Risk, stress, and Poker. What keeps us from playing aggressively?

April 18, 2008

I noticed that in the search terms that led someone to this blog they were looking for information about why we don’t play poker aggressively. There is lots of basic information about why we should play poker aggressively, but it’s true, I don’t recall much about why we sometimes don’t or are hesitant to play aggressively.

The two big things are probably:

  1. Monetary risk of losing chips, especially at a cash table. The chips that we put out there we risk losing. If we bet at a pot with a pocket pair from late position when the flop has two overcards and we get called, there’s a chance someone in early position was afraid to bet with a pair and a weak kicker and we’re now behind with very few outs. Plus, by being aggressive we may be putting the rest of our chips at risk as well. This is much more of a risk in No Limit than in limit obviously. If we bet into or raise the bet of an aggressive opponent when we hold a marginal hand and he puts in a 3X raise, what do we do?
  2. Psychological/personal risk. I’ve made posts about the Fear of Raising, but most of those deal with raising pre-flop. Fear of standing out from the crowd, fear of offending the other people, fear of being challenged after making the aggressive gesture, lack of separation between “I” and “me the poker player”, these all apply to flop, turn and river bets and raises as well.

If your opponents don’t fold to your aggression there are more betting rounds and re-raise possibilities which generate future risks from your current aggression action. One is what I might call Commitment Risk. By commitment risk I refer to the additional future situations where you may risk more money or take on more psychological risk. For example, you bet or raise the flop, and your opponent raises you. Now you’ve got additional monetary risk plus more psychological risk. Does the fact that you put additional money into the pot commit you to putting more in, or can you fold without being embarrassed or without getting angry because someone played back at you? If you think you might be ahead but with a marginal hand, you’re going to have to commit more chips to find out.

Another perspective is what I might label Continuation Risk. You raise preflop, then you risk feeling obligated to continuation bet the flop. Are you now required to continuation bet the turn as well? Or if you bet at a limped pot, are you required to continue and bet the turn and river? If you don’t, are you showing weakness (embarrassing) or will they think that you were betting with nothing (embarrassing)? And if so, will your opponent then interpret your lack of continuing as weakness and bet if you don’t bet? This is more of an issue at the lowest stakes games where the players have no concept of controlling pot size and are as happy to shove all in with A2 as with AJ on an Ace high board if they think that you’re weak.

Obviously these are interrelated concepts. The Commitment Risk and Continuation Risk are very similar, and, both exist as extensions of Monetary and Psychological Risks. Perhaps the difference between commitment risk and continuation risk is that commitment risk refers to becoming more committed to the pot so that you might feel you need to call down, whereas continuation risk refers more to aggression and the need to continue leading the betting. (I’m figuring this out as I type, can you tell? These are never pre-written entries)

Edit: And what about fear of making a mistake? Even separate from monetary risk or psychological risk, those of us who think about our poker playing tend to be pretty hard on ourselves when we make a mistake. And I think that we tend to be harder on ourselves when the mistake is an action rather than the lack of action, like betting the river when we are either behind or folding worse hands as opposed to when we fail to value bet the river. The repercussions from our own criticism and/or from our table mates or hand reviewers can add extra pressure on us.


In order to be able to manage the stress that comes with dealing with increased risk we need to be able to have confidence in ourselves. We need to believe that even if we make this bet, we have the ability to lay down when we need to, and that by putting in this early bet or raise we aren’t putting our entire stack at unnecessary risk. General confidence in our selves and confidence in our ability to manage our emotions helps.

Playing experience helps, as the more we place ourselves in stressful situations and survive, the more confident we become in our ability to handle similar situations. Doing public speaking is probably one of the best example of this; the more you do it, the less scary it becomes.

Having a plan helps, having a standard line (bet at flop with middle pair, check/fold the rest of the way) or a plan for the hand depending on variables helps.

Being properly bankrolled helps with monetary risk. General bankroll rules are just that, a starting point. Many online players consider themselves bankroll nits and want 40 buy ins instead of 20, just because they don’t feel comfortable playing at levels with only 20 buy ins behind them.

Uncertainty increases the risk. If we are playing at a new site, a new level, at a shorter table that normal, a turbo instead of a regular speed tourney, any new element increases the unexpected, increases the uncertainty, increases the risk. For example, sometimes I have played 0.01/0.02 tables but because I have not done so for a while, the last time I did I was out of feel for the players and didn’t play as well as I could have done.

This is why I have some mistrust of instructional videos of $200+NL players playing $25NL tables; they haven’t done so in so long that I don’t feel that they have a good feel for the general table play. On the other hand, one series of videos that I really like is of a $200NL player playing $10, $25 and $50NL tables because he says he sometimes plays the $10 tables because he has a friend who plays at that level.


Yet, we seek risk. That’s part of the payoff for us about playing poker. We get to add some adrenaline to our system, we get the payoff of serotonin after a successful play or session or game. We add some excitement to our lives that is otherwise circumscribed by the same work, the same classes, the same family, the same friends.


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