Last night was poker night, which is always great fun.

I tend to be pretty bombastic and blab and trash talk the whole night, and at one point I said something to the effect of, “We have a lot more guys here tonight than usual, so I’m gonna have to adjust my strategy and play more aggressively.”

One of my friends laughed and said I had it literally backwards.

My odds of having the best hand are worse with more players, so I should be more cautious with the same hand.

I half-heartedly tried to work through it and see if I could make sense of my instinct for aggressiveness, but it was in the middle of poker night, so I didn’t pursue it much and instead focused on my beer.

It kept bugging me this morning.  Why do I always feel I need to bet on weaker hands to have a chance at winning when there are more players, vs being able to wait for better hands before betting in a smaller game?

Take a 4 person vs. 8 person game.

Clearly, the odds that my hand will be good relative to the ranking of all possible poker hands is the same in each scenario.  I get two cards out of 52 regardless.

And in the larger game, it’s also the case that the odds that my hand is better than all the other players hands are lower, since there are more players I have to beat.  Having a hand better than 3 other people is more likely than a hand better than 7 other people.

So this would imply that I should be willing to bet on weaker hands in the 4 person game than I would in the 8 person game, since I likely need a stronger hand to win the latter.

That all makes sense, but it kept bothering me that, in my experience, I always feel that to survive or win in a larger game I have to be more aggressive, not the other way round.

I think I figured out why.

In a 4 person game, there is less likely to be a raise or a bet in general than in an 8 person game.  It’s not uncommon for everyone to “check” in a 4 person game, which means I can be a little more patient and choosy about which hands to bet on, since I’m not forced into a bet or fold choice as often.

In an 8 person game, the odds that every person around the table checks are much lower, as someone is likely to either have a good hand, or have a more aggressive personality.  This means that in order to survive and win and not just bleed blinds all night, I am pushed into bet/no bet situations more frequently, and I realize that I’m going to have to start betting a bit more aggressively than I would in a game with fewer raises.

Yes, when I do bet, my odds of winning are lower (only assuming that several other players stayed in, which is often not the case.  Typically even in an 8 person game, I’m betting only against 1 or 2 others who didn’t fold), but my odds of winning by never betting are zero, and with more bets in general, I have to bet a little more than I would in a 4 person game.

Of course, none of this factors in non-mathematical elements like the emotion of the event and how it changes with different personalities, more people leading to more distracting side conversations, people getting more impatient and making crazy bets because they want to win or lose so they can go home, etc. etc.  Maybe those factors alter the way I feel about larger vs. smaller games and it’s not so much about the math.

Or I’m just an idiot who’s gut is leading him to irrational strategies.  A definite possibility.  (Still, in the history of poker night, I’m the winningest attendee from a rotating cast (or at least tied for first), so I’ll take it.  Hi Cameron!)