Don’t criticize what you may not understand in poker

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By Karim Baruque

Earlier this NFL season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick made what was called a controversial decision when he tried for the first down on fourth-and-2 with 2:08 left in the game. His team was ahead by six points, but the offense didn’t get the first down, turning the ball over to the Colts, who eventually scored to win the game.

The media called the decision “dumb” and most said: “How could such a genius, make such a big, dumb, obvious, ridiculous mistake?” Keep this in mind.

As a dealer and player I spend a lot of time in poker rooms, and I can’t count how many times someone has made fun of a play a good player made. They think the play was SO BAD that even a player with basic knowledge would do better. When a play that doesn’t fit into their set mental understanding of proper poker, they discard it as a bad play.

At the 2006 Aussie Millions, Jamil Dia eliminated Phil Ivey in a hand most players would view as simply ridiculous. While the blinds were just 1K-2K, Ivey lost a $327,800 pot with {q-Spades}{7-Hearts} on the J-2-2-A-K four-diamond board. Ivey bluffed every street, out of position, with a hand he shouldn’t have been playing in the first place, right? Wrong.

Not wrong on whether the play was bad, but wrong on the way we think. If Ivey is one of the best players in the world, rather than criticize how dumb his play was, we should ask about the thought process that lead him to make those decisions. What does he know that we don’t? Yes this particular hand worked against him, too bad; chalk it up to short-term variance. But how many of these plays has he made in his multi-million dollar career that no one ever saw? How many times have plays like this put him in position to win one of his seven WSOP bracelets?

In the 2004 Monte Carlo Millions, down to heads-up play, the following hand occurred: Ivey bet 80K into a 176K pot with {q-Hearts}{8-Hearts} and the board was J-J-7 with one heart. His opponent, Paul Jackson, raised to 180K. Ivey decided the best course of action was to re-raise to 320K. This raise surely would define Jackson’s hand, and when Jackson re-reraised to 470K, it meant he obviously had a real hand and Ivey clearly had made another bad bluff, right?

But Ivey is one of the best players in the world. So how can he keep making these huge blunders? Here’s why: Unlike us, Ivey wasn’t convinced Jackson had a hand, so he went all-in. Jackson folded (he had {5-Spades}{6-Diamonds}) and Ivey went on to win the event. Now, do you wish you knew what Ivey knew?

Though everyone “knows” Belichick shouldn’t have gone for it on fourth-and-2, maybe he’as won three Super Bowls for a reason. Maybe he has the best playoff record of any coach, and is the leader of the most successful football franchise this decade, for a reason. And if you ask him, he might tell you over the past five years they’ve completed almost 70 percent of their fourth-down attempts. He might tell you his defense had given up 21 points in the last 20 minutes, etc.

So maybe it was a bad call, but maybe it was excellent, and even Belichick is subject to the laws of probability. But his winning percentage isn’t just short-term variance, and neither are his Super Bowls. Ivey’s bracelets aren’t the result of “by-the-book” plays. The guy who always seems to cash out for more than you probably isn’t luckier than you. Next time you see one of these guys make a “bad” play, don’t jump to conclusions. Analyze the pros and cons and maybe have the courage to ask them or others the reasoning behind the play.

Remember that next time we “know” that play was dumb, we might just not “know” very much at all.

— Karim Baruque is a player-dealer and member of the Ante Up Poker Room staff.