TV poker is for entertainment only

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching millions of hours of televised poker it’s that you should never learn the game from watching millions of hours of televised poker.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who bring up “moves” they’ve seen on their favorite poker show and wonder why those moves didn’t work when they tried them out at their local Florida poker room or home game or online.

If you’re listening intently to Mike Sexton on the World Poker Tour or Gabe Kaplan on High Stakes Poker as they break down a hand and explain why certain actions are being performed, that’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with taking their advice and translating that for your purposes. They are two of the best poker minds on the planet, and they usually give sound analysis. And don’t forget, these guys are in a studio and have oodles of time to get their thoughts together and to analyze the hands. Yes, Sexton is present during the final table, but that’s just to give the illusion that he’s calling that action “live” as he sits in the little booth with Vince Van Patten. Camera crews will capture some of their reactions to big hands and weave that into the program. But in actuality the production crew takes hours of footage, produces an episode and then Sexton and Van Patten get to sit in a studio, watch the program and make their remarks. You didn’t really think Van Patten’s quips were off the cuff, did you?

So, to merely watch tournament or cash-game hands unfold on TV and then incorporate some of those tactics into your game is just a recipe for disaster. Poker is on TV for one reason: entertainment. They’re only showing you what’s interesting, such as big bluffs and big pots. I’ve attended a few televised final tables and they can be quite boring. They last for hours and hours, yet you only see an hour or two on the tube. That’s called editing, and without it televised poker would likely have the same success as a Chevy Chase talk show.

What does this mean? Well, let’s say you saw Chris Moneymaker’s bluff of Sammy Farha during the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event on ESPN after his flush draw failed to get there. A huge bet on the river got the job done and you think, “Hmm, a big bet on the river when I miss my flush seems like a fool-proof plan. I think I’ll try it next time I play.” Then you enter your weekly tournament and four hands later your suited ace misses the flush on the river. Your opponent checks and you shove. He calls with top two pair and you go home with your wallet a little lighter.

“What happened?” you think to yourself. “I did what Moneymaker did. Why didn’t he lay his hand down?”

If you had seen every hand played at the WSOP final table you might have seen the hands where Moneymaker only showed Farha the nuts. And you weren’t privy to this little nugget of information: Before Moneymaker and Farha began heads-up play for the title, Moneymaker ran into Farha in the men’s room and tried to broker a deal that was very favorable to Farha. But Farha refused because he doesn’t like to chop and he felt he could outplay the amateur accountant from Tennessee. This is very important information that led to that successful bluff. Moneymaker knew Farha would think he would be too scared to pull off a bluff like that given the circumstances. So he decided to pull the trigger on the river, and it was the “bluff of the century” according to ESPN’s Norman Chad.

Did you have a history with your opponent? Were you playing for millions of dollars? Did this guy understand that you only shove with the nuts? Of course your answer is “no” to all three of these questions, which is why you’re driving home empty-handed, cursing the poker gods and ESPN for showing mostly bluffs and all-ins.

And let’s not forget about cash games. Tournaments provide plenty of opportunities to show huge bluffs or pots on TV because at that stage of the event everyone has millions of chips. Plus, once they’re eliminated that’s it, they can’t play anymore. Televised cash games usually only have a few hundred thousand dollars on the table and if a player goes broke he can always rebuy. So great moves tend to be magnified knowing players can just go back into their pockets for more money.

Editing and/or history doesn’t have to be the reason televised poker shouldn’t serve as your education. Take a hand played between Tom Dwan, Barry Greenstein and reigning WSOP Main Event champ Peter Eastgate on a recent episode of HSP. Greenstein had {a-Hearts}{a-Clubs} under the gun and chose to raise to $2,500, which was pretty standard. Dwan called with {q-Clubs}{10-Clubs} and then it turned into a family pot with everyone calling, including Eastgate, who had {4-Hearts}{2-Diamonds} in one of the blinds. The flop came {2-Clubs}{10-Diamonds}{2-Spades}. Eastgate checked his trips and Greenstein, who always leads out when he’s the preflop aggressor, made his “feeler” continuation bet of $10K into a $21K pot. Dwan took his time and then raised to $37K. It folded around to Eastgate, who just called, as did Greenstein. When the turn came the {7-Diamonds} Eastgate and Greenstein checked to Dwan, who bet $104K into a $133K pot. Both players folded. Dwan had the third-best hand and still got these guys to lay down, including trips for Eastgate.

Some people might see this hand and think “Dwan just used super aggression and a huge stack of money to push these guys off their hands. I should buy-in for the max and I can move people of their hands, too!”

Um, no. This hand involved fourth- and fifth-level thinking, and as you can see this article is coming to an end so I don’t have enough room to explain it all. But clearly Dwan knew Eastgate and Greenstein had big hands, and he also knew they knew that he knew they had big hands. So for him to make a bet like that he MUST have the nuts, right? Eastgate likely put Dwan on 10-10 or a suited A2 and didn’t like his kicker. Greenstein came to the same conclusion so the play worked.

If you learn anything from this hand it should be that you should really know your opponents, know what they’re capable of thinking and what they’re capable of folding. Don’t “learn” that if you make a big enough bet everyone will fold. That will only decimate your bankroll, as will learning poker moves from television.