Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Big Hands, Big Pots

One of the habits I brought with me when I moved here from the CardsChat blog was to make strategy posts: instructional posts about poker. I made a lot of those on the CC blog, because that's what the readers requested. I'm going to stop that habit, because quite frankly I don't feel up for the job. I could rehash basic principles of poker but I'd feel kinda dumb about it because what I love about poker is its complexity and beginning strategies of play are always extremely oversimplified and take away that beauty, in my opinion. They're necessary to keep from drowning in the beginning, but they're not poker.

Poker is valuebetting second pair on a really scary river because your hand reading skills deduce that your opponent is unlikely to have top pair or a flush. That extra $40 of value that you get out of that river that a lesser player wouldn't.

Poker is adjusting your bet sizing to different opponents and board textures.

Poker is exploring all the options you have to play a hand and then making the most profitable decision.

So in the future when I make strategy related posts, they're going to be personal reflections rather than instructional articles, if you will. And I'm starting today, with the concept of "big hands, big pots." I'm not 100% sure about the origin of the phrase, but I think I saw Ed Miller use it first. The idea, in case you're not familiar with it, is this:

A very strong hand should play in a way that enables it to win a big pot.

A mediocre (but "showdownable," which is now a word, thankyouverymuch) hand should try to keep the pot size down and aim for winning a small pot.

The basic reasoning behind this is pretty simple: When all the money goes in postflop, it's unlikely that AJ on a J-8-6 board is going to show a profit simply because there are few hands that any opponents are willing to get their whole stack in with that you can beat. So you try to avoid getting yourself in a situation where you have to make a decision for your whole stack with a vulnerable hand.

Conversely, a hand like 88 on the same board cannot check back the flop because you should work on building as big a pot as possible, shooting for your opponent's stack. Big hands, big pots.

So what am I getting at? I'm not crazy about this principle. I don't think it's flawed per se, I just think it falls into a very common trap of simplification: hiding the difficult part. Because poker didn't get trivial when I started thinking of "big hands, big pots." It's a good thing to think about but it doesn't make the decisions automatic. Before this catch-phrase, we used to have people answering the question "should I valuebet AK on a K-high river?" with "it depends." Then came "big hands, big pots" but "it depends" is still the answer; it's just the answer to a different question: "is AK on this K-high river a big hand?"

By introducing "big hands, big pots" we didn't eliminate the problem, we shifted it. It reminds me of linear algebra where you can change the base of calculation and hope that the answer becomes easier to calculate. Sometimes - often - that's true, but you still need to do the calculation, easier or not. A different perspective can make a decision easier but it doesn't solve it.

Because, really, whether or not AK on a K-high river is a big hand depends on the texture of the board and what you know about your opponent. It's a "big hand" if he's likely to call a big bet with a weaker hand. And while "big hands, big pots" may work for some people, it never quite did the trick for me, but now I've found a way of addressing these situations that I find easier: I ask myself the question "how many bets can I win with this hand vs. this opponent?"

Example: $200NL, I open KQo to $6 in the cut-off and only the small blind - a fairly typical regular in these games - calls. We see a flop of Q-7-7. How may bets can I win off of my opponent if my hand is best?

My best guess: Two. My opponent is not going to put in three streets of action with an underpair, and he's fairly unlikely to have coldcalled preflop with a weaker queen than mine except (maybe) QJs. And what I need to figure out is how to extract those two bets in a way that maximizes my chances of winning. Perhaps checking back the flop and seeing if he bets the turn (which increases the chance of him bluffing), or perhaps betting the flop and hoping he takes one off with a medium pair and then I can check back the turn and hope he bluffs the river or calls a value bet.

And once I have that part of it thought through, I can start to think about how I want to size a potential bet to maximize value. Perhaps the turn brings a third flushcard to the table and I have to flush my plan of checking back the turn to induce a river bluff in favor of betting the turn and checking back the river since there are now more hands he could call a second bet with that wouldn't call the same bet on the river unimproved. Etc.

And while this opponent might have "two bets" stapled to his virtual forehead, another opponent with exactly the same hand could make me think "three bets, easily, and I'm happy to get it all-in at any point" or "one, tops."

No, this perspective didn't "solve" poker, either. It can't; it only shifted the calculation. Because, in the end, it still depends.

And that's the beauty of it.


WVHillbilly said...

Have you read Professional No Limit? I find that the SPR concept they discuss to death in that book works well to plan how big I want the pot to be against certain opponents.

Fredrik Paulsson: said...

Oh yeah, I've read it. I like the SPR concept a lot; it's good to put a name on a concept that everyone's "sort of" intuitively aware of.

Roy said...

Very nice blog Fredrick.
I always feel like I've eaten a good meal after reading your blog.

-Roy aka Four Dogs

Fredrik Paulsson: said...

Content but sleepy? :)

Thanks, Roy.

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