Strategy Talk at the Table: Dos and Don'ts

This past weekend I made a trip to the new MGM in DC. The $2/$5 was excellent, a welcome break from the familiar set of faces I normally play against at the Jack in Cleveland. While the game was much better, my image was in much greater flux. In Cleveland, I generally know how I am perceived. While my image is still a variable that is important to track, the changes are much more gradual when I have history with almost everyone at the table.

At the MGM, I was normally sitting with 9 other players that I had never played with before. In that setting, my image was often vastly different from session to session and from player to player within a session based on what they had seen me do. On this particular trip, I happened to garner the image of a really bad player more often than usual. 

How did I earn the image of a splashy fish? Mostly by calling in very reasonable spots and coming from behind to win. Amateur players tend to see any player drawing out as an indicator of bad play. One call in particular which Zach and I discussed for a future podcast episode was called "the worst call I've ever seen" by one player at the table. In his defense, I did come from behind to win (this is sarcasm). 

Now getting to the topic of this post... When this particular call happened, I became the subject of an extreme reprimanding from the table, all non-participants in the hand as the villain was busted and decided to leave. Here's where I let my ego get the best of me. I couldn't accept these players thinking I didn't know what I was doing, even though that belief would be very valuable to me in terms of EV. 

In an effort to defend myself, I gave a very thorough explanation of my decision making. While the actual outcome of this specific explanation may have been a net positive (more on that in a second), this was a terrible strategic decision. Whenever you give people insight into how you make decisions, you give them the opportunity to play much more profitable against you. They may not be able to take advantage of the information, but most people will in some way adjust properly. In this particular instance, the only noticeable effect was a professional I was 600BB deep with switching tables. I was very lucky that the main spots were too thick to take advantage of this free information.

So all of this brought me to think about when it's alright to talk strategy at the table, and when it is best avoided. Here are my conclusions.

When is it good to talk about strategy at the table?

  1. If a losing player who enjoys learning about the game asks you directly. This player-type is here to learn and wants to progress in the game. Indulging them in a little strategy talk will keep them in the game.
  2. If you are improving the mood of the table without revealing anything about your strategy. This could involve agreeing with the table on something trivial, or even giving false information in order to participate in the table conversation. The main goal in this talk is to avoid being a "stick in the mud". 
  3. If you can get an opponent to reveal things about their thought process without pissing them off. I'll normally ask a player I'm next to that I've never played with things like "What did you fold?" or "What do you think I/they had?". Some players love to answer these types of questions, and you can satisfy their desire for conversation while getting a one-way stream of information. 

When is it not terrible to talk about strategy at the table?

  1. When a professional wants to quietly discuss something. While the information exchange here is likely going to to be relatively trivial in terms of EV, expanding one's poker network is often a net positive. Having friends in the room can be excellent for getting into the best games and getting fed reads.
  2. Soothing a fish with some poker logic to make them feel better about their play and stay at the table. For example, a fish gets drawn out on after getting it in good and says I should have just folded. Explain to the fish that they did well and just got unlucky. You may be educating them slightly, but it should be worth it if they stay.

When should we definitely not talk about strategy at the table?

  1. Berating a fish for bad play (or anyone for that matter). Don't do this. It's terrible for the game and you are giving away information. Really, never do it.
  2. Explaining yourself because you can't stand the thought of people thinking you suck at poker (see above).
  3. Just for fun. If you just want to talk strategy for fun, don't do it at the table. Become a Just Hands member and you can talk strategy in the slack group until your fingers fall off.
  4. To educate someone who doesn't want to be educated. It isn't your responsibility to tell people how to play. If someone asks you for advice, you can consider obliging. However, educating someone who has not asked will never help your bottom line and will normally just piss people off. Don't do it!

Can you guys think of anything else?