Bad Poker Science and a Disagreement
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
ENTRY A: The experiment that failed.
The other day, I’m sitting at a poker table populated with giggling gamblers, all eager to fire chips into the pot, not even grumbling when they get beat.
I am happy. Winning? Sure, for the 27th time in 30 days, to be exact, but that isn’t the main ingredient of my happiness. I am happy, mostly, because I have personally created this profit-making atmosphere.
Several hours earlier, when I’d taken my seat, the game was dull, daunting, and definitely not the kind you’d drive miles to play in. Everyone had been nearly silent. Everyone. Every bet was weighed and measured. Every one. Well, OK, not every player and not every bet, but you get the idea.
Nobody was throwing away money for the sheer joy of it. What? Are you supposed to throw away money for the sheer joy of it? Not you. Them. In fact, one of the key concepts in the graduate-school level of poker is that it’s often your job to move your opponents emotionally and make them be in the mood to throw away money for the sheer joy of it. Think about it.
How it’s done.
So, naturally, I sat down and explained to this group, in a well-practiced, joking, and flamboyant manner, that they were too quiet and the game was not fun. I then barged recklessly into several pots with the saddest hands you’ve ever seen.
"Finally, we’ve got a game!" boomed a mid-thirties male in a radio-broadcast voice. Twenty-seven minutes and 14 seconds later, by an actual rough estimate, the game is chaos. I’ve quietly sunk back, unnoticed, into a mode of play that – while somewhat loose – is more conservative than average for the table. Now it’s time to siphon off my profit. And I do.
Of course, if you’ve played with me, you’ve seen this act before. I don’t use it all the time, and it doesn’t work every time I use it, but almost. The specific secrets of how to accomplish this psychological magic without having it backfire and without overspending is worth a whole book, and I’ll leave the topic for another time. Just remember, when performed correctly, that initial money used to play those strange hands in the beginning is not given to your opponents. It’s just lent to them. And, sometimes you even get lucky and win at first when you’re not trying to.
I guess I lied.
I’m getting off track. The point I wanted to make today is that in the January 12, 1996 issue of Card Player, the very first one of last year, I explained how I’d been trying a different game strategy and a different image each of the previous three years. I was monitoring the results and would eventually publish some findings. Then – and here’s where I got into trouble – I declared that the next year, 1996, I would basically play tight.
Well, I did – often – but I just couldn’t hold my breath that long. The opportunities to use the psychological techniques I’ve developed kept tempting me. And soon, in contrast to the previous three years when I’d played pretty much according to the experiment, I was straying from my announced plan. Of course, from a profit perspective, that was good. I was using my best judgment in adapting to the games. But from a scientific experiment standpoint, this was no good at all.
So, I’m extending my tight-play experiment into 1997. I won’t use it all the time, but sometimes. When I get a large enough sample, I’ll try to correlate the results with the other three strategies and images I used in 1993, 1994, and 1995. Then, I’ll let you know what I’ve concluded.
Anyway, 1996, my year of playing tightly, was a scientific disaster – an experiment that failed. On the other hand, I’m probably better off in terms of money because of that failure. Tight, by itself, never has been the answer.
ENTRY B: A fundamental disagreement.
If there’s one single place where I disagree with published contemporary poker theory, it’s in the area of betting aggressively when you’re first to act.
The most widely described situation is heads up. You must decide first, and your hand is marginal. Should you bet. Well, that’s easy. The answer is "sometimes," and it’s very important that you understand it. If you think there’s a yes or no answer, you’re not living in the real poker universe where you often must vary decisions like this in order to be less predictable. But having said that, which is better? Betting that marginal hand into a lone opponent when you’re first to act? I don’t think so.
The theory for betting says that you should sometimes bet hands if you’re first that you wouldn’t bet if you were last. That’s because, when you’re last, you have the absolute chance of getting a free card by checking, but when you’re first, you don’t have this added benefit and betting has a proportionally greater value among your options. This reasoning is wholly true and unarguable. The question is, how much and how often is this really a benefit.
Skipping straight to the answer.
I’ll skip the analysis and just get to the advice. I believe you should check borderline hands in the first position heads-up much more often than most professional players do in practice. The truth is, you’re at a disadvantage when you’re first to act. So, all things being equal, your opponent has an edge when you have a borderline hand and must act first. This remains true whether you bet or whether you check. I believe you should check at least twice as often as you should bet, but there are exceptions that cry out for the bet.
You should especially bet any time you’re against an opponent who seems to fold more often than is correct. And you should especially check (and then call) any time you’re against an opponent who seems to bluff more often than is correct.
We’re talking about a minor quibble I have with a few very thoughtful analysts who believe that betting from the first position heads-up with marginal hands is usually best. I believe just the opposite, based on careful analysis, but you can always define your opponents however you choose, and then either side of the argument becomes correct.
Although I’ve often advised that you should bet marginal hands quite liberally, you’re much better off trying this trick when you’re last to act. That’s very important. Bet marginal hands that have some already-made strength (usually a pair), more liberally if you’re last to act; if you’re first to act, usually check. If you have speculative hand (often a try at a flush), usually check if you’re last to act – just accept the free card; if you’re first to act, sometimes bet, but usually check and hope to get a free card. All in all, lean toward checking when you’re first to act heads up and hold a marginal hand.
Be happy – 1997 is going to be your personal best year ever. Unless something bad happens to you.