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Curiosity and The Calling Reflex

mouse_trapAs the saying goes, curiosity killed the cat. This phenomena backs what Mike Caro called The Calling Reflex.

The Calling Reflex is based on the belief that it is natural for someone to call a bet and, conversely, unnatural to fold. There are some players, calling stations, who call religiously with little raising. However, no player is immune to this instinct although it might manifest itself in different ways or in different situations.

The Impulse Call

What makes the Calling Reflex so troublesome is that, by nature, it constitutes a quick, thoughtless reaction to a stimulus. Therefore, acting impulsively will not be influenced by the type of player or situation you are in. For instance, while a postmortem analysis clearly identifies that calling an all-in check raise from a rock was a stupid move, this logic is lost in the heat of the moment.

If Mike Caro is right about the existence of such a “reflex” it should be high on your list of your leaks. Calling too much (i.e., playing passively) is never a good long term strategy and is easily exploitable by most opponents. However, there might be instances where it infiltrates your play in a more subtle way. That is, you make calls when you should likely fold. Whenever you snap call either pre-flop or after without putting any thought into this decision, you are exposing yourself to the risk offered by this reflex.

One example I see regularly occurs pre-flop. I am amazed at how often and how quickly people will call a pre-flop 3-bet out of position in the face of an ultra tight player. If the 3 bet isn’t a shove, which by my observation will snap a large percentage of players out of any reflexive state, there is a tendency to flat call way too often. This is usually a mistake because unless you are holding a premium hand, you are likely way behind. At the lower stakes, this is commonplace because people are willing to see the flop to see if they connect with a set or flop another monster. When it comes to long-term value, this situation dictates that you fold is most situations.

The good players will exploit this by playing tight and not slow playing their strong hands. Slow playing leads to lost value in the shadows of the Calling Reflex.

The ‘Whatever’ Call

Another situation which triggers the Calling Reflex in many players is on the river. Let’s say you are in position and flop TPTK and the action is checked to you. You continuation bet and get a quick call. Quick calls often signify a draw or moderately strong hand. It is checked to you on the turn which is, again, quickly called. The pot has grown and after the river card hits the felt, the villain over-bets the pot. A common reaction is to take pause but have an urge to call. If you listen to that urge without any additional analysis, you will call and showdown. The insta-call can be profitable depending on the player you are up against but this is an informed call based on previous observation. But if you are stuck on Level 1 thinking (i.e., What do I have?) you may be beaten more often than not because most people will not bluff with a busted draw in this situation and will hold two-pair, a set, or stronger. As a result, the villain, wittingly or not, might be exploiting this reflex.

With quick calls, the Calling Reflex has overridden your analytical skills. However, it can be a sneaky force even duringĀ  thoughtful contemplation.

Curiosity is a powerful feeling. Unsatisfied curiosity can drive us mad. Think about a hand that you’ve recently played where you made a tough fold. How long did you wonder what he actually had? Most people, myself included, won’t let things go that easily. Not knowing the answer to the problem in front of you can be agonizing. While the Calling Reflex can be damaging in the form of an impulsive call, it can be equally so in hand analysis if you are not careful. Based on Caro’s depiction of this phenomenon, if an opponent has you stumped you are still more likely to call to satisfy your curiosity. It’s like saying “whatever, I have no idea where I’m at”. Many will defend this with “I had to see what he had” as their justification.

Broken Clocks are Right Twice a Day

The ultimate problem with the Calling Reflex is that sometimes you will be correct and win a pot in these situations. Therefore, you will be rewarded for listening to that little voice that implores you to call. Sometimes, this is enough to grease up your trigger finger for next time.

While being a good poker player means fixing the leaks in your game, when it comes to the Calling Reflex, you want to be on the winning side of this as often as possible. Take advantage of the calling stations and push pressure on the good players when you are strong.

Kelly Doell, PhD is a mental performance consultant. Learn more about his work at www.KellyDoell.com



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  • Ivan Y

    I noticed many players’ defend 3Bets preflop too often. Especially in live poker games, and micro/small stakes online games. They defend 3Bets preflop out of position, which is very bad because mistakes are compounded post-flop with marginal holding.

    • Kelly

      I think the real mistake is to make a raise and not consider what you might do if 3 bet. That’s where the calling reflex kicks in imo. When their is no plan or little conscious thought, it creeps in. Then you are looking at a flop out of position and wondering what to do next!

  • Shahdad Samimi

    Ok so then when do u know if it’s the relflex calling and since ur “right” it makes the reflex stronger or if it’s a true read and more skill?

    • Kelly

      Another excellent question. Here is my take. If you have a read and you are wrong, you are making a decision based on information you have gathered during the hand and on the player to that point. That information is helping you decide the strength of your hand relative to theirs. If, based on this information, you conclude your hand is (or likely is) stronger and has a chance of winning the pot then you would call. Sometimes, you will be wrong because it is a misread. Such is life. However, when you blindly call without much analysis, your are letting reflexes kick in. Caro argues these reflexes are automatically biased toward calling. If he is right, and I believe he is, you are more likely to call a hand in a state of doubt or confusion than you are to fold. Or, MOST people will (even if you do not). I would say that the better players understand this and have some semblance of a plan on how to react in such circumstances. In short, if you put thought into each calling decision rather than reacting with a call you would observe when you were right and HOW you became right. This is valuable data. This can break the feedback loop that calling then getting lucky, if you will, creates. It will refine your feel for things.

      • Ivan Y

        Solid explanation Kelly.

  • Shahdad Samimi

    What about the fact that once emotion sets in it can override the logical mind rendering it useless?I can agree with the idea of a calling reflex based on wanting to fulfill the need knowing the unknown…. But sometimes decisions are emotionally driven…. How can this be address within this kiddo off calling reflex?

    • Kelly

      Yeah, very good question. I think Caro’s perspective on this reflex is that the decision part of the process is in deciding NOT to call as if calling is a default state (i.e., we are inherently curious animals). Emotions are similar to alcohol in that they cloud judgement in so many cases. To address emotions means to prepare emotionally to play. If you know that your emotions tend to steer you to call when you shouldn’t way too often, then this is an area to work on because this can be an expensive leak.