When I tell people I’m a poker player I often get a reaction along the lines of ‘Ah! My brother likes to gamble, too. He’s always betting on horse racing’ etc. Poker, of course, is indeed a gambling game, but unlike games of (pure) chance or ‘investing’ money betting on a horse because you like its name, poker revolves around skill. Many poker players are, in fact, risk-averse. To them ‘gambling’ is almost a dirty word.

While it’s true that we could do worse than avoid taking too many unnecessary risks and that we can generally steer clear of reckless play and gambling for gambling’s sake, it doesn’t mean we should go too far.

Being too risk-averse can have a detrimental effect on our game, which we will come to, below. But first let us look at why people can become so wary, why we can so readily give in when faced with aggression, how it can be easy to assume the worst. What often happens is that, after losing a number of big pots here and there, these reverses have such a negative impact that we start to see phantoms. Any hint at aggression we find ourselves up against we interpret as opponents having monsters, and we get used to folding too much.

This, of course, is a problem, because we can’t believe every bet or raise and then obligingly surrender. A typical example of how this fear manifests itself is when we conclude that a big bet could mean only that someone has a massive hand, and our habitual overcautious habit – which we believe to be sensibly risk-averse – leads us to convince ourselves that our good hand isn’t good enough.

“There’s no way he’d bet that big without the nuts, so I’ll have to fold my top pair here” is the kind of logic literally thousands of players are coming up with this very minute. And many of these will be folding the strongest hand! What we need to realise is that the players who are winning these pots are at the same time saying to themselves “They seem to be folding good hands, so I’ll just keep on bluffing them off the pot. In fact, I’ll start doing it more often…” – Imagine how easy poker would be if we could read minds!

This is a perfect illustration of how being too risk-averse in itself runs the risk of our losing out on winning chips that – on the strength of the hands we’re folding – should be going to our own stack. That’s an irony that should get us thinking…

Note that this is the opposite of correctly folding when someone does actually have the nuts. When we’re up against those players who tend to bet big only with a monster, then by folding we’re exploiting their flawed strategy by never paying them off. That’s not being risk-averse, rather reading play well and knowing when to fold. The problem is when we assume the kind of false logic that means we think we’re doing this but are quite mistaken because, at the end of the day, this ‘up against the nuts’ scenario doesn’t happen anywhere near as often as the pessimists would have us believe.

Those who proudly consider themselves among the nittiest players, therefore, might want to revisit their approach to the game, and what might be behind it. When we strive to attain some kind of balance in what we do there tends to be a price – the clue is in the word ‘balance’, of course. Being deliberately (and, subsequently, habitually) risk-averse in order to try to minimise losses to small pots looks good on one side of the scales, but this must be measured against the fact that such a mindset also means missing out on winning big pots.

The proverbial omelette can’t be made without breaking eggs. Anyone with a good hand who is nevertheless afraid to stay involved in the fight for chips because they constantly fear the worst, or aren’t willing to risk losing, is afraid of phantoms and going about the game way too cautiously and, crucially, letting potentially lucrative opportunities pass them by…