Poker Evolution Part 4

Poker Evolution Part 4

Monday, 28 July 2014

The quest for Optimal Poker

By Nicolas Levi.

Poker is adaptation. The top players are the ones who find the best style against their opponents. As poker has evolved, so have the weapons of the poker players. In this series, we will analyse how poker strategy got to where it is today, and where it will go tomorrow. Follow me on this journey and you’ll know how to adapt to new conditions, table textures, and what to do in delicate unknown spots. Here we learn to ask ourselves, “Why?” rather than just “How?”

Tables filled with good players

In the last episode of our Poker Evolution series we saw how the game changed with internet poker. Advanced strategies were freely available online. Keen players now had the ability to start building a bankroll from scratch, and also to play multiple tables at a time. Everything went faster with reduced variance. I personally deposited $20 in 2003, and ran it up to six digits in 12 months – and all without breaking basic bankroll management rules. A good friend of mine, Anthony Roux, became a professional starting from the $1 he borrowed from a friend!

Suddenly, it seemed like everyone had a friend of a friend who was a poker pro. More and more people realised that making a very good living through poker was achievable, and this caused something game changing to happen – as good players flocked to the games, natural selection took its course, and online games gradually became filled with savvy regulars. The game shifted from 'how to destroy the casual players', towards 'how to beat the good regulars', and with that all the past strategies became moot.

Small Ball 2.0

The small ball player evolved to adapt to more aggressive games. Let’s review this style first.

Profile: Small Ball 2.0

Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth.

Keep the pot small to lower variance. This will give more manoeuvring room to realise one’s edge.

Small raises, C-bets, hand reading, aggressive turn play.

The longball player. Even some very good smallball players are uncomfortable when the pot gets big. They may have picked this style because it fits a “low risk” personality, and will become predictably weak in big pots.

We studied the 1.0 version in our last article. Let’s discuss the ChangeLog from version 2.0 made to adapt to more aggressive games:

1. Less C-bets. Since players stick around on the flop more (floating), continuation bets are not as profitable. They are still the weapon of choice, but you need a good board. Only bet dry flops or boards when you have some outs in order to become less predictable.

2. Aggressive turn play. Since we are more selective on the flop, our hands are supposed to be stronger. We make up for the lost value on the flop by taking more risks on the turn. It comes with additional variance but that’s the price we must pay to remain competitive in tougher games.
3. 2x raises. Raising to 2x pre-flop is sufficient in mid tournament stages to get the pot started. Smallball players would probably raise 1.5x pre-flop if that was allowed!

Pre-flop Poker: the Maths of Aggression

Everyone wanted a piece of the new gold rush, and a big market opened for coaching sites. Most of these sites were run by top pros, and popularised a simplified 'system' of how to play poker profitably: pre-flop poker, or a simple version of what can be found in the famous book Kill Phil. It allowed thousands of players with less poker knowledge to take a shortcut. Using pre-flop poker, players could nullify the pro’s edge against them and all without necessarily needing to understand the finer subtleties of the game.

By focusing on pre-flop game, you cut off a lot of precision hand reading from the game. This is because a lot less information is available with just one betting round and no community cards to analyse. With only a position, a stack size and betting amounts to go on, the game becomes a lot more mathematical and systemic. In a way, the purpose of a system is the opposite of this article series: focusing on how to beat the game at any given time.

Don’t be fooled by my tone – pre-flop poker is exceptionally efficient. This is unfortunate, since it is partly responsible for destroying many intelligent, sophisticated, and exciting-to-watch poker players. In fact, as a Sit and Go expert I started as a pioneer of pre-flop poker, being laughed at by old timers. When the game happens pre-flop, we can get rather close to the holy grail of 'inexploitable strategy'. This means playing in a way that is theoretically optimal: where your opponent knows what your strategy is and has to do the same to break even, or lose. But more on this later.

Pre-flop poker does NOT mean doing the same thing all the time given a certain hand and a position. To be good at this, one needs to adapt to many complex and subtle parameters: table texture, game flow, opponent psychology. To force people to play pre-flop, we have to play very aggressively and aim to be hard to read. Therefore, we need to know all the available weapons and when to fire.

Profile: Pre-flop Grinder

Benny Spindler, Ludovic Lacay.

Pre-flop aggression is impossible to counter when done properly. Fold equity is gold.

Three-bets, four-bets, five-bets, squeezes, range calculation.

Secret Weapons:

Levi Lacay

Pre-flop poker follows the assumption that there is always money to be won in the pot right now. The idea is to almost always re-raise, and as a result prey on the smallball player’s weaknesses. At any given time, all that matters is my risk/reward ratio. In other words, how much am I risking to win in relation to the pot?

Any monkey can six-bet (providing, of course, that another monkey has made a five-bet!), but it takes great care to be aggressive without becoming predictable and getting burned. Since hands rarely go to showdown and raises happen early, proper hand reading is pointless and turns into 'range analysis'. One can see how removing hand reading from the equation makes pre-flop poker particularly suited for hard working players with less experience, but range analysis is not as easy as you may think.

For a while opponents will only know your 'frequencies'. They will say, “He always seems to re-raise me when he has the button!” or, “He takes every opportunity to squeeze from the blinds!” After a while, frequencies become a very good indicator of your true range. But consider this: if you raise in a spot about 25% of the time, you probably do so with the best 25% hands in poker, right? Think about it. Of course not!


To protect yourself against good players guessing your range, you have to use pre-flop poker’s secret weapon: pre-flop polarisation. Don’t worry about the fancy word; really all it stands for is 'all or nothing'!
Say, for example, you have three-bet a lot against the guy on your immediate right. You know that he will eventually play back at you, and you guess that he will four-bet whenever you’ve gone too far – you just don’t know when. Don’t be fooled into tightening your range and only three-betting decent hands like K-J and better. When the four-bet does come, having K-J will do you no good. It’s just not profitable to play in a big pot against likely bluffs. Furthermore, K-J is so profitable when you call in position that you don’t want to kill it by raising and having to call a four-bet.

Having a polarized range is good when a flop is unlikely. Holding K-J or 2-3o against a re-raise all in yields exactly the same value if the stacks are too big for a hero call (aka zero). So, to remain aggressive and keep your opponent at boiling point, your three-bet range should include a mix of real good hands (with which you are hoping for action) and a range of speculative garbage (with which you want a fold, but will sometimes hit the jackpot anyway). Everything in between becomes a call or a fold depending on the situation.

What’s interesting now is that if you three-bet 25% of the time, this could mean the top 20% plus 5% of crap, or the top 10% plus 15% of bluffs. To put it simply, it makes the guessing game that much harder for your opponent! If he four-bets, he will only get to play a big pot when you have the top part of your range – all of which probably crushes him. The rest of the time you get away quickly and unharmed. That’s leverage.
Sometimes you expect your opponent to defend by calling. In this case, you should do the opposite and use a “merged range” that includes medium and good hands. The key word here is “post-flop playability”. If opponents sometimes see you three-bet 9-9 or T-9s, they will have to keep guessing everytime they’re in a pot with you.

You can’t go all in profitably pre-flop with 200 big blinds, and your opponents know so. Remember it’s always okay to fold early in a tournament. Many talented pre-flop pros are very tight in the early levels, or they might even purposefully register late! The Spindlers and Lacays of this world are just as dangerous pre-flop as they are post-flop, and are able to play aggressive from the beginning if they think it’s right. Just be careful if you wish to do so yourself... it’s an acquired skill!

Exploitative Strategy Vs Game Theory Optimal

Pre-flop poker seems simple from the outside, but it’s a radical change of direction from the classic “exploit the fish” mindset. Since poker is a game of decisions, every time you make a mistake, you lose something – equally, every time your opponent makes a mistake, he loses something. Poker players have two fundamental ways to win at the table. If you try to win by pushing an opponent to make more mistakes, it’s called exploitative strategy. If you try to win by playing “perfectly” or “inexploitably”, it’s called optimal strategy. Most smallball players are exploitative: they count on their opponents folding too often in small pots, and adapt accordingly. The pre-flop player, on the other hand, is trying to be optimal. Sure, he will adapt his range to yours, but there is a balance point – the goal is to make mathematically sound decisions. Your opponents will mostly know what you are doing, yet there simply isn’t a way to exploit you until you make a mistake.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have one more style I want to talk about: the post-flop artist. No matter what your natural style is, you can add a little bit of art to your game when you feel you are the best player in the pot.

The Post-Flop Artist

Davidi Kitai, Tom Dwan

Initiative deception, pot size manipulation, hand reading.

Secret Weapons:

Levi Dwan

The post-flop artist is exploitative by nature: he exploits the fact that pre-flop players and small ball players are repeating the same kind of patterns all the time. He breaks this pattern by changing the game early on. For example, he might limp call on the button or the small blind. He might reraise to 3BB against your min bets. He could continuation bet 1/7th of the pot, and then overbet the turn. There are many different artists (not all of whom are good players, mind) and they all have different tendencies. If you observe them well, you might find a way to beat them or force them to revert to a more classic poker style (depending on their ego). Generally though, you risk feeling like you never know what they have, never know what’s coming, and always face the bet that you didn’t want to see. This can often force you to make close decisions.

Exploiting an opponent is more art than science. It requires understanding what would count as a mistake, and what your opponents weaknesses are. Do they tighten up too much in big pots? Does their bet sizing give away the game on the river? Are they check-raising too often when you make a continuation bet? You then create situations. This means provoking action by deviating from the theoretical “optimal” play, and becoming exploitable yourself. Encourage your opponents mistakes, recognise them when it happens and punish them by doing the opposite of what your opponent wants (re-raise the flop regardless of your hand, for example). This is hard and fine work, and if you’re wrong you will cost yourself a lot. Exploitative players are the most exciting to watch. For some insane videos of Tom Dwan’s best hands from High Stakes Poker, as well as Davidi Kitai’s infamous hand reading skills, check my Rankinghero profile:

Next month will be the last article in this series. We will analyze today's game texture and make a guess as to where things will go next. After that, it will be up to you to climb on top of the food chain and stay there. Best of luck at the tables!

Tags: Nicolas Levi, strategy, Poker Evolution