A Battle Of Wits With An Unarmed Man
By Lou Krieger
In a cerebral game like poker, winning involves often outthinking, frequently outwitting, and generally outplaying your opponents. It's a far cry from physical sports like football, where unmitigated desire can carry you the extra yard needed to make a crucial first down, or weightlifting where a desire to push weight is always waging war with a countervailing impulse to let go of the damned thing before gravity destroys you.
In poker, selectivity and aggression are polarities on a continuum where one usually has to take a position somewhere between those two extremes to optimize the chances for success. "Do I push, do I pull, do I fold, or do I simply wait and see what develops before committing my chips to the pot?" That's the always the question, isn't it? And the answer is usually, "It depends."
All of this requires thought, but unlike chess where there is usually ample time to think about your next move, cogitate on whatever strategic ideas you are trying to implement, and consider what you might do to thwart your adversary's tactical thrusts there isn't enough time when you're playing poker. There's much to think about, and even the actions of those who have folded may need to be considered when contemplating the best course of action to pursue.
Lines of strategic thinking can vary dramatically depending on the skill and sophistication of your adversaries. That's an important point, and one that seemingly vexes some very bright players who ordinarily think deeply about poker, yet become frustrated when their sophisticated maneuvers fail utterly against shallow opposition. Shrewd, deep-thinking poker players fall prey to this all the time. Their tricks won't work because some opponents are not even aware that something's going on. The coolest of our table tactics the moves we'll boast about for weeks afterward when we pull one off and it works to perfection are all based on ploys that induce an opponent to either walk into our trap when we have a big hand, or surrender their own holding when we have nothing at all.
Mike Caro calls this "fancy play syndrome," or "FPS." We're not going to discuss FPS today, but we'll approach it peripherally by examining why your at-the-table analyses and tactical decisions should be predicated on the playing skill, ability, and awareness of your opponents.
Some of your opponents the worst of them, really don't think at all. There's no use in trying to induce them to take a certain course of action when they are not even going to notice what you're doing. Even if they were fully cognizant of your moves, they probably wouldn't care. This is the "Dumb and Dumber" school of poker, and these players are going to play their own hand. Period. End of story. But let's look at how that story begins. Suppose you raised before the flop with A-Q suited and came out betting into a K-9-7 rainbow flop. Dumb-and-Dumber will call your raise with 5-4 and keep calling until he wins by catching the four that pairs his hand on the river. Did he consider what you might have been holding? Of course not. The thought probably never even entered his mind. He's looking at his cards and his cards only. He never sees anything else. Or worse yet, he sees it but chooses to ignore the message that's staring him right in the face. And why not? He's having way too much fun bucking the odds and trying to draw out.
This is not the kind of guy you want to bluff, or even semi-bluff. The chances of our hero laying down a hand are nil. This can be frustrating to a sophisticated player because it takes an arrow out of his quiver and snaps it into twigs. Mr. Dumb-and-Dumber can turn an otherwise exciting game into a repetitive drill for the thinking player. Now it's just a game of showdown, with strategic options reduced to betting for value with the better hand, because all the cat-and-mouse elements of strategic manipulation have been removed from the contest.
But most opponents are not totally clueless. Some will put you on a hand, although their methodology often leaves much to be desired. Many players lock in on a single hand, never considering --even for a moment-- the range of possibilities one might infer from your betting action. This can work to your advantage. Just suppose you raised before the flop with A-Q suited and flop J-9-3 with two of your suit. If your opponent has locked in on you pairing a jack, he may never realize you've made the nut flush if a third suited card falls. "I put you on top pair all along," he'll probably say, while thinking to himself that you were damned lucky to back into that winning flush. Why did he consider top pair as the only possibility? After all, you could easily have raised before the flop with a variety of hands. While a big pair is a distinct possibility, so are two big flush cards. And that's not all. You might have flopped a set of jacks or nines too.
The truth of the matter is that it's not easy to put someone on a single, specific hand on the flop unless you know your opponent really well. It makes a lot more sense to consider a range of possibilities, and narrow them down as the hand develops. Here's an example. It's simplistic, to be sure, but it does serve to illustrate the point. A better than average, but fairly predictable player, raises before the flop from middle position. He bets into a ragged, unsuited 9-4-2 flop after his two opponents check. At this point he could have any number of hands, from a set of nines to any overpair, to big cards like A-K, A-Q, A-J A-T, K-Q, or K-J. There's no way to be sure, since he'd probably bet the flop at this juncture with almost any holding. But if an inconsequential turn card falls and the raiser checks after his opponents check in front of him, he almost certainly has overcards rather than a pair. After all, if he had any pair of sevens or higher, he'd probably bet the turn in order to induce anyone holding overcards to fold, since checking is a free ticket for someone to capture the pot on the river with a hand he more than likely would have folded if faced with calling a big bet.
At that point it's possible to put your opponents on big cards instead of a big pair, and it doesn't matter which big cards he holds; if you've got a pair you're ahead of him right now. If a small card comes on the river your pair will win the pot. If an overcard falls and your opponent bets, you'll probably have to call for the size of the pot. But that's poker, and you ought to snap enough bluffs off in situations like these to make calling worthwhile in the long run.
Whenever an opponent confesses that he put you on a single hand rather than a range of equally likely possibilities given your action before and on the flop, you can assume that while your opponent is thinking about your hand, he's probably doing so in a fairly simplistic manner.
When trying to think your way into your opponent's hand, you probably won't ever be able to initially pinpoint the precise cards he's holding unless he is extremely predictable or you know his play very well. But you will be able to assign a likely range of holdings and boil them down to a precious few based on his betting patterns, the shape of the board, and the actions of other players who might also be involved in the hand.
But a sharp player will not only be cognizant of the inherent strength of his own hand, he'll think about your hand too. If he's really sharp he'll even go one step further, and think about what you think his hand might be. That's three levels of thought, which is pretty deep, mind you. And you can go deeper too. There's really no end to the possibilities, but beyond three levels it's a game of wheels within wheels, and while it's an interesting logic exercise to try and decide what your opponent thinks you believe he might be thinking about what you are pondering about what he reckons you might have --you won't find players who do this regularly. Once you're thinking beyond level three, you run the risk of going one level too deep and faking yourself out of the pot. When the game becomes that cerebral, perhaps the very best thing you can do is find an easier one, or simply play your own cards for whatever inherent value they have, add a dose of game theory for the required deception, and save yourself the migraine you'll probably wind up with after a few hours at that table.
Confused? Want some news you can use? Start here:
- Categorize your opponents. If you're playing in fairly low-limit games, most of your opponents will simply play their own cards, and won't try to put you on a hand. If they do, they're likely to use intuition or some sort of twisted, pretzel-logic and come to the wrong conclusion more often than not. Deception is usually futile against these players. They probably won't hear the message, and frequently choose to ignore it even if they do. Just play straightforward poker and assume you'll probably have to showdown the best hand to win. You'll beat these guys by winning more money with your good hands and losing far less than they would on bad ones. It's boring poker, to be sure just keep your bag of tricks locked securely in the closet but you can contemplate your angst and ennui all the way to the bank.
- Good players will always put you on a hand or more precisely, a range of hands that they'll winnow down to a logical few. Since good players will be thinking about what kind of hand you're playing, they're susceptible to bluffs and other forms of deception. After all, the good player is trying to find out what you have concealed in front of you. It's your job to lead him down a primrose path so that he does precisely what you'd like him to do: bet into your big hands or even raise you in the mistaken notion that he's the boss, or fold mediocre holdings when you have nothing at all but can convince him that you're holding a powerhouse.
You can't deceive someone all the time; eventually he'll catch on to your chicanery and if you persist in bluffing too much he'll simply call whenever you bet and win often enough to have far the better of it. But you can and should bluff enough to optimize your wins. How often to bluff in order to optimize your wins is grist for another mill, but whenever you sense an opponent beginning to think along with you, that's the time to begin your campaign of disinformation.
- Every now and then you'll run into a very good, third-level player. He'll not only consider his hand and yours too, but he'll also be attuned to what you think he has. If he realizes that you're smart enough to read him for the kind of player who acts strong when he's weak and weak when he's strong he'll mix it up by acting strong when he is strong. Once you put him on a weak hand and raise what you think is a bluff bet, he's very likely to come back over the top with a reraise. After you've lost a hand or two in this fashion, you'll be like a baseball player facing an 0-2 count against a pitcher like Curt Simmons. When he's got you in this position, you can't just assume he'll waste a curve ball in the dirt. He might come with an off speed pitch, or a fastball just far enough off the plate so that you're defensive swing will either miss it entirely or ground out weakly to second base. He's got a foot is on your throat and he's not relenting. I don't know what opponents bat against Simmons when he's got them that deep in the hole, but it probably isn't much over .125, if that high.
Good poker players can do that too. They can manipulate you to the point where your response is a pure guess. If you guess, you're gambling, and if you haven't figured it out by now, gambling is not the way to win money when at poker. Against players this good, you'll either have to find another game, or play fairly straightforward against them though every now and then it pays to give them a taste of their own medicine. Broadcast a tell you're sure they'll pick up. Then broadcast it again when your hand is that proverbial horse of a different color. Once your opponent realizes that you are thinking at his level, he'll usually realize that he does not have quite the same control over you that he might have thought, and he'll begin to respect your play a bit more.