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Some may question whether playing a few extra hands really costs enough to worry about. After all, is not the edge of one hold’em hand over another typically quite small before the flop? Is not the real strength of a hand defined by the flop?

While there is some truth to these ideas, it is not difficult to show that the cost of hand selection errors is higher than most players realize. Consider first that in committing these errors players cost themselves money by deviating from an ideal that allows for maximum profit. The top poker writers recommend you play about 15 percent of the hands dealt to you. While deviations from this guideline may be indicated by variations in game conditions and structure, we are told that correct hold’em play  calls generally for a fairly close adherence to the “15 percent rule.”(Note that “15 percent ” means the percentage of hands played overall. It does not mean that you play 15 percent in all situations. At times you should play far more, at other times far fewer hands. See Malmuth’s Poker Essays, Volume II for a thorough discussion of what it means to play “15 percent ”).

As Sklansky has pointed out (see Getting the Best of Item), only great players are capable of squeezing a profit out of an additional 10 or 15 percent of their hands. Other players are going to make mistakes with these marginal hands and lose money with them. In fact, Sklansky has argued that most top players who do extend the range of poker hands they play go too far with it. They would obtain even better results than they do if they simply tightened up a bit. I have known very good players who fit roughly into this category. They play well, but are so “ busy, ” especially before the flop in ring games, as they strain to find every conceivable (but in fact often nonexistent) edge, that they surely cut their earnings significantly. A simple example demonstrates concretely the cost of hand selection errors.

Suppose you are able to earn one big bet per hour in a $15 –$ 30 game. Now suppose you add to your play two seemingly marginal, but actually losing hands, per hour. Now suppose that these additional hands cost you can average of one sixth of a small bet, or $2.50, each time you play one. This means that your inclusion of just two additional hands per hour has cut your hourly rate by nearly 17 percent! What ’s more, many seemingly marginal hands are going to lose even more than this example suggests. (See Malmuth’s Poker Essays for more on the dangers of “marginal” hands). One can easily envision a scenario in which playing, say, 30 percent of the hands dealt could turn an otherwise winning player into a big loser.

In fact, I would contend that this category of error alone prevents many players from winning. It is not uncommon to see players who play reasonably well after the flop, cost themselves so much with their loose starting requirements that they remain “producers” wherever they play. Another way to appreciate the cost of this error is to consider the differences between serious and minor poker errors. In Getting the Best of It, Sklansky provides the definitive discussion of this are of poker theory. Here I want to point out that, among poker errors (such as checking when you should bet, raising when you should fold, etc.) electing to play hands that should be folded is a special case. Generally, the serious errors are those that cost you the pot. The minor ones cost just a bet. So it would seem that playing a hand which you should have mucked is a minor mistake. Unfortunately it ’s not that simple.

It is true that calling when you should fold can be a relatively minor error. Making an incorrect call on the end, for example, costs you just that bet. (Moreover, it is balanced against the much greater cost of folding on the end when you should call, an error that can cost you the pot). But calling (or raising) when you should fold in the context of hand selection is a different matter. It is more costly for two reasons. First, hand selection is a decision which comes up unusually often (i.e., every hand). Thus, if you consistently make poor decisions here, you are frequently costing yourself money. This, of course ads up. Second, mistakes in hand selection tend to compound themselves.

For example, a hand which is slightly inadequate for your position can easily turn into a second best hand on the flop. If you do not play expertly enough to recognize what has happened, you are likely to be trapped for several bets against an opponent who may, for instance, have you out-kicked. If you play extremely well after the flop, you can minimize the compounding problem. Still, it is clear that the frequency problem alone is enough to cut significantly into your hourly rate. It should be obvious that these two factors combined make the cost of improper hand selection prohibitive. I hope I have made clear that playing too many hands is no minor problem, even for a very skilled player. In Part Two, I will offer some thoughts about what makes so many players – even some very good ones – deviate from sound hand selection.

Playing Too Many Hands-I / Playing Too Many Hands-II
Bad Plays Good Players make / Self-Weighting Cold Calls
Do You Pass the Ace-Queen Test /

Conjecture on the Limits of Tell Detectability
Quick Indicators / Afterthought

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