Phil Galfond: Why Comfort is Your Biggest Poker Enemy

Run It Once
02 May 2024
Psychology Strategy
02 May 2024

Today we are going to learn some important tips and information from a long-time top professional Phil Galfond. He founded the famous poker school name Run it Once and competes against the toughest opponents on the highest stakes in online cash and, especially, Heads-Up games.

Without further preludes, we begin - further text in the words of this top professional.


What do riding an escalator have in common with playing poker? Besides the fact that you can do both the first and the second in a casino? If you're anything like me, you also feel uncomfortable during big poker hands. I was very stressed at the big banks early in my career and to a lesser extent this is still true for me, 20 years later. Today I want to tell you how to use this discomfort to your advantage at the poker table.

  • Let's dive deeper into this topic

A little history of walking around Vancouver

Let's start with the story of the years that I lived in Vancouver. I started each day with a leisurely 30-60 minute walk around the city. During my walk, I stopped at one of the Starbucks and ordered the same thing: black iced coffee. Now in the USA this name means the same thing in every such coffee shop. But in Vancouver 2011-2013 it seems that this was far from the case. And in half the cases I received exactly what I wanted (the way I imagined my order), and in the other half my expectations did not coincide with what they brought me.

I began to order more specifically: “Iced coffee, black, unsweetened,” which mysteriously reduced the chance that they would bring me the wrong thing again, to about 1 time out of 3. I was simply not interested in attracting the attention of workers and forcing them to fix the problem.

So I developed a more reliable system. I'd get the order, taste it, and if it was bad, I'd thank them, leave, throw the glass in the nearest trash can, and go to another Starbucks. I could afford it. - I was going to continue walking anyway. And do my part to support multinational corporations.

Was I afraid to come back and give them a scandal about an incorrectly completed order? No. Did I save time by moving to another point? - Also no. - I had to wait in line again. There was no good reason why I shouldn't just call someone, say the order was wrong and wait for it to be replaced.

The point is that it was simply more convenient for me not to stress myself out about it from an emotional point of view and just move on to another place. It was more comfortable than starting a “conflict.”

Opting for more comfort

As humans, we often choose the more convenient path. Taking the stairs is much healthier than standing on an escalator, and most of us want to be healthier. We want and can climb stairs on our own feet as long as it doesn't hurt us. In general, we will rarely use the escalator if there is a free staircase nearby, everything is fine with us and we are not particularly loaded with anything.

We recommend: Factors that Diminish Your Interest in Poker

However, there are many among us who prefer to be in maximum comfort

Mistakes caused by emotions

And now we return to the world of poker again.

We know that fear keeps people from making big decisions, whether it's bluffing or calling big chunks of the stack/full stack/double+ stack. Excitement causes people to bet big and call all-ins where they shouldn't. But what we don’t talk about much is comfort.

And I believe that comfort, especially among competent players, leads to far more mistakes than excitement and fear.

We know not to destroy your stack by putting a lot into the pot with a bad hand. That you should only bluff with the types of hands suitable for the spot. And so we force ourselves to do it, even in the face of a little fear or excitement.

However, comfort is a pretty sneaky thing. Just as we climb an escalator without particularly worrying about the reasons, prospects, and alternatives, we often play in a convenient way, which is only a little easier than this very alternative. And we always have a justification for such a choice.

So I believe that comfort is the main source of our emotional leaks.

So I believe that comfort is the main source of our emotional leaks.

How does it manifest itself? - When we have a hand with which we should bluff on the river, and we know that this is correct in the current spot, then we choose to check because it is more familiar and comfortable for us, but not because we are afraid to bluff. The ways of playing are close enough that we can justify it. You can be intimidated by shoving a bluff on the river no matter how experienced or understanding the game you are.

What about smaller pots? - In pots of the usual size, there is a clear indication of the threshold at which what actually holds us back is not fear, but simply discomfort. Or comfort, pushing to an alternative line.

Some people, on the other hand, are quite comfortable bluffing and even basing their win rate on the bluff. But something else causes them discomfort. For example, a player is faced with a big bet with a strong hand on a draw-heavy board and chooses to just (check-)call. This is part of the GTO, but against a specific opponent it is not always the best option. Often these players will shove the turn rather than call a new bet, worrying about scary cards on the river.

But with these shoves, they burn down their EV, forcing their opponent to fold several categories of hands at once:

  • Almost all the bluffs with which he could get the maximum money in the end,
  • There are a lot of hands that he could have thinly value-bet with or over-shove them,
  • And also hands with which he could check-call a bet from Hero, in the case when the opponent is out of position.

Discomfort in poker can manifest itself in lots of ways.

You might be the one who feels uncomfortable check-backing the draw turn with top pair, which isn't very good for a second thin value bet. And that's why you bet again, despite the fact that you should have played check-back.

The main reason is that you want to simplify the game and not find yourself in a situation where you checked on the turn and have to face a big bet at you on the river - because often this river will complete something. And in order not to guess, you bet on the turn, and on the river you check comfortably or just as comfortably fold to a bet from, obviously, a strong range.

There are also players who prefer to find out where they are by raising their opponent's bet. If he c-bet the flop out of position, then the player gives him a raise and draws conclusions. Or check-raise, protecting your ready but vulnerable hand.

There are a lot of ways for comfort in poker to manifest. This penetrates into your strategy and little by little changes it to a less +EV one, but more understandable and less stressful on the nerves.

The big problem with comfort is that following this poker comfort and more understandable lines of play seriously reduces your EV. And soon strong trends and even bad habits appear.

As our opponents study us, they soon begin to understand what and how we tend to play - and even why we choose to play safer, but with less variance.

How can you use this to improve your game?

The first is your opportunity to improve your game. By observing yourself from this angle, you can find those areas of the game where you feel uncomfortable and which give rise to certain leaks, and then correct them.

And the second, and more fun, is the opportunity to find opponents’ leaks and increase your win rates against each of them. They are the same people who also have their own psychological leaks that lead to the way your opponents play.

In both cases, start the same way - with self-awareness, that is, studying yourself

This is one of the most important qualities a poker player can have. How to become better at self-analysis and self-awareness? Mechanically - better by observing yourself.

This means exactly what you imagine: paying attention to your thoughts and feelings. This means looking inwards and reflecting.

Regularly ask yourself - what it is that makes you feel uncomfortable at the poker table. And it’s better to tie it to some activators.

For example, you feel a lack of understanding of what to do next in a hand - this is what should awaken you and give rise to such a question in your mind.

Pay attention to this as you play, or - even better - ask yourself

  • What actions are you really comfortable with?
  • What actions come easiest to you emotionally?
  • What actions do you feel no internal resistance to?

Most likely, the opposite of them will be those that cause you discomfort. And if you really want to improve further, then pay attention to what stresses you outside the poker table - both just in poker-related matters, and in general in life. What scares/excites/disturbs you personally and makes you sad?

It's much easier than reading it - you just need to watch your feelings during some difficult spots, of which you have several dozen in each session. Just be curious.

For example, ask yourself this question: “Why did I snap at this opponent? What emotion triggered in me and caused this reaction? What reaction protected me from feeling emotions?”

And be sure to look at the environment and how you feel it. You feel different when you're around different opponents/types of players/types of people offline. With one type you are less confident, with the second you are extremely relaxed, and with the third just keep you in good shape. It’s the same with physical conditions - be it online or live. One environment is more stressful, while the other is more relaxing.

Some of your reactions to people and environments will be rational and proportionate to them.

But as soon as reactions begin to become irrational and disproportionate to the impact on you, you should immediately notice this and try to find a cause-and-effect relationship while the emotion is fresh. This will bring you a lot of profit in the long run.

Now let's get back to a more substantive conversation about poker. Don’t worry, just know: if you were not interested in reading the last paragraphs about emotions, and even felt internal rejection, then you are the very person for whom this is most important!

How will this help you at the poker table?

The chain of processes here is simple, but effective and very important:

  • Looking within leads to a better sense of self-awareness =>
  • Self-awareness leads to greater empathy (how you feel about yourself and your opponents) =>
  • And empathy leads to big profits at the poker table because you better understand what is happening and can control it better.

I've said many times that the biggest edges in poker come when you know better than anyone how an opponent will play with a certain hand or category of hands.

Many times I directly physically felt what my opponents had inside when they played with me, but they could not do anything, even being in direct position on me. They were trying to show me a hand that I didn't think they should have gotten based on how they had played it so far.

And then you simply print money because you clearly see that something in their lines does not add up. But you need to reach a high level of understanding not only the emotions themselves, but also strategies and habits ouf your human opponents.

In the context of discomfort, you can do this by first recognizing what exactly makes you feel such discomfort. And then think about what might cause similar feelings and emotions in other people.

Obviously, you cannot simply project and assume that everyone is built exactly the same as you - no - because all people are different in some way.

But you can glean what you know about your own discomfort and what you observe in your opponent from showdowns, how he behaves, what and how he says (in live poker), the types of lines he plays with different hands, and also from other tips.

And soon you will begin to guess what is causing them tension, and therefore vulnerability,

  • What things would they be afraid to do (which would mean a strong hand when they do perform this action),
  • What methods of pranking do they like to stick to because it makes them feel good?
  • What things they don't really like to do,
  • And even what is closer to their liking globally.

These are all completely learnable skills. It is precisely moments like these that help to greatly narrow their ranges in different places and thus come to more informed and correct decisions.

As I have said more than once, the whole process follows a simple chain:

  1. Observation of oneself/opponents,
  2. Proposing the right hypothesis
  3. And then its verification by action,
  4. Repeat the chain. . .

Many people are waiting for stone cold information in order to decide to make serious adjustments to their game against specific opponents. And I think for really big adjustments that are far from GTO, you really need verified information.

But if you are in a spot where you have a bluff catcher, and calling and folding are about the same in EV, but you have at least 10% confidence that opponent is now weaker than usual, then just make that call !

This is not only a chance for you to increase your advantage, because the choice between calling and folding is essentially no loss, but also to gather more information and thus confirm your hypothesis or refute it and move on to a new assumption.

As you continue to analyze yourself and your opponents along this chain, over time you will read and understand your opponents better and better. Fortunately, having learned to understand one person a little, then your understanding will begin to spread to the entire type of such rivals, and then to the rest.

When your opponent shows a hand that seems poorly played, ask yourself questions like these:

  • Does he think he played correctly?
  • How likely is it that his performance is an adaptation to you?
  • Or is there something in this line that is an indicator that the enemy chose it for reasons of comfort - given my observations?

In my extensive experience in poker, the nice thing about developing self-awareness is that everything else will come naturally. And now you're looking at showdowns, interpreting statistics, and trying to take notes. So this increased awareness helps you do much better at something you already don't do well enough.

Thus, greater focus on emotions and greater awareness of yourself and others will help you use this data more effectively. But be careful: you may accidentally... improve your powers of observation in other areas of your life.

This article is made from Why Comfort is Your Biggest Poker Enemy video by Vladimir «ABIVPlus». 

There are no comments here yet, you can be the first!