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Mandatory Calls

Recently, in a no-limit tournament in St Annes, I was criticised by another player for not calling an early-position all-in raise of 4,600 chips - the blinds being 600/1,200 - when I had A,10 offsuit on the big blind and was the chip leader with around 40,000 chips. I can't remember the exact words my critic used, but he made it clear that even with 7,2 offsuit I had to call. Another critic would have said the call was 'mandatory'. That's something I've heard regularly since I started playing poker four years ago, and I seem to be hearing it more and more. As I've always resisted the imperative expressed in the claim, I thought it a good time to present my views on the subject.

What does someone mean when he states that a call is 'mandatory'? Check the Collins English Dictionary and you will find two definitions:
(1) having the nature or powers of a mandate, that is, an official or authoritative instruction or command;
(2) obligatory or compulsory.

Around the poker table the words 'obligatory' and 'compulsory' - not to mention 'no brainer' - are used almost as often as 'mandatory' in respect of the calls I'm discussing; yet unless a player has to post a blind, there is nothing obligatory or compulsory about any of the bets he makes. A dealer is obliged to deal as part of the duties he has agreed to perform for a wage. The only obligation a player has is to post blinds every round. Apart from that, he always has a choice whether to make a bet or not. That is to say, 'obligatory' or 'mandatory' calls, other than blinds, are a myth. Calling a raise is never mandatory. Anyone who refers to such a call as 'mandatory' does so either in ignorance of the meaning of 'mandatory', or to give a spurious authority to his view that a player should call.

Worse still, it sometimes happens that the player who has to decide whether to call or not tells himself that the call is mandatory. Why is that? One reason is that he seems to believe that because another player is all in, he has a duty to try to knock him out. After all, they are playing a knockout tournament and, if he doesn't eliminate the other player, the other player may eventually eliminate him. That can happen. But it can also happen that in calling with a weak hand, knowing that he is probably behind, and losing, he enables the other player to double up. This would give the other player two or three additional rounds to find another winning hand and so be a greater threat to everybody, including himself, over a longer period. In certain situations, I suggest, it's better to allow the other player to win the blinds but the blinds only; he would still be weak and, with the blinds rising, increasingly vulnerable.

Of course, it may be that a better opportunity to eliminate him will not arise; and yes, there are times when calling would be the wiser option. But we shouldn't delude ourselves that the player has no choice in the matter. Misusing a word like 'mandatory' can have that effect. 'You should have called', 'You had to call', 'The call was mandatory' - these three statements do not necessarily mean the same thing; we only confuse ourselves if we think they do. The problem is that very often a person will misuse a word - in ignorance or wilfully - because doing so makes it easier for him to believe something. That, I suspect, is sometimes the case in respect of 'mandatory'. If a player believes that a call is mandatory, he doesn't have to rack his brains trying to decide whether to call or not: he calls. No thinking required. Thinking can be hard even at the poker table, and who wants to make things hard for himself?

Is this the gambler in all poker players coming to the fore? If so, it should be resisted. Thoughtless poker is bad poker, however profitable. Thoughtful poker doesn't guarantee that a player will always make the right decision; but it is the only way he can make right decisions and play poker he is entitled to believe is good.

Warren Clarke


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