By Jonathan Little
I am frequently amazed at how slowly some poker players play. Assuming you are a winning poker player, you make some amount of equity per hand you are dealt. Let’s assume you make $1 per hand. If you usually know what you will do within a reasonable amount of time, you will make around $30 per hour at the standard live poker table that plays 30 hands per hour. If instead, you take your time on every street and slightly increase your win rate to $1.20 per hand but now play only 20 hands per hour, you will cut your win rate to $24 per hour despite making (hopefully) better decisions.
Players act slowly for various reasons. Some think taking their time on every street, both preflop and postflop, will tilt their opponents or allow them to control the pace of the game. While slowing down the game may tilt the occasional player, you are generally unlikely to get their money, as you are not the only person at the table, and even if you make someone go on massive tilt, you will have fewer chances to win their money because you will play fewer hands per hour. You may also induce players to quit playing with you. While this is not such a bad result if the players who quit are good, the last thing you want is for the losing players to quit. Assuming you play poker with the intention of tilting your opponents (which is not what I recommend), playing slowly is by far the most self-defeating way to go about it.
Some players do not think ahead about what their action will be before it is their turn to act. They justify this behavior by saying they want to focus all their attention on watching who the action is on. While this sounds good in theory, most decisions should be relatively automatic such that they require little to no thought. When the action folds to you preflop and you have 9-3 offsuit, there is no need to think for any amount of time before folding. After the flop in a five-handed pot, there is no reason to consider anything besides folding when an opponent bets and you have total junk. Despite this, countless players tank for 15 seconds before folding. All this does is decrease the number of hands you play per hour. If you waste 15 seconds per hand, you reduce the number of hands played per hour significantly.
Another reason people go slowly is to replay the action leading up to the current betting round in their head. Of the reasons to play slowly, this one has the most merit. However, after playing poker for a little while, you should hopefully be able to remember the action from the previous betting rounds and be able to construct and hold your opponent’s probable range in your mind. You should also be able to envision what your opponent thinks you have. If you are not thinking about these concepts on a street by street basis, looking back at how the hand played out once you get to the river will do you little good. Ideally, you will be able to play sound poker and will not have to play a hand blind until the river, then try to figure out what is going on.
When you see top pros taking their time, they are either making sure to take roughly the same amount of time with each decision so their timing will not be indicative of hand strength, which makes sense within reason, but many players do this excessively. If you think for 15 seconds on the flop and then 30 seconds on the turn and river before acting, it is painful, but not too egregious. Any longer than that though, and it makes the game miserable.
While they are thinking, they are constructing their entire range and making sure they play in a balanced manner. If they think their opponent has a flaw in their strategy, they adjust their range to take advantage of their opponent’s flaw. Considering all of these things does take a bit of time, but with practice away from the table, it becomes much easier. Check out the PokerCoaching.com Homework Challenges, where I teach you exactly what the top pros are doing while they are tanking. Sometimes the top pros are studying their opponents for tells, but that seems to not be the case too often, given most strong poker players have an excellent poker face.
In a tournament, where you can’t leave the table, you could consider playing slowly when on the bubble or if your table is overly tough, but quite often, players butcher this concept. Once in a WSOP event, there were around 600 people remaining with 300 getting in the money. Most players at my table had around the average stack, so we all had a decent shot of making a deep run. Someone came up with the bright idea that if we all played slowly, we would all get in the money. Everyone, besides myself and one other player who understood how tournament payouts work, agreed and they played slowly for the next two hours.
Everyone ended up cashing, but we all got in the money with 50% of the average stack, drastically hurting all our chances to make a big score. We all busted a little while later, winning less than a buy-in. If everyone played at a regular speed, some players would have failed to get in the money but some would have almost certainly made a deep run with the opportunity to cash for $600,000.
So, when should you play slowly? If you realize you are a bad player and you don’t want to find a game you can profitably play, you should take your time, because instead of winning money each hand, you lose money each hand. If you want to waste everyone’s time, you should stall. Hopefully you see that playing slowly is rarely a good idea, assuming you like money. If you want to throw money and time in the trash, play slowly.
Jonathan Little is a two-time World Poker Tour champion with over $7,000,000 in tournament cashes. He is a prolific author, coach, and owner of PokerCoaching.com. This article and more can be found at www.jonathanlittlepoker.com/blog/.