I’m frequently amazed at how slowly some poker players play. Assuming you’re a winning player, you make some amount of dollars per hand. Let’s assume you make $1 per hand. If you usually know what you’ll do within a reasonable amount of time, you will make around $40 per hour at the standard live poker table. If instead, you take your time on every street and slightly increase your win rate to $1.20 per hand but now play only 30 hands per hour, you will cut your win rate to $36 per hour despite making (hopefully) better decisions.
Players play slowly for various reasons. Some think taking their time on every street and preflop will tilt opponents or allow them to control the pace of the game. While slowing down the game may tilt the occasional player, you’re generally unlikely to get their money, as you’re not the only person at the table. And even if you make someone go on massive tilt, you’ll have fewer chances to win their money because you’ll play fewer hands. You also may induce players to quit playing with you. While this is not such a bad result if the players who leave are good, the last thing you want is for the weak players to quit. Assuming you play poker with the intention of tilting opponents, slow play is by far the most self-defeating way to go about it.
Some players don’t think ahead about what their action will be before it’s their turn to act. They justify this behavior by saying they want to focus all their attention to watching whom the action is on. While this sounds good in theory, most decisions should be relatively automatic such that they require little to no thought. When the action folds to you preflop and you have 9-3, there is no need to think for five seconds before folding. After the flop in a five-handed pot, there’s no reason to consider anything besides folding when you have total air and an opponent bets into the field. Despite this, countless players tank for 15 seconds before folding. All this does is demolish the number of hands you play per hour. If you waste 15 seconds per hand, you cut the number of hands played per hour significantly.
Another reason people go slowly is to replay in their head the action leading up to the current betting round. Of the reasons to play slowly, this one has a decent amount of merit. However, after playing poker for a little while, you should hopefully be able to remember the action from the previous betting rounds and be able to construct and hold a range in your mind of what your opponent probably has. You should also be able to envision what your opponent thinks you have. If you’re not thinking about these concepts on a street-by-street basis, looking back at how the hand played out once you get to the river will do you little good. Ideally, you will be able to play sound poker and won’t have to play a hand blind until the river then try to figure out what is going on.
Whenever I take my time, I am doing it for basically one reason: I’m trying to get a read on my opponent. Some amateur players will randomly crack under pressure when getting stared down. They will make a subconscious gesture that gives away the strength of their hand. It should be made clear that picking up an accurate read on a player is difficult and if you’re not skilled at it, you can get in a lot of trouble. If the vast majority of players totally ignored tells, they would probably be better off.
However, if your opponent will crack under pressure, there’s usually some merit in taking your time.
So, when should you play slowly? If you realize you’re a bad player and you don’t want to find a game you can profitably play, you should take your time. If you want to waste everyone’s time, you should stall. In a tournament, where you can’t leave the table, you could consider playing slowly when on the bubble or if your table is overly tough, but quite often, players butcher this concept. Once at a World Series event, there were around 600 people remaining and 300 got in the money. Most players at my table had around the average stack, so we all had a decent shot of making a deep run. Someone came up with the bright idea that if we all played slowly, we would get in the money. Everyone, besides myself and one other player who had a brain, agreed and played slowly for the next two hours.
Everyone ended up cashing but we all got in the money with 0.5 times the average stack, drastically hurting all our chances to make a big score. We all busted a little while later, winning $1,000. If everyone played at a regular speed, some players would not get in the money but some would almost certainly have made a deep run with the opportunity to cash for $600K. Hopefully you see that playing slowly is rarely a good idea, assuming you like money. If you want to throw money and time in the trash, take your time.
— Jonathan Little, a representative for Blue Shark Optics, is the author of Professional Tournament Poker Vols. 1-3, owns the poker training site FloatTheTurn.com and 3bet Clothing, plus check out his iPhone app, Instapoker.