the pot odds.

My response to a “push” gets noticed. They think: here’s a guy who’ll fold if I just bet into him. If I have a straight/flush draw post flop, I may call.  At the turn, the player will bet into me again if I check. The bet will often be larger than the first one because that player senses weakness, especially since I’ve checked again.  That larger bet will often not give me the pot odds I need to call if I’m just on a draw.  So I fold.

The table is observing my play and making conclusions. I will fold either at the first or second bet after checking. I encourage that thinking. After calling a bet of 10 or 20 post flop, I have no problem folding to another or larger bet because that’s not a lot of chips lost.  I’m laying a trap for later in the tournament when the pots will be much larger.

After about two players have been eliminated, I begin to play less conservatively.  With only seven players, the range of possible starting hands narrows.  With seven players you have a  near “perfect” (theoretically) distribution of cards.  There will be one Ace (four aces divided by 52 cards equals one Ace for every 13 cards dealt and with seven players there are 14 cards on the table). And if I have that Ace…..

This is the time I begin laying a trap for the aggressive players I’ve conditioned to believe can bet me out of the hand.  By this time, the minimum bets are often around 30 or 50.  If I hold two suited cards, one of them an Ace, I have a nice hand. I can flop the top flush, a flush draw
or another Ace.

Let’s say I flop a flush draw.  If I’m first to act, I’ll check.  The aggressive player will now bet into me. If I can get at least 3-1 pot odds, I’ll call but only after “thinking about it” for at least half of my allotted time.  The other player interprets this as weakness because if I had a strong hand I “should” call faster.

I’m intentionally encouraging that thinking by delaying the call. (Over half the players I encounter do not seem to understand that if there is a flush or straight draw on the flop, and you’re not the one who can draw it, you need to bet large enough, typically at least half the current pot, to deny a drawing player the proper pot odds.)

If the turn doesn’t give me the flush or an Ace (assuming there was no Ace on the flop), and the other player doesn’t now give me the proper pot odds, I’m going to fold. But only after “thinking about it” again so I reinforce the idea that I can be pushed out of a hand with a large enough bet. If I have at least a pair of Aces by now, I’ll just call. (But if there’s a flush or straight draw that someone else can have, I bet or raise just enough to deny pot odds.)

At some point, I will make that top flush or straight or other top hand on the turn or, If I‘m really lucky, on the flop. Then, I will check.  Because I’ve conditioned the table, someone will bet into me.  The trap is closing.

I will “think about it” as I’ve always done before calling. After the next card, the other player will bet more, expecting the fold. I will again “think about it” before calling.  After the last card comes up, the other player will normally make an even larger bet, expecting the fold to which he’s been conditioned.  I will “think about it” before raising.

Most players will not “believe” me in this situation. I’ve always folded.  They think that I’m trying to bluff because I’ve been losing chips hand after hand and need chips. They will often re-raise. After more “thinking” I’ll put in all my chips. They will too and that will either take them out of the tournament or fatally cripple them for some one else to administer the “coup de gras.”

A variant of this play if I have the top hand is to place a minimum bet (not more than about a quarter of the current pot)  after the last card.  Most players will interpret that as a “feeler” bet, especially if there’s a “big” hand  on the board, such as a straight or flush.  Most folks with the best hand will place a large bet with such a hand, which of course ‘signals” they have the hand. (Others will place that bet when they’re bluffing, only to be taken out by the player who does have that hand.)

Often, a player with the second best hand will think their hand is best and raise.  Then, I can re-raise the same amount, which will normally at least be called since it is such a small amount relative to the total pot. If I’m lucky, the other player will re-raise me even more.  My objective, of course, is to induce the player into putting a lot of chips into the pot.

The “popular” thinking is that “aggressive” play is what wins hands.  Up until I spring that first big trap, I want to encourage aggressive players to believe that big bets will get me to fold. It is a form of “judo” poker, where I use the inertia of an aggressive player to “flip” that player.  And it almost always works because at least one player has been conditioned by my previous pattern of folding to big bets.

That one hand will usually take me into the top three in chips.  The table will be stunned.  I’m a trapper!

They will erase all mental notes about my being “easy” and now be very cautious when I start calling.  They do not want what happened to the other player to happen to them. They are attempting to respond to the previous conditioning, but it is a response I want and which I am literally betting on and so it is a new conditioning.

Now that they’re playing conservatively against me, I can begin to play aggressively towards them.  If I’m first to act and flop middle pair, or I’m last to act and the others all check, I’ll bet.  The table now believes I’ve got top pair and will often fold.

If I get do a call, I can check after the next card no matter what “position” (order of acting) I have.  Players who have to act before me will be afraid to bet because I bet into them last round and I don’t do that unless I have a strong hand because I’m a ‘rock.”  If I act early and check, they think I’m laying a trap as I did with that first player I whacked.  They think: he wants me to bet into him so he can raise me (a “check-raise” ploy) but I’ll not be suckered….

I’m where I want to be:  I’m controlling the table. I have a significant psychological advantage over them regardless of my cards.  Thank you Pavlov!

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6 responses to “Poker, Pavlov’s Dog and Me

  1. This is why I could never gamble. I don’t think my brain is sophisticated enough to manage a Pavlovian strategy! However, if I could put these principals to work in my marriage… 🙂

  2. I never really learned poker, but wish I did. I think it is so much more complex than people give it credit for

    • Poker is indeed very complex; there is a huge psychological component which was the focus of this post.

      I saw Daniel Negranu play a WPT tournament years ago in Mississippi, where most of the players were “local” and he had a rough time with them. Since he had never played them before, he was unfamiliar with their style and they played in ways a “professional” would not. Since Daniel was initially looking at their play as professional, at first he was being bluffed out until he began to see how they were making mistakes and then adjusted his play accordingly.

  3. I agree with Edward G in Cincinnati Kid, “poker is all about making the wrong move at the right time.”

    Your Thanksgiving feast sounded marvelous.

    • > poker is all about making the wrong move at the right time.”

      LOL! First time I’ve heard that…. So true.

      I will soon be posting about some good Tampa restaurants I’ve enjoyed during day trips there over the last few months.

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