Assessing risk at the poker table properly

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One of my students asked me how I assess risk in cash games. This is a complex question to answer simply.
Risk in poker takes many shapes and forms.

TIME: Time is mainly based on bankroll by players. Most players never think of time as a risk factor. They play with a certain amount of money not realizing time is often more a factor than bankroll.

As an example a player came to my table and said, “I really don’t have much time to play.” His bankroll at this point is really irrelevant since he has placed a time value on his game. He unwittingly placed an enormous amount of pressure on himself knowing he didn’t have much time to play. You should have a cash value on your game not a time value. He lost a big pot early in the session and then began to play most hands seeing the flop. This, of course, cost him more money.

If you don’t have time to play, don’t play! Assess time properly. Don’t make time risky.

BANKROLL: This is often overlooked by most players. If your bankroll is low and you feel you need to increase it do you really think you’re going to go to the poker room and make a score? You’ll make more bad plays than scores. Low bankroll will ensure a big risk. Assess bankroll properly.

TABLE COMFORT: You risk your playing style and table image when you play on a table that makes you uncomfortable. You’ll wonder why you allowed yourself to play on an uncomfortable table. High risk with little reward is common when uncomfortable.

TABLE VALUE: I’ve never known a player to say, “This table has no value.” Would you be willing to play on a table that’s so tight that every player folds preflop?

Would you want to play on a table that only gives action when they have the nuts? Could you play on a table where every player sees the flop every hand? Extreme examples, but I hope you get the gist.
Why play on a table that won’t allow good table value, which is a good mix of all types of players? You risk your cash on a table that’s too extreme in either direction.

COMPETITION: Would you like to play against the big stack? Would you like to play against the super aggressive player? Would you like to play against the tightest player on the table? Not really the types of players we like to play against, however we do encounter these players on every table.

When time isn’t a risk factor, your bankroll is OK; you’re comfortable on the table and the table is well-balanced, giving you good table value. You now must understand the competition.

I always place a high value on assessing the risk of my competition. Until I have a good read on the table I always play tightly. I only know what the texture of the board allows me to know until I know my competition. I can only trust my hand standing (nuts, second nuts, etc.) until I have learned each player’s betting patterns, which I consider one of the most accurate forms of tells. I always need to show down winning hands until I have the table read correctly.
Assessing risk in this fashion will give me a positive table image and allow me to change gears at the appropriate time.

OTHER FACTORS: The game nuances become my primary considerations. Pot odds, odds against draws, position, reads (tells), implied odds, cash vs. goals and profit objectives.
As I said earlier, this is a complex question. Few players assess risk in any form. Playing hand for hand without assessing risk in its many forms is the reason most players seldom win. They don’t enjoy the game and are often frustrated.

I suggest if you need help assessing risk, first make a list of things you dislike when you play. Next try to determine if it’s a lack of game knowledge or simply a bias you have. This list may lead you to thinking more about you game and less about your bias.
Try to think differently about your game. Break down your game using this article to determine if you have been assessing risk based on the knowledge only you have about your game.

If you feel thinking outside the box won’t help improve your game then simply keep playing your style. It’s a great thing to be able to think as you like, but, after all, what’s most important is what you think.

— Antonio Pinzari is the former host of Poker Wars and has been playing poker professionally since the ’70s.