by Dusty Schmidt | Published: Jul 11, 2012
Not so long ago, balance and game theory became the coolest things for a poker player to talk about. There is good reason for this. They’re powerful concepts and tools that, when properly employed, will prevent you from getting exploited by a skilled opponent.
Game theory is a branch of mathematics used to study behavior in games of strategy. This includes games like chess, checkers, and poker. It also includes war, economics, and dating. Unsurprisingly, proper application of game theory can be a powerful tool for a hold’em player. It’s far from necessary, however, to have a thorough understanding of the subject. In fact, a number of wildly successful poker players seem to have little understanding of what game theory actually is.
The ultimate goal of applying game theory to poker is to find an equilibrium strategy, where even if you told your opponents your entire strategy, there is no counter strategy they can employ to defeat you. Theoretically, by playing a game theory optimal (GTO) strategy, you can prevent your opponents from having any opportunity to outplay you. Against truly world-class opposition, that’s just about the best you can do. In theory, it’s a perfect defense.
Playing a perfect GTO strategy sounds like a nice plan, doesn’t it? The problem is that no-limit hold’em is a complex game. It’s complex enough that computers have yet to derive a complete GTO solution to the game. Even when they can – and someday that day will come – there are so many branches of the game tree that it will probably be impossible for a human to memorize the complete solution.
While a global solution is out of our reach, it is possible to solve more local problems. For instance, it’s possible to find an unexploitable balance of bluffs and value bets on the river. Often the best we can do is find some way to play that approaches this solution. That’s what we call balancing your range.
Balancing your range is less extreme than creating a perfect GTO strategy. The idea is that, by having a balance of strong hands and bluffs in your range, you will become more difficult to read. Since your opponents cannot simply narrow your range down to either bluffs or value bets, they will face difficult decisions that require accurate judgment.
This concept of balance is vital in many situations. If every time you cold call from the button, you raise your draws on the flop but slowplay your monsters, observant opponents will start to notice. You’ll be playing so predictably that your bluffs won’t work and your strong hands won’t get paid off. In this case, you will pay the price for being unbalanced.
Here’s an example:
No-Limit Hold’em: $5-$10 blinds – 4 players
Stacks: $1000 effective
Reads: CO is an observant regular.
Preflop: You have 10 10 on the button.
CO raises to $30, you call, 2 folds
Flop: J T 3 ($75 – 2 players)
CO bets $50, you balance your range.
This is a spot where you absolutely need to balance your range. If you want to raise flush draws and straight draws on this flop, you have to be raising strong hands like your sets. If you prefer to just call with your draws and raise the turn, then you need to play your sets like that some of the time as well. You don’t always have to play all of your hands the same way. But your opponent needs to know that it’s possible for you to hold a set when you actually have a draw, and that it’s possible for you to hold a draw when you actually have a set.
There are two keys to this situation:
Your opponent is observant. The balanced approach is great for playing against good, perceptive players. When you’re playing against poor, oblivious opponents, however, you should play exploitatively. Take advantage of their weaknesses for as long as they’ll let you get away with it.
The situation is common. An observant opponent can only take advantage of your unbalanced play when there is information for him to observe. You will play a fair number of pots from the button against a cutoff open raise and you’ll be facing a continuation bet the majority of those times. As a result, your opponent will quickly get a decent sample of hands in which to observe your behavior in that spot. If the spot came up less frequently, you would have less need for balance.
Before deciding how to play your hand, you should often ask yourself, “Do I need to balance this?” The answer depends on how exploitable you become by not balancing, and how likely your opponent is to exploit you. Will they see the hole in your defense, and if so, will they be able to take advantage? If you have to ask, most of the time the answer will be “no.” Don’t balance plays that don’t require it.
No-Limit Hold’em: $5-$10 blinds – 6 players
Stacks: $1000 effective
Reads: BTN is a decent regular.
Preflop: You have 2 2 in the big blind.
4 folds, BTN raises to $30, 1 fold, you call.
Flop: K 7 2 ($65 – 2 players)
You check, BTN bets $40, you call
Turn: 5 ($145 – 2 players)
You bet $100.
Flopping bottom set is usually a great feeling. But flopping bottom set on a dry board when you’re out of position comes with a catch – how do you get value? Against aggressive players who love to barrel off, you can check/call the first two streets and either donk or check-raise the river. With the right dynamic, you can check-raise some opponents, hoping they’ll reraise the flop as a bluff. But these are exceptions.
Against a lot of opponents, check/calling the flop and donking the turn can be the best way to get value from their marginal hands. Hands like K-J. Your opponent will want to play a small pot, but you want to get three streets of value. If you check/call the flop and check the turn, there’s a real good chance that your opponent will check it back, trying to get to showdown while keeping the pot the right size. By checking the flop, you collect a c-bet from your opponent’s entire range. (This is a prime flop to c-bet.) By donking the turn, you make sure to get value from hands that would have checked back.
But how will you balance this play?
Who cares? Just because you can’t balance a play doesn’t mean that you can’t make it. Is there more value in playing this hand in an optimal fashion, or is there more value in playing your entire range in a particular way? This is an infrequent situation, and the hand will infrequently go to showdown. That means it will take a long time for your opponent to know that you’re not balanced. Remember – your opponent will never know that you can never do something. Just because they see you take this line twice with a set doesn’t mean they know you can never have air here.
In these spots that come up infrequently, look for ways to capture immediate value. If it’s there, grab it. If it’s not, then worry about balance.
Dusty Schmidt is the author of the new book Don’t Listen To Phil Hellmuth: Correcting The 50 Worst Pieces of Poker Advice You’ve Ever Heard, as well as Treat Your Poker Like A Business. In his five-year online-poker career, Schmidt has played nearly 9 million hands and won close to $4 million, without ever having a losing month. He blogs several times a week at www.dustyschmidt.net, and is an instructor at PokerStrategy.com and bluefirepoker.com.
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