The Foundations of Poker

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Chapter 7: Mastering the Game

I sincerely hope that you have found everything I have taught you so far helpful. However, I want to teach you how to develop your own technique that can bring you from being a little bit better than players at a casino to being so good that these players will leave the game before they play with you. In order to do this, one must strive to play game theory optimal, or GTO. GTO means playing in a way that another player never knows what one has and the player is able to maximize profits by betting the maximum amount another player is willing to call with their exact hand and minimize losses by never bluffing when the other player has a big hand and avoiding paying off the other player when one has the second best hand even in situations like set over set. GTO is a theoretical term rather than a practical term, for instance it is never a correct long term strategy to fold sets when there are no straights or flushes on the board. From time to time, another player will have a higher set, but this is not something to be overly concerned about. However, tending towards GTO is something every poker player should try to do. Following best response plays or standard plays that were described earlier in this book is a strategy that will allow a player to be profitable. However, if a player wishes to be seriously profitable, they must be able to sometimes deviate from these standard plays. For example, if one knows factually that a player just 4-bet with 22, one will 5-bet that player with any 2 cards such that both are greater than 2, including 34 as one’s equity will be close to 50% if the opponent calls, which they will almost never be able to call. In the same way, if one’s opponent were to 4-bet and show aces, one would fold kings without a 2nd thought. In reality, it is incredibly difficult to 5-bet for value with 33 and correctly fold to a 4-bet with KK, and it is very inconsistent to do so. If, however, one is able to do this in spots such as when having JJ facing a 3-bet in a tournament and make the hero fold to the opponent’s KK, or when one has 88 in a tournament and faces the opponent putting them all-in, being able to make the call and have the opponent turn over 56, one will make a lot more money than someone who plays standard poker as the standard poker player would never call with a sizeable stack.

Theories are, of course, much easier to apply in one’s head than in practice, however, one can use pattern recognition as well as psychologically reading into one’s opponent in order to determine the optimal course of action for one to take. Unfortunately for a player, their opponents’ jobs are to also play GTO, so logically the higher the level of poker a game is, the less of an edge any given player will have.

Nonetheless, looking into pattern recognition allows one to predict the opponents’ actions based on their past actions. If a player has a history of bluffing more than a standard player, then chances are they will continue to do so. This comes into play where one gets oneself into a spot where one is facing a tough decision, perhaps contemplating calling an all-in or a big raise when one now decides to call because of the opponent’s history of having bad hands in spots like these. If one’s opponent instead has a history of always having a big hand in similar situations, one will fold. Before one attempt to steal the blinds, one must analyze how often the opponents will defend and how often they will 3-bet. If one’s opponents have historical tendencies of not letting players get away with stealing, then one will only raise into the blinds with premium hands. However, if the opponents have a tendency to only defend or 3-bet with exclusively premium hands while they are on the blinds, then one will raise into them with any two cards because most of the time the raise will get through and the player will collect the blinds and possibly the antes uncontested. The concept of GTO includes a leveling idea, where if one has a predictable tendency, even if it is a slight one, that others will adjust accordingly. It also implies that when others adjust one will readjust to their new tendencies which adjusted to one’s old tendencies. If one is playing against a mediocre player, one will get away with adjusting without the player being able to readjust. If one is playing against a highly skilled player, then one will adjust but adjust in such a way as partially adjust, for example not steal every hand and sometimes get really aggressive, getting opponents to fold and showing them junk hands they folded to, always doing so to stay unpredictable. One should not usually show hands; one should only show bluffs if one wishes to induce more action from the table.

In addition to adjusting to pattern recognition, one must be able to make psychological reads on opponents. In poker, these reads are known as tells. One need to be able to look at an opponent and process everything that has happened so far in the hand. One then need to compare that to what the opponent has done in other hands and what 5-card hands they had in these other hands, linking their actions to their hands. One will look at literally everything they are doing including speech, body language, timing, and rigidity or fluidness. In regards to speech, one must think about what the opponent normally says. If they normally talk and are very silent or vice versa, this can mean, depending on the opponent, that they are bluffing or that they have a very strong hand. One needs to figure it out for each person which things each behavioral deviation signifies, then adjust accordingly. In addition to talking or not talking, if a person is talking in a different way or not talking by holding rigidly still, one may be able to pick up a tell. If someone makes a play super quickly, it generally signifies that they have a big hand. If one has a hand like top pair on the river and someone makes a huge raise as the river card is dealt, one should consider folding particularly if this raise is large compared to the size of the pot due to a timing tell. When someone becomes rigidly still, this can be another tell. One needs to attentively watch out for rigidity or other changes in body language such as either super relaxed posture, super stiff posture, upright-sitting posture, or slouching and decide what each means. One should pay attention to everyone at one’s table and note how their mannerisms change when they are making various plays. Before long, one will get a sense of what to expect from different people. These live tells are especially useful if one frequently plays with the same people. As many live tells are player specific, it is especially important for one to be incredibly attentive of any small deviations in a player’s behavior or mannerisms.

An important question to ask oneself while playing a game of cards is “what kind of player is each person sitting at this table”? When one can correctly identify what type of player each person is, one can make better decisions and approach GTO. If a player is ridiculously aggressive, one will wait until one has big hands and then let them try to run a pot over while one calls off one’s stack and usually doubles it up. If one has a player who is very passive at one’s table, then one needs to determine if he or she calls a lot or folds a lot, in other words determine whether the player is more loose passive or tight passive. If that player calls a lot, whenever one has a strong hand, one will want to bet large as their calling range is inelastic, that is, when they decide they want to call they will call for a huge price. For loose passive players, the worst players in poker, the saying to profit maximize against them is “bet big win big”, as they are definitional payoff wizards. If that person folds a lot, one will bet small because small bets will get them to fold frequently and if they are going to call on occasion, there is no need to waste more chips than necessary. Professional poker players tend to group players into four distinct categories:

Loose Aggressive

Tight Aggressive

Loose Passive

Tight Passive

This grouping is not bad as it encapsulates an array of playing styles, however, it is not great because it does not account for people in between categories. While the grouping may be theoretically sound, in practice, there are a spectrum of players on both the loose to tight aspect as well as the aggressive to passive aspect. The worst players are loose passive because they play almost every hand and call virtually everything so whenever one has a hand one just stacks off and the opponent calls one off. Historically, the best poker players were tight aggressive because they waited for good hands and they aggressively put in their stacks when they did. However, as the game has evolved and the best players have approached GTO, the semi-optimal strategy has evolved into being in between loose and tight as well as being between aggressive and passive. As discussed earlier in the book, this semi-optimal strategy is called standard poker. However, to play true GTO one must be fluid in their manner of play, such that some hands one is aggressive while other hands one is passive. Most of the time one will have amazing hands when one 4-bets, while other times one will have hands like 9T of hearts because it the opponent will usually fold but if not it can potentially play well enough on a fair amount of flops and if others see a player 4-betting so lightly, they will call their bets lighter and some of the time, the aggressive player will have a real hand, which is when they become the most dangerous players in the game. Going back the the four categories, however, one should try to label one’s opponent as one of the four or at least partially one of the four before one decides how to play against them. This way, if one ever runs into a situation where a tight passive player makes a big raise, one knows for sure that they have a big hand, whereas if a loose aggressive player were to make this same raise, if one has anything decent one would get one’s chips in the middle knowing how wide the range of hands that opponent would have to stack off. When players are playing more GTO than standard, one needs to try to use all the factors mentioned so far, which culminate into the gut feeling.

Something that a lot of professional poker players have but cannot articulate very well is the gut feeling they experience during a big hand. When a player has played poker for long enough, they have seen everything. They have seen people make crazy plays, make logical makes, make small bluffs, make big bluffs, show up on the river with a set despite having 2 overcards on the flop, cause verbal as well as physical fights, and make amazing plays of all sorts. When someone has seen enough plays, they generally get a sense of what a player has, even if not the specific 2 cards in their hand, but enough to determine whether to call, fold, or even reraise in certain tough spots, namely all-in’s or big river bets. The better the player, the more accurate that player’s gut feeling becomes. Overtime, as one’s skills develop one should increasingly turn to one’s gut in tough situations. At one point when I was starting to get good at poker, I remember always telling myself, “they have it” when facing a big raise or all-in from an opponent; never trusting my gut and calling off a lot of chips. I started being able to seriously profit in poker when I started listening to my gut. Of course, some of the time, one will make the incorrect decision. As long as one tends towards making mostly correct decisions and one can learn information about a player or their line, then one is fine with being wrong from time to time.

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