Texas Hold’em strategy: Part 2

Last month we talked about the need to apply strategic concepts in a dynamic fashion, as a requisite of “perfect play.” This month we’ll look at some very specific examples and their consequences.

About ten years ago I read a book titled Conceptual Blockbusting, which deals with the techniques of problem solving. One of the book’s main points is this: the way in which a problem is defined often has a great deal to do with the solution. This was referred to as “bounding” the problem, and bounding issues come up all the time at the poker table.

Here’s a common example. When you sit down to play, are you attempting to win the most pots or the most money? If you think you are there to win the most pots your strategy will be very, very different than it would be if you were trying to win the most money. For starters, if you want to win every pot, the best way to do that is simply to play every pot. Do that, however, and you’ll soon be on the rail. If you want to win the most money, be selective, be aggressive when you have the best of it, and you have a chance to be a long time winner.

But you can see clearly from this very simple example, that the way in which you defined or “bounded” the problem, pointed you strongly in the direction of one or another strategic choice.
Even world class professionals make the mistake of “bounding the problem incorrectly.” This situation occurred at the final table of the main event of a major poker tournament. Three players remained: At that point, Player A had almost twice the number of chips of either of his opponents, who were approximately equal in chip position. The payoffs were as follows: £230,000 to first place, £115,000 for second, and £55,200 for third. In a heads-up situation against Player A, Player B went all in on the flop when two diamonds fell, giving him a flush draw. It was all or nothing for Player B at the moment he made the decision to go all in and draw for his flush. Either the flush would come and Player B would win the hand, double his stack, and be solidly in second place, or else he would be out of the tournament. With two cards to come he had a 35 percent chance of making his hand and a 65 percent chance of busting out of the tournament.

Even if he did win that hand, however, he had no guarantee that he would either win the tournament or even capture second place. Thus he allowed himself to take a position as a 1.9:1 underdog in a situation where even if he overcame those odds, he had no guarantee of a higher payoff in the tournament. As it happened, Player B’s flush never came, while Player C made a remarkable comeback and went on to defeat Player A, who was the chip leader at the time this confrontation occurred. But the big winner in the confrontation between Players A and B was Player C and he wasn’t even in the hand. He went from a virtual tie for second/third place to a guarantee of second place money. This was a difference of £59,800. Remember, Player C, who had absolutely nothing at risk in that confrontation would have been a winner regardless of the result. With Player B knocked out of the tournament, Player C guaranteed himself a payoff which was £59,800 more than he could count on before that hand was played. If Player B won the hand, Player C would have still been in third place, but Player A would no longer have had a big chip lead and no longer in a position to hammer the shorter stacks with relentless bets and raises.

But why would a top tournament player like Hal Kant make the strategic decision to contest that pot, as an underdog, when the risk clearly outweighed the reward? Well a deal could already have been cut between the three of them. If an agreement had been made, they were only playing for the glory at that point, with the payout having already been decided. But if that was not the case, then it is very likely that Hal Kant was so focused in on the situation at hand that he was, in that instant, unable to step back and grasp the issue in its broadest context. If this was true he simply was not aware (at the point of his decision) that Cloutier also had a major stake in the outcome of that hand, even though he held no cards.

Just this momentary lack of awareness, entirely natural when you consider the intense concentration required to survive as one of the final three in a £10,000 buy in no-limit hold’em tournament, could easily lead to an error in correctly bounding a problem. In so doing the wrong strategy was selected. In the latter stages of a tournament, anytime someone is knocked out you stand to improve your own payoff position. Clearly T.J. Cloutier was contained within the boundaries of this problem, even though he was not in contention for the pot. Moreover, he was assured of being either a small winner, or a big winner, at absolutely no risk to himself. He went on to win the tournament, and this hand — which he had no active role in — might have been the decisive one.
We’ll talk more about dynamic strategy in issues to come, but for now just realize that no one, not even world class professionals, are immune from the implications of incorrect strategic selections.