Every time I hear the phrase "the hands played themselves", uttered by commentators watching tournaments and cash games on TV, it irks me. It seems to fly in the face of what I've come to focus on in poker, the role of choice and skill. For so long, I have been led to think that I influence my destiny by each choice I make at the table. I can't control the outcome of the cards on the flop, turn, or river, but I control each of my actions at each step of the way. Do I raise, call or fold? Do I slow play, check raise, or bluff?
The longer I play, the more I realize that poker is a game of common situations. Sometimes the math of a particular hand does 'play itself'. In NLHE, if I raise A,K suited and I'm reraised by J's. I call. The flop comes 10, 9, 5 with two of my suit. It is likely you will get a lot of money in the pot with a 53-47% expected equity split. If I'm playing PLO with a hand like 10,9,8,7 double suited against A,A,K,5 single suited, and the flop comes A, 5, 6, it is likely a lot of money will end up in the pot again with a 56-44% expected equity split. The more important question for me is how might the outcome affect your future decisions. The deeper stacked you are, the more I would assert that the hands don't play themselves and that you can make a choice to walk away from 'coin flip' type situations. If you are 20-40 BB's deep, I understand that in a three bet pot, the money is going in under these common scenarios. With significantly deeper stacks there are more factors to consider
Considering the pot odds is not the only factor in determining your call, fold or raise. In cash games, if you know that you will 'press' if you lose a big flip, you can choose to pass on some coin flip type situations. You might be losing some expected EV in the hand, but saving money because you are more likely to keep your composure and put the rest in when you have a greater equity advantage. Some players don't respond well to big swings during sessions. It affects their future decisions. Those players could benefit from making some decisions to moderate their results.
If you are in a tournament, your life is more important than any one hand. Look to preserve your life, rather than putting yourself in multiple coin flip situations. I was watching a friend play in the mini FTOPs main event yesterday. I am always impressed by his ability to generate large chip stacks. He plays fast and loose, constantly applying pressure. His problem is even after he builds a nice chip stack, he continues his loose ways. So he can spew off much of his stack bluffing or playing too loose. He argues, "live by the sword, die by the sword", but I would say he has more of a choice. He is able to do what others can't, by regularly generating large chip stacks. But now that he is playing deep stack poker, he needs to be able to change gears to preserve and nurture his stack too. Even if the math would suggest a certain move, you can evaluate your situation and make a different choice.
Poker is a game of choices and incomplete information. If you are ever to be successful in poker, what shouldn't ever be incomplete is your sense of yourself and how you react to certain situations. In deep stack poker, you don't have to be a slave to the math. There is more at stake than just chips. Don't let the hands play themselves. Take control and determine what's right for you.