Poker Evolution

Poker Evolution

Monday, 23 June 2014

Part 3: Small Ball Poker and Gus Hansen

Back for the third article in his series looking at the evolution of strategy over time is RankingHero Ambassador Nicolas Levi, continuing with “The Great Dane” himself - Gus Hansen.

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?”

As internet poker evolved and the first small ball players started to dominate, one enemy stood before them. Gus Hansen. The king of aggressive poker. Don’t be fooled by the millions he’s been losing recently: the Great Dane revolutionized the game at the beginning of the millennium with his constantly aggressive style. He was so far ahead of the curve, that even at the high point of his career he still got called lucky by many pros. In this article, we’ll go beyond appearances, analyse the Smallball style and see why it never stood a chance against the Danish phenom.

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The Golden Age of Poker Strategy

In 2002 online poker was just getting started, and with it a new crowd started playing poker. Strategy was going through a profound change led by a new generation. This generation was one that would not have dared enter a casino: mathematicians, computer scientists, and all sorts of smart geeks who at this time got into the game. I’m one of them. These players were naturally inclined to see poker through a different light. When you play live the first time, the social pressure is paramount. The stares, the tension, the emotions are all over the place. You leave the table the first evening thinking you gave away too many emotions, or that this guy annoyed you so much that he made you tilt. (Unless you hit your misplayed draw, in which case you will think you’re the best thing since sliced bread). The psychology factor is overwhelming, and that’s what you tend to need to work on first.

I’m not saying there is no psychology online – far from it. In fact, I think tilt may even be more frequent and costly online. Yet when you are able to play in your living room wearing just a dressing gown (if that! Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone...) the psychology is not as immediately apparent. It’s an acquired taste. Instead you notice number. Betting amounts. Pot sizes. Chip counts. All appearing in full letters on the table layout. The bet is 750, not a pile of green and blacks thrown forcefully into the pot by a gloating opponent. You quickly learn to use this data in your decision process.

Online players gathered on internet forums to discuss strategy. They created tools to solve some age old poker theory debates. With maths comes “definite” answers, and “unexploitable” strategies. For all the good it did to the game, there was a downside: it came with a false sense that there existed a “right” move for each situation. How wrong that was. Gus never seemed to make the “correct” play. Yet at the end of the game, he often had all the chips.

Table Texture

Online, most average players were new to the game, playing for pennies. They were basically calling stations incapable of folding. It is said that the casino’s greatest invention is chips, because they are psychologically easier to lose than bills. Well, what about numbers on a computer screen? My guess is the texture online was not so different from the one Doyle faced in our first article: tourists and tight grinders, except for two significant factors:

- The stacks were far less deep with a cap on 100 big blinds in cash games, and therefore overbets couldn’t be as effective.
- Because online one sees a lot more hands per hour, it is easier to be patient and ditch hands that missed the flop.
Altogether this means that small pots are more relevant… and profitable. Doyle was setting up his opponents to lose big when he hit big. Conversely, the online “grinder” used a low risk strategy to win many small pots and gain an easy edge. The following became cardinal rules:
- Limping is a sin: if you want to open a pot, raise.
- If you raised pre-flop, you should almost always bet the flop (continuation bet).

As you know, I don’t like dogmas. I do like these rules though. Let’s see why they make sense, starting with the Aejones theorem: “Nobody ever has anything”.

Not to be taken literally of course, but an important fact in poker: good hands are rare. Okay hands are not even likely! Here are some telling numbers to back this up:

- A non-paired hand will flop a pair or better 32% of the time
- A small pair will flop a set 12% of the time
- Suited cards will flop a draw 11% of the time

That’s right; everyone misses post-flop at least 2 times out of 3. Since this holds true for us as well, more often than not we’ll be hoping for a fold when we bet the flop. If villain does have nothing, all we need is a bit of credibility to have a very good chance at seizing the pot. This means that we can profitably bet nearly every flop with less than three opponents. I say “nearly”, because the balance between aggression and credibility is important. People will fight back eventually if we “always” do something in a given situation. Another thing we need to be credible is to represent a strong hand. Since we routinely bet the flop to get some respect we need to have opened the pot with a raise, and it’s better if we don’t open too often and let our opponents breathe.

So why is this called “Smallball”? Poker is a game of risk vs. reward. Since we often have nothing and risk a bet to steal a pot, we want our bet to be as small as possible in relation to the pot. Standard bets keep getting smaller and smaller. Live players at the time would routinely bet the pot or more post-flop. Pre-flop, depending on local customs, you could see openings from 5 to 20 times the blinds. In France, I saw a game where people routinely opened to €60 pre-flop when the big blind was €2. In the UK, I even played in a game with no blinds! You could wait all year for A-A and K-K and be a winner in that game, but players didn’t care much since the commodity was time, and everyone came to play.

Online, the games became far more “standardized” with most influencers raising to 3 big blinds (or 2.5 big blinds in some cases), and everyone copying it. It still seems a lot by today’s standards, but remember that the texture was different. The Smallball player is not as comfortable in a multiway pot, and if everyone raises to 5x and you make 2.1x, you will attract a lot of unwanted love. Today, I see the occasional live game where everyone makes huge opens, and it always amuses me to observe the inevitable young genius present; the guy who doesn’t understand why his usual strategy doesn’t work, and in frustration, blames the level of competition. Don’t be the guy that tries to play Smallball in a game not meant for it. Adapt, adapt, adapt!

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Smallball Poker 1.0

To sum up, the first Smallball players had a good life. Their style was fit for its purpose – destroying weak calling stations while being hard to exploit by the other good players. It was a style so good and simple that, 12 years later, it is still somewhat successful at small- and mid- stakes. The main principles are as follows:

- Play tight aggressive pre-flop. Open up a lot in late spots. Never limp.
- Raise the minimum to achieve your purpose.
- If you’re the aggressor, bet very frequently on the flop.
- Beware of big pots – play very solid if raised, and after your flop bet.

Looking at the paragraph above, can you guess how Smallball 1.0 got destroyed fair and square by talented maniacs like Gus?

Gus: Smallball, Maniac Style

Despite their protests, so-called “unexploitable” players had a major Achilles heel: they wanted to keep a solid image, therefore maintaining their ability to win pots uncontested. Variance was the enemy, and they avoided it like the plague. On the other hand, Gus recognised that some very volatile situations held the most edge, and embraced it. This sometimes backfired, but because he got himself in difficult situations all the time, he became a much better player than his competition.

Here were his weapons of choice:
- High frequencies
Raising more often than anyone else at the tables puts tremendous pressure on your opponents. It makes you hard to read, and if both the pros and the amateurs tighten up a lot post-flop, why not? Gus added speculative hands to his range like K-4s or 8-9o. Hands that weren’t often played at the time and weren't meant to go to showdown, but could sometime become strong enough for a semi-bluff post-flop.

- The three-bet
Gus put Smallball players to the test by three-betting most playable hands in position. The Smallball player hates calling and losing the initiative, and he’s not comfortable in three-bets that make the pot bigger, thus increasing the variance. Gus’s three-bet frequencies were insane, and all because people were almost never willing to re-raise him.

- The spite call
Rarely, but very famously, Gus made very borderline calls that we might call pure gambles. I will repost the T-8s video against Esfandiari on my RankingHero profile – have a look (watch here: and tell me it’s not breathtaking! These calls may have been -EV at the time, and I still have no idea if Gus fancied a gamble or was just purposely screwing with his image while on TV. The fact is, Gus’s reputation precedes him – people knew that if they re-raised him, he would gamble. This was a cornerstone of his success. Interestingly, this was very far from the truth. People rarely played back at Gus, and in my experience, when he got raised by an unknown, he was usually very quick to fold if he didn’t have it. No ego there, just smart poker.

- Fear factor
When you have a man playing half the pots, always as the aggressor, and not seeming to slow down, usually one of two things happen. Either someone starts to play back and a raising war begins while the rest of the table buys popcorn… or everyone starts to fold and wait for a hand to catch the thief later (or so they think). Unfortunately for the Smallball player, waiting for a hand is too obvious, and after rounds of getting blinded out, when the good hand finally comes, the aggro genius evaporates into thin air.

- Crushing in big pots
Your opponents want to avoid you until they feel they have a big enough hand to take all your aggression. They’ve been waiting for a while to get there, they know you keep stealing, and now they have top pair with a good kicker. This is a great moment for you, the aggressive so called maniac. You’ve played this situation over and over again, and you recognise it immediately. You will either give up quickly and lose a small pot, or bet bigger and bigger with your monster and get an insane amount of value.

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The Evolution Continues

Be careful if you use this style today, as it is very exploitable. People are much better at fighting back: you’ll have to show you’re willing to play back against three-bets, and you must inspire fear by being very tough to play on the turn. It takes a great player to play more hands without getting burned, and it’s no surprise Gus is having to reinvent himself right now.

Next month we will see how the Smallball players reacted to evolve and remain competitive. In the meantime, widely available coaching sites have popularized the king of the rock paper scissors game: the pre-flop player. This very strong style is the most widely used today as it is relatively quick to learn and hard to exploit. Fortunately, it also comes with its own weaknesses… See you next month!

Tags: Strategy, Nicolas Levi, smallball, Gus Hansen