Fear can cause you to make poor judgments, even when you feel that your decisions are sound. At the poker table, you can find yourself afraid of many things, such as getting bluffed, looking foolish or simply losing the money in front of you. When your play is based on those fears, your results will suffer – but you might not even realize that you're acting out of fear.
Recently, a friend of mine in Las Vegas asked for input on a hand he had played earlier in the evening. It was a $2/$5 no-limit Texas hold 'em game during the World Series of Poker. The action began with two people limping in from middle position, and when it got back to our hero in the small blind, he looked down at As Kd. He made the standard play, raising the bet to $35, and everyone else folded except one of the limpers, who called.
When the flop brought Ks 10d 6d, my buddy felt good about his top pair with top kicker and decided to bet $60. His opponent called.
The turn brought the Jd, making the situation a lot more complicated.
My friend opted to bet $150, planning to call if his opponent went all in for a total of $340. And that is exactly what happened.
When I asked my friend how he chose that play, he explained that he did not want to check and allow a free card. He also felt that his hand was still ahead a percentage of the time, and even if he was behind, he had outs. He paused, and then added, "And if I'm not betting this turn with one of the best hands I can have, then why am I even raising with A-K preflop?"
The way I heard it, he played his hand this way simply because he was afraid to play it differently. His thought process sounds perfectly logical, and it's one that I hear often. Unfortunately, it is usually misapplied as a cover-up when players are afraid of other options. In this hand, my friend was afraid of giving away a free card on the turn. But more important, he was afraid of playing cautiously and looking like a wimp. He was unaware of what was really driving him, and that left him hopeless to make the right play.
As it turned out, my friend and his opponent got all in on the turn, and my friend lost to Ad Qc.
Commenting on his play, I said that by betting $150 on the turn, of course he would benefit by sometimes winning the pot right there, and sometimes by getting more value from a hand like K-Q. But I also suggested that if he did the math on his play on the turn, he'd realize that he would often run into a straight, a flush or two pair, leaving him a significant underdog and costing him a lot of money.
The gains from winning the small pots just do not compensate for the losses from the all-in pots. And in the end, those net losses are a lot more painful than feeling like a weak player.