I believe all this nonsense about checking being weak and that tough guys don’t check should be refuted.—Mike Caro
No. 1 Lockdown
As a kid I was defended. Trained not to cry. Never show fear. How does my history haunt me? My leaks right now are head leaks. Inner-demon stuff. Poker is combat. And there’s lots of pressure in low-stakes cash to save face and gamble and be fake-fearless even when that gets stupid and expensive. I’m conditioned from childhood to evade weakness. Yet when I play, if I don’t learn to surrender when I’m clearly beat—also called checking and folding—I’ll tank my game long term. Just like that.
No. 2 Negotiating Control
Olympic skiers negotiate snow. Pro golfers negotiate wind. Poker players negotiate imposed aggression. Like what happens on a basketball court. We are compelled through a series of pressured, split-second decisions in response to the actions of others. I’m keenly aware, on a physical level even, what it feels like to negotiate supremacy and self-preservation across the life of a hand. Against rough opponents, my toughness thing can rise. Old feelings get triggered. I tilt into retaliation. I lose.
No. 3 Pricey Feelings
By example, tight weak ABC players, whether they know it or not, make a quiet series of decisions based on familiar emotions. They stay in a comfort zone. I too make emotional decisions when ancient fiends devour my soul. I play so as not to seem wimpy or weak or vulnerable. A straight shot to burning through buy-ins.
No. 4 The Zen in Poker
Derrick Haynie argues for the value and power of passivity in the “How To Be More Aggressive” podcast episode. Of being a strong, informed fundamental player. Of mastering the less-sexy “better decisions” and not recklessly chasing blind aggression. In Haynie’s world, checking and playing softer on certain boards is lucrative and smart—what I call the Zen in poker. The best players balance the fold thing with “I will destroy you.” The best players know when to get the hell out. No shame in ditching a hand with zero equity. Even on the flop.
No. 5 The Fear Within
In her book “Chess Bitch,” gaming warrior Jennifer Shahade described her somewhat crippling fear of certain chess masters whom she considered “out of her league.” Ask Phil Ivey about the extraordinary power of image. The intersection of skill and reputation. I relate to Shahade’s journey of finding agency. I do at times give certain players too much power. I make one bad call based on the old crooked need to save face and I may not recover for hours. Increasingly, I practice folding at just those moments I’m terrified some aggro villain will gloat over my demise (gloats are in fact rare).
No. 6 Phantom Bullies
I often assume men are picking on me. Sometimes men are picking on my tighter style. Not the point. If I assume I’m being picked on, and call big turn and river bets according to that very wrong assumption, I’m gonna be eating ramen for weeks.
No. 7 Monkeys and Quads
Poker is a game of monkey see, monkey do. Poker authority Ed Miller suggests cash games are tribes of people wanting each other’s approval (note how players turn a card over before folding to prove they didn’t have junk). Unconscious and predictable, collective behaviors get entrenched and imitated. I learn to resist the boy template, the hero calls, the weird, testosterone-infused stupid rites of passage to prove something through a bet not entirely defined. Why are nits picked on? They often win big and laugh all the way to the bank. Do I think a nit style is ideal? No. Do I think certain folds are gold mines? Yes. Do I think Superman poker is idiotic? Sure.
No. 8 No Beds, No Monsters
I’ve seen countless nosebleed cash pros not only bluff each other but comfortably fold to aggression. One of my coaches is a world-class non-believer. He trained me to ignore monsters under the bed. I’ve never had a problem calling. The real power I’m now mastering game by game is embracing the fold and protecting my stack. When did I learn that folding had a kind of built-in disgrace? The players I admire most fold so confidently you can see it from Mars.
No. 9 Game Face
I first started playing in a super-aggro game with players I came to hate. I was green. I couldn’t see the gears of the game. They were horrible. But they had moves I didn’t. I lost. A good poker face is essential. A bad one is like a mask I used to wear at those games to seem hard and scary and cool. I use my eyes a lot when I play. Back then, my child-self ran things. I locked down on my fear. Didn’t look around enough. Didn’t glean the information I needed from my opponents’ physical tells. Didn’t slow hands down to make better decisions cause those games ran at warp speed. I’m in different games now. Still working on the face thing.
No. 10 Weak is Strong
Surrender is a profitable line. Even Vanessa Selbts says she doesn’t target the strongest players cause she knows she can’t bully everyone. What happens when I’m “surrender-balanced?” I trim ego off my play like useless fat. I let the game come to me. I stay in the present. I orbit closer to myself. I channel Tommy Angelo. I revel in mindfulness. I cut my losses when I whiff a flop. I bet my heart out when the board, the momentum, the information favors me. Best of all, I fold often. And just for me, when I ask nicely, the poker goddess sits on fear’s chest and beats him senseless.