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A Multiple-Choice Test That Covers Odds, Psychology, And Strategy

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

Last issue, I presented a four-question poker quiz. It was fun, and here’s another quiz for today. This time, there are only three questions, with four choices for each one. Your task – your only task – is to select A, B, C, or D. If you get enough answers right, I’ll reward you at the end of the column. If you don’t, be prepared for the consequences.

These are score-as-you-go quizzes. You won’t find the answers bunched together at the end. Instead, each answer is explained immediately following the question. Remember how many answers you get right. I’m ready anytime you are. Here comes the first question.

Question 1:
You are building your bankroll. It is growing but not yet large enough to offer you security. You’re in a no-limit game against weak opponents. Which is the best advice?

Remember, you’re the favorite here. These opponents are unsophisticated, and you know you can handle them in the long run. But will your bankroll hold out?

Answer:
(A) Play many weak hands for the first few hours, conditioning your opponents to gamble with you.
(B) Always move all-in with medium-strong hands, preventing opponents from drawing out.
(C) Throw away a lot of hands when you have only a small advantage.
(D) Press your small advantages, because this is where most of your profit will come from.

Answer 1:C. Playing no-limit poker while building a bankroll can be a frightening experience. Doom can be delivered on the next deal. An opponent’s sudden surge of good fortune can shovel you under. You can go broke in less time than it takes to run a horserace.

Limit poker gives you protection. You try to choose the sizes of limit games you are likely to survive. If you have an advantage and a reasonable bankroll, you can usually make it grow. How big is a no-limit game? Well, there’s no answer to that, really. It’s like asking, "How big is a limit game?" Silly question, right. It depends on the limit. Well, the word "no-limit" doesn’t determine the size of a game any more than the word "limit" does.

What theoretically determines the size of a no-limit game is how much money is in the pot before the cards are dealt. This money usually takes the form of blind bets. Sometimes antes. Sometimes both. Players gauge the size of their wagers by the amount of money they can gain. Bigger blinds, bigger game. In practice, no-limit games with small blinds are traditionally misplayed. The bets tend to be much larger than what can be justified by the initial size of the pot. That’s something to keep in mind, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with what we’re discussing. I got sidetracked. Sorry.

So, here you are in this no-limit game. You would like to take advantage of every little edge that comes along, but you can’t afford that. You need to survive. Besides, weak players are such that you often can forego high risks in the pursuit of small profit and concentrate on hands with the large edges. If you do this, you’re often quite certain of winning their chips.

If you’re on a limited bankroll, or even a fairly substantial, but not infinite bankroll, you should not commit yourself to pot-limit or no-limit pots with marginally strong hands against pathetically weak opponents. Reckless opponents will likely give you their money sooner or later in no-limit (and pot-limit) games. By playing marginally strong hands you are making two mistakes:

1. You’re limiting the certainty of getting the money and adding to your fluctuations

2. You’re accepting a lesser percentage return on your cumulative investments in the pots. This may be all right under some circumstances (it’s the total money won that’s usually important), but not all right when you’re going after a limited amount of money. It’s specifically not all right when your opponents only have a finite amount to lose, and you’re more likely to win it by being more patient and taking smaller risks.

Usually in no-limit, there’s only so much to win (on the table, plus reserves in opponents’ pockets) and you can only get it once. So, why take unnecessary chances? There is an argument in response to that, though. One reason you might want to negate this advice is if several opponents are also going after the same money, and you want to keep them from getting it first.

In general, though, the answer is C – throw away a lot of hands when you have only a small advantage. Wait for better opportunities.

Question 2:
You should identify opponents who continually use deception. Then, the best strategy to use against them is…

Answer:
(A) Don’t bother calling unless you have the highest-quality hands.
(B) Raise them every chance you get.
(C) Check marginally strong hands instead of betting, and call them more often.
(D) Usually bet into them when you’re first to act.

Answer 2:C. There exists a magic formula for defeating your most deceptive opponents. Keep in mind that deceptive opponents are often the ones who’s egos overwhelm their common sense. They are always looking for creative ways to play hands.

At my seminars, I describe something called FPS (Fancy Play Syndrome), which is one of the biggest bankroll destroyers ever known to poker. Playing solid, conservative poker earns long-term profit, but it won’t always get opponents’ attention in the short term. Well, what if you want to impress your opponents?

Don’t snicker. Lots of players seem to have that as a primary goal. Illogical as it may be. They satisfy their psychological need to impress by usually choosing the fanciest and most creative way to play a hand. Now, if you’ve ever followed my thinking, you know that I believe that fancy and creative really is a good thing. Used sparingly, it puts opponents off guard and gives you psychological control of the game. It’s much easier to win their money when you do that.

Fine. But lots of ego players overdo this. They suffer from FPS, and you may never know what their going to do next. They check-raise. They bet irrationally. They bluff. If you’re like many of the players that I have privately counseled, this is unsettling. You’re always on edge. Their strategy seems to have you confused. Is there a way to combat these unpredictable opponents?

Sure. It’s C – check marginally strong hands instead of betting, and call them more often. You want to check and put them in the lead. That’s where they’ll destroy themselves. And you want to call much more often than you would call typical opponents. Why? Because these guys are often trying to bluff or bet their way to victory. Being a habitual caller, even a wimp, tends to work well against them. Just don’t fold semi-strong hands.

Why not raise and give them a taste of their own medicine? Good question. Actually, this is not a bad strategy against someone who is interfering with your game plan. If there are many weak opponents in the game, and one unpredictable player is making it hard to target those weak foes, something needs to be done. Often a brief flurry of raises will force that opponent back in line.

In general, I teach that you want to be the force to be reckoned with at the table. But sometimes, when there are other unpredictable opponents at the table, it’s better to just let them have the stage so they can destroy themselves. Checking and calling will often do just that.

Question 3:
Playing in a typical limit poker game, what is the maximum number of players you should try to bluff on the last round of betting?

Answer:
(A) One.
(B) Two.
(C) Three.
(D) The more, the better.

Answer 3:B. It’s usually a mistake to bluff three or more opponents on last betting round. Mathematically and theoretically, what I just said is nonsense. At least, it’s nonsense if you’re thinking about a hypothetical game in which everyone is trying to play correctly. In that case, you should attempt a bluff more rarely against many opponents than against a single opponent, but you should try to bluff many opponents at least some of the time.

That makes sense. But here’s the truth. Typically opponents don’t correctly adjust their calling decisions based on the number of opponents. They seem to consider their hand in isolation and make their decision on the basis of its strength. While they do adjust somewhat to the fact that other opponents might overcall, they don’t adjust nearly enough. In some case, they may not adjust at all. Here’s what happens in that case…

Let’s say it’s exactly 50 percent likely that each opponent will call. The pot is $100, and it costs you $20 to bluff. Mathematically, it looks like this:

One opponent. Bluff attempt is worth $40. You would gain $80 on two tries.
Two opponents. Bluff attempt is worth $10. You would gain $40 on four tries.
Three opponents. Bluff attempt costs $5 in profit. You would lose $40 on eight tries.
Four opponents. Bluff attempt costs $12.50. You would lose $200 on 16 tries.
I won’t explain the mathematical reasons for this here, but trust me, the logic is very simple. Wait! OK, I’ll try to explain, but I won’t get bogged down in it, because most readers don’t care about this. For the statistically inclined only: It’s just a matter of calculating 50 percent (0.5) to the power of the number of opponents. That is your chance of succeeding with the bluff. Divide this answer into one, and you get the number of attempts required, on average, for each successful bluff. Begin with $100 as your profit on the one time you will win. Subtract $20 for each attempt you do not win – which is all but one. Divide that result by the total attempts. This is the profit or loss, on average, per bluff. Example for two opponents: 0.5 to the 2nd power is 0.25, then 1 divided by 0.25 yields 4 attempts for each win. Start with $100 profit for the one win. Subtract 3 times $20 = $60 for the three failed attempts. Total is $40 profit. Divide by four tries. Answer is $10 per bluff attempt.)

I’m not suggesting that this is a good real-life model of how players actually react to a potential bluff. Certainly, a single opponent doesn’t fold half the time. I’m just simplifying. I’m saying that, in general, typical opponents pay too little attention to the number of potential callers. So, to a great degree the real poker does follow the logic presented.

What does it mean? Well, sometimes it’s OK to run a rare bluff against many opponents. The chemistry may be right. The cards may dictate that the early opponents must fold, and you should only worry about the last one. Or they may dictate that if you get past the first opponent you’ll win the pot. Also, some opponents choose not to be embarrassed. So, if the first players pass, the player is less likely to risk that how-dumb-can-you-be look from those who already folded. Better, they may think, to just follow along and not risk the criticism. In spite of those cautions, it is still true that most players tend to call largely on the strength of their hands, without giving enough regard to the number of opponents.

And because of this phenomenon, you should not attempt to bluff more than two opponents on the last betting round.

Scoring: New rewards and punishment.
This time, I’ve decided that if you got all three answers right, you can take one day off next week. If you only got two right, you get to go to Denny’s for coffee.

If you scored just one right, you must go into the backyard at noon tomorrow and spray yourself with the hose. If you didn’t get any right, you can’t watch any sports on TV this weekend. Remember, nobody forced you to take this test, and those are the consequences.




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