As poker players, we’re constantly trying to gather the most information available. “Why did the 3 seat only buy-in for the minimum?” “Why did the button choose to limp in that spot?” “Why didn’t she re-raise when she had pocket aces?” Whether or not the information we’re gathering is at the poker table, or within the plethora of articles and videos available on the Internet, we need to be aware of who and what that information applies to. Not all information is created equally. (Look at the magazine rack in your local grocery store if you need further justification.)
Most of the information we read and gather is intended for a certain audience. There are certain concepts and strategies in poker that often don’t apply in most poker sessions. Advanced strategies and concepts can be useful to anyone, don’t get me wrong. But what’s most important is knowing WHEN and HOW to use that information.
I used to think that players who gave away strategy tips in articles and detailed video blogs were absolutely insane. Why in the world would you want to make it easier for someone to exploit you? Why make it more difficult to succeed at poker? Why make the competition tougher than it needs to be? But what I realize now, is that I should thank them. Thanks for littering minds with complex formulas and logical theory. I say this, because 95% of the people who absorb that information will misapply it. They’ll bluff shove like Brad Booth, because they saw it work on the best player in the world. They’ll debate calling down with bottom pair because Phil Ivey almost made the greatest call in High Stakes Poker history against Durrrr’s three-barrel. But you must be aware of the thought process that went into that entire hand. You need to be conscious of everyone’s perception at the table, and more importantly, their perception of you. You should be noticing how often they check, call, bet and raise in that spot, and of your tendencies as well. Those players had complete justification for those moves. (Although Brad, your move is still a little questionable in my eyes.) But, you need to have a REASON. Just because you hit your flush, don’t go check raising that river… yet.
Now on to an important side note. (Although somewhat of a tangent in comparison to this article.)
With my first article entitled “EV”, I had multiple people come up to me asking about particular aspects of my examples. They even questioned me on the validity of expected value. To say the least I was amazed. They made skeptical comments such as:
“Well, of course given the criteria you mentioned, you could safely eliminate certain hands from your opponents range. But you never have that much information. How can I know that for sure?”
“I completely understand the roulette comparison, but with poker there’s so many other unknown elements. It’s impossible to calculate correct values.”
Unfortunately, I agree partially with these comments. Poker isn’t an exact science. There is no particular formula we can find to extract the exact range of our opponents, why they decided to bet how they did, and what cards they hold at that particular moment. But what you can find, is your opponents tendencies — or how often they make the moves they make.
It takes time to do this. I wish we could safely evaluate our opponents the minute we sit down at a table. But that’s unrealistic. It often takes thousands of hands to come to a consensus about an opponent’s game, an even then, the good players are extremely keen on adapting and realizing their tendencies and altering strategies on the fly to counteract your initial strategy. That’s just a part of the game. Nothing in poker (or life in general) is certain. But you have to make the best use of the information that’s available.
I thought it was important to mention making educated hypothesis’ when it comes to playing poker, because poker is evolving rapidly. Many players are having difficulty adapting to a new young, aggressive playing style. Take a look at Daniel Negreanu for example. One of the best live tournament players in the world took serious time away from the felt, to understand why it was he was losing at cash games. He used to be rather successful. He began to lose to incredible, intelligent and sophisticated players like Durrrr and Phil Galfond. He had to look at his own game, and take the time to rebuild it from scratch to counter what a new breed of Internet players were exploiting about him. (P.S. If you weren’t aware you can always read Negreanu’s blog, read news, or check out this video.)
Long story short, it’s important to be aware of who your opponents are, what they’re trying to do to you, and how you can take advantage of the information you’ve gathered about them.
Because I also love to be thorough with my explanations, I’m also going to try to include as many POKER examples as possible in the future. (I may include a few Roulette references, but what can I say, I like the game.)
Now back to business. We were talking about knowing when and how to use information. Let’s start with some poker hands.
$1/2 online ring table. You just sat down, and bought in for $200. You wait until the big blind comes around because you know that patience is a virtue, and there’s no need to rush in right away. Good move, as long as you’re conscious about it. The player to your left has you covered by 3 times the max buy-in. Unfortunate. You’re dealt . The UTG player raises to $7, everyone folds to you. You decide to make the call to a flop of:
You check. Villain bets $10. You call. Turn:
You check. Villain bets $25. You call. River:
You check. Villain bets $40. You?
Before we get into more detail, what do YOU think we should do? Call or fold?
How about we min-raise! Let’s think about the information we have. Wait… we basically have NO information on this player! We just sat down at the table! (We could have plenty of hands on this villain in our poker software, but that’s for another date and time.)
Now let’s look at what little information we DO have, and how to apply it. You just arrived at the table. You waited for the big blind, often like many established players opt to do. (Whether or not you ARE an established player, is moot. Remember perception?) You decided to sit and play $1/2 online, which in general is a much tougher game than live play. Often played by decent, or even really good players. You called an UTG raise from the big blind. You called two streets on an EXTREMELY dry board. There’s no straight draw. No flush draw.
What hands might we be able to credibly represent with our min-raise?
Sets have the most potential in this spot. 33 is the biggest winner. Although 88 and maybe even 77 are also on the podium. KK may be unlikely, because we could have potentially re-raised this pre-flop early in our session for value, and gotten a call from the big stack. We could have the possible two pair as well, maybe K8 off-suit, K8 suited, K3 suited, both K7’s and K2 suited also. We also could hold something like 87, which picked up a pair on the flop, and made two pair on the turn. You also can’t forget about what you actually hold, all KJ’s, and also KQ’s, and AK’s. Hands like K10 and K9, and lower kicker kings probably wouldn’t be raising here.
Most importantly regardless of what you actually have, you must be aware of your surroundings, and your opponents characteristics. Let’s take a look at those as well.
He has a large stack: He may be capable of raising with a wider range of hands than normal, because he’s winning. We should also be keen to the possibility that he’s a good player. (More often than not, he didn’t win 2 buy-ins off of suck-outs. Let’s also remember, if he’s good, he may just be good enough to fold as well.)
He doesn’t know much about you: He can’t be sure of what you hold, unless he’s observed you play, so he has to fall back on experience. What he should know though, is that most people who check-raise the river usually have a monster.
It’s your first hand: Would you really want to lose a large portion of your stack right away?
When you consider all the information available, you might understand why a raise in this situation may be the correct and most profitable play. He could fold the best hand, and if he decides to call, your hand still does have value. Even if you’re beat, you can use that same play next time with your monsters, and force him into a -EV situation. This villain has now observed you playing a medium-strength hand in the same manner you would play the nuts. Consider it strategic advertising. You knew both the WHEN and HOW of this situation.
You’re playing $.10/.20 six-max online. You bought in for $15, slightly below the max. All the players at your table have similar stack sizes. You’ve been sitting down for awhile, and you notice there’s a good mix of weak-tight and fishy players. You pick up on the button. Player 2, who you’ve noticed limps a lot, performs his trademark action. You decide to raise on the button to $.60. Both blinds fold, and the limper calls you to a flop of:
He checks. You bet $1.20. He calls. Turn:
He checks. You bet $2.50. He calls. River:
He checks. You?
This is a scary board. You have enough experience to recognize that. Although you only have a pair here, you’re 95% sure your opponent has a weak ace, and there’s no way he can call a big river bet here. You decide to bet, only to have your opponent call with A7o.
Somewhere around this point, the chat box usually gets filled with profanities, and a barrage of poker slang like “stupid fish” and “hee-haw you F*&#^@! donkey gets thrown in the mix somewhere.
But consider the context of your environment.
You’re playing a fish: He’s going to call you anyway, especially with top pair. Fish almost always take their one pair and top pair hands way too far. You probably shouldn’t bluff much. And semi-bluff less.
You’re sitting at $.10/.20: Although it’s not impossible for your opponents to be multi-level thinkers, it’s not very likely either. I never suggest playing to the skill of your opponents, but be aware of what THEIR thought processes may be.
Good players are capable of observing and interpreting information. Although you may have been capable of that, your villain was not. In this case, you may have made a correct play, but you made it against the wrong opponent. You knew the HOW, but not the WHEN.
This time, we’re at your local casino. You’re in the cutoff at a really tough $5/10 game, in which you bought in for $2000. There’s a good mixture of tight-aggressive players, and loose aggressive players. Everyone is pretty intelligent. Some players have you covered, some don’t, but you’re pretty sure almost everyone at the table has multiple buy-ins ready to go.
A player whom you consider to be one of the best, raises in middle position to $30. You look down at . You decide to re-raise to $85, and he calls. Heads up flop:
Dream flop. He checks. You bet $110. He takes some time, and calls. Turn:
He checks. You bet $330. He takes almost a minute, and calls. River:
He checks. You?
Well… this is actually a very tough spot. It’s a little tough to put this opponent on a strict range, as you know he’s capable of showing up with a wide variety of holdings. Would you bet your AK here? Would you check back? What might your bet-sizing be on the river?
I’m going to leave that open for discussion. This hand was actually played by me recently, and I’ll come back with the conclusion, my reasoning, and the opponents holdings in my next strategy article.
While I never advocate playing up to your competition, you need to be aware of how your opponents will react. Don’t constantly go bluffing into a calling station. If you’re playing a fish, consider leaving some of the more deceptive plays out of your arsenal and value bet relentlessly. When your playing superior opponents, be certain that your advanced plays are both balanced, logical, and well-executed. But you should always have a thought process. Although you may have top-top, consider what hands your opponents might play to counteract your range. Stay on top of your game and your opponents, and make sure you’re using the information that’s available to you, in the right context. Just think.