Incite -- (v) 1: give an incentive; 2: provoke or stir up; "incite a riot"; 3: urge on; cause to act
Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Calling Instinct
Written by: Beck

Poker blogging time.

So I'm sitting in a limit hold 'em game with above average players one day, and I find myself heads-up in a pot with the guy who is probably the best poker player at the table. I figure myself to be the second best at the table, but this guy is clearly very dangerous. For ease of discussion, I'll call him 'Bob'. Bob raised from early position pre-flop, so I figure him for a high pair or two suited high cards. I decide to play back at him with ten-jack suited.

The flop comes ace-high, with two cards of my suit. In other words, I've got four cards to a flush. I figure Bob now has top-pair, which is most likely the best hand at the table. Sure enough, Bob bets out. If Bob had three aces, he likely would have slow played it, so I'm not especially worried that Bob might catch a full house. Everyone left in the pot folded at that point, and it was just me and this guy. I was getting pot-odds to call him down and hope to draw out on him.

The turn was a blank, and Bob bet. I called. The river gave me a flush. I was now positive that I had Bob beat. Bob bet into me, and I raised.

I wanted Bob to call. I really wanted him to call. But Bob was a good player, and had to imagine I had a drawing hand to be staying in. He also had to imagine I made the obvious flush. Unless it was a bluff. Bob sat and thought about it for a long time. A really long time.

At this point, something I had recently read popped into my mind completely unbidden. It was written by Mike Caro, in a section of Doyle Brunson's recently published Super/System 2. Caro postulated the existence of a "Calling Instinct." You see, people come to a poker table to play. They don't come so that they can fold hands. They come to bet, to gamble, and to show 'm down. They come to win, and you can't win by folding. Every fiber in their being wants to call, even if they intellectually know they're beaten.

The key, then, is to trigger this calling instinct. How do you accomplish this? Simple, Caro says: do anything. Make a noise. Adjust yourself in your seat. Do something to draw attention to yourself, something to make the other guy think you're behaving out-of-character. Make him suspicious, and give him the excuse he needs for the flimsy rationalization it's going to take to justify calling.

"Quick!" thought I, "Do something to trigger this guy's calling instinct!" But what? What in hell to do? Then it came to me. The perfect thing to do.

You see, Bob had been staring at me. Hard. Trying to get me to give something up--trying to get me to give away a tell by my behavior or actions. I was maintaining eye contact and trying to look faux-aggressive--indicative of a bluff to those who know how to read tells. So I smiled at him...

And I started whistling the theme song from Jeopardy.

Bob actually sat there and thought about it, staring at me angrily as I kept on whistling until I got all the way to the very end of the song. That's how long he thought about it. And then he called.

I never saw his cards. I just said, "Flush," and turned up my hand. He tossed his cards in the muck, looking thoroughly disgusted with himself. I could have demanded to see his cards (as you can with any called bet on the end), but that's bad poker etiquette, for one thing, and for another, I pretty much knew what he had anyway.

Bob was off his game for the rest of the night. His loose call--and allowing himself to be manipulated into making it--bothered him that much.

There's a dual lesson in this story. The first is that you can get people to call if you want to. Just act like a doofus. The second (and more important) lesson is that your greatest enemy in a game of poker is yourself. The other people at the table aren't your enemy. They're the ones who supply your paycheck. They exist to enrich you. All they can do is play their cards to the best of their ability and hope to get lucky.

It doesn't matter how good or bad your opponents play is if you're reacting emotionally--in essence, defeating yourself. Your emotions are not good decision makers, so keep them out of the equation. If you find that your emotions are taking over despite your best efforts, get up from the table, go for a walk, and give yourself a chance to settle down.

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