Texas Hold’em strategy: Part 3

Last month, in The Dynamics of Strategy Part 2, we looked at “bounding” problems, and showed what can happen even to a world-class professionals in a major poker tournament when he bounds a problem incorrectly, and loses a good deal of money as a result. “This just isn’t me,” you say. “I don’t play in stress filled, £10,000 buy in no-limit hold’em tournaments; I’m just a recreational player at much lower limits. I’ll never get caught at the poker table defining the problem too narrowly, or too broadly.”

The fact of the matter is that you probably have already. Let’s look at some situations you have undoubtedly encountered. You decided to play in an inexpensive, 72-player, hold’em tournament. Only the first 9 places are paid. What is the appropriate strategy? Should you play fast, try to get a big lead and then just survive until you’re sure of finishing in the money? Or are you better off being more selective, picking your best opportunities for aggressive play, and modifying your strategy in the latter stages of the tournament, based on your initial results?

The answer is that you do not have enough information. If this is a re-buy tournament, and you have decided to re-buy if you must, then go ahead and play fast during the early stages. If, on the other hand, it is a freeze-out tournament or you can’t afford to re-buy then your strategy will be very different. You’ll have to start off the tournament in something close to a survival mode, playing much the same way as you would after the close of the re-buy period assuming you do not have an overly large stack of chips.

What about this situation: You’ve learned a lot about poker simply by virtue of having read all the really good poker books. Not only have you read them, you clearly understand the strategic concepts they contain. Now you want to continuously improve your poker skills by applying these concepts at the table.

So you sit in at a game with familiar faces, and you know you’ll love it. You see a couple of weak-tight players and three real calling stations. You’re dealt ace-king of hearts in seat seven. You raise and are called by the big blind and one of the calling stations in seat five. The small blind folds, but the big blind and the player in seat five call your raise. The flop is jack-five of hearts, nine of clubs. “Fantastic,” you say to yourself, “I’ve got position, two over-cards and a nut flush draw.” You remember something about semi-bluffing and implied odds, and when the big blind bets out on the flop, and is called by seat five, you fire a raise back at them. They both call.

The turn brings the four of spades, and it’s checked to you. You bet, thinking about that semi-bluff. Maybe they’ll fold and you can win it right here. Maybe you even have the best hand and would win in a showdown right now. Maybe a heart will come on the river. And if you happen to catch an ace or a king, even that might be enough to win the pot. But you are up against two players who sleep very well, thank you, each and every night of the week, secure in the knowledge that no one ever steals a pot from them. The river is no help. It’s the four of clubs. Both players check to you again. You still might have the best hand if you show it down. But you bet, and you’re called, and you lose to one of the calling stations who shows you a five-six of mixed suits.

“What went wrong?” you ask yourself. “I had the perfect opportunity to semi-bluff”. Perfect, that is, only from the perspective of the cards on the table and those in your hand. But it was far from perfect if you stopped to consider your opponents. You mistake involved considering only the cards while bounding the problem and choosing a strategy. Semi-bluffing will not work with players who always call. You know that you have to show a calling station the best hand to take the money. While there is nothing you could have done to win that pot, you certainly could have saved a bet on the river.

There was nothing wrong with the strategy itself. It probably would have worked if the cards were the same but your opponents were different. You need to know your players at least as well as you understand strategic concepts.

In fact, the entire point of dynamically applied strategies is that strategy is situationally dependent. A situation can be structural, like the finals of the no-limit hold’em event we discussed last month. It can also be one in which the strategy you would ideally choose, based solely on the cards at hand, must be modified by your knowledge of your opponents.

The key to dynamic strategies is this: Not only do you have to keep thinking about poker, you have to keep adjusting and modifying the dimensions of the problems you encounter at the poker table to enable you to think of them from variety of perspectives. You need to be aware of the big picture while simultaneously paying attention to small details. Understanding strategic concepts is only part of the battle. You also need to think about how, and under what circumstances, you apply them. If you are able to do this, you will find that you have become not only a better, more solid player, but a more creative one too.