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Use Math for Good, Not Evil

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Aug 08, 2012

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Gavin GriffinThe advent and proliferation of online poker in the United States before Black Friday made for more knowledgeable poker players overall. Games have gotten tougher, players more sophisticated. Almost everyone now, even the stodgiest of old timers, seem to understand that a math based approach to the game is vital. As with every bit of information that we pick up and incorporate into our game, it’s important to realize that math can be used for evil as well as good.

Let me give you an example of a hand I witnessed recently at a tournament in Los Angeles. I don’t remember the blinds in this hand, but it was relatively early in a $1k buy-in tournament. There were several limpers to the button who said, “I guess I can’t fold, look at my pot odds.” Obviously, he limped along. One of the blinds made a decent sized raise, making it something like five times the BB. Three people called to our hero on the button who again said something about pot odds before calling. The flop came down 8-6-2 rainbow. One of the limpers and the button get all the money in (their pot-to-stack ratio was between 4 and 5) and our friend on the button is drawing nearly dead with 6-2 offsuit against his opponent’s 8-8. This is an example of a player using math to justify his desire to play some hands that he knew he shouldn’t. He decided to let us know ahead of time that he was going to play a bad hand, because of pot odds. “Right guys? You know what pot odds mean, we’re all in the know at this table.”

Instead of hearing a term and incorporating it into your game based on someone else saying it’s correct, you should do some personal vetting of the information. Does it make sense to you? Do you understand how to apply it in real in-game situations? Can you apply it in the game you play in regularly? All of these are questions you should ask yourself before you take any advice from a book magazine article you read, even this one. You shouldn’t add a piece to your game before you fully understand it. If you do, it will lead you down a path from which you may not be able to find your way out. In addition, there are some advanced concepts that won’t apply to every game you play in. There are some games where I make sure my three-betting ranges are quite balanced, my play on every street is game theoretically correct. There are other games where I don’t feel it’s necessary to play in such a way and can just play exploitively because my opponents won’t catch on.

Back to our friend, Mr. Pot Odds. What mistakes did he make in this hand that we can learn from? Well, first of all, just because the pot is big and we have the button doesn’t mean that it’s profitable to play any hand. In fact, there are lots of hands that I would open on the button that I throw away when faced with several limpers. Take a hand like 6-5 offsuit, for example. If it’s folded to me on the button, I will most likely open for a raise. If there are several limpers, I’ll usually fold because I’m likely to play against one or more opponents and most of the hands I can make aren’t good enough for me to be confident in, therefore making all of my subsequent decisions tougher.

So, mistake number one was calling in the first place, what’s our friend’s second mistake? You guessed it, calling again when the action gets back to him. So many small mistakes in poker lead to much bigger, costlier mistakes on later streets. Maybe limping the button wasn’t horrific monetarily before the pot was raised. Now that it’s raised, calling the raise is tempting, but leaning towards the disaster end of the spectrum. We now have a bunch of money in the pot without the betting lead and a bad hand. How did we get ourselves into this? Because we misused the concept of pot odds to dig a big hole.

Then, how do we use the concept of pot odds correctly? It’s simple. We use pot odds in the process of playing the hand to lean our decisions one way or the other. We don’t use the pot odds excuse to decide to play a hand in the first place. If it’s a good hand, we play it. If it’s not, we don’t.

I’ve heard for years that math isn’t important in poker. That it’s a game of people and feel and blah blah blah. My belief is that poker is a game of many things. It’s a game of psychology, feel, instincts, card sense, math, physical endurance, mental endurance, power, logic, strategy, timing, and, of course, luck. To ignore any of these things would be a mistake. Would you go into a test in school without having studied all of the material? Would you go into a business presentation without knowing all of the aspects of your product? The answer to those questions should be no. Why, then, would you go into a poker game without all of the tools afforded to you by the world and your brain. Math is important. It’s a game of numbers. In fact, most of the cards (nine of them, to be exact), are referred to by their numbers. It’s not the only tool you need to succeed in poker, but it’s the biggest piece of the foundation you will need to become a successful poker player. Make sure your foundation is strong and that you use math for good, not evil. ♠

Gavin Griffin was the first poker player to capture a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour title and has amassed nearly $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. Griffin is sponsored by HeroPoker.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG