Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: The War Of Information
How To Properly Approach Hand Analysis
Most people try to learn no-limit hold’em as a set of rules. These are the hands you play preflop. When you flop a draw, you do this. When you start with a pocket pair and an overcard hits the board, you do that.
Because of this rules-based mindset, when people review the hands they’ve played, they’re typically trying to hammer out the rules in a situation that fell just outside the norm. Here’s an example of a hand someone asked me about.
It was a $1-$3 game. The player in the big blind was short-stacked. The other two players in the hand both had over $400.
A player raised preflop to $10, and the teller of this story called on the button with 7-7. The big blind called. There was $31 in the pot.
The flop came J-7-5. The big blind checked, and the preflop raiser bet $20. The button called, then the big blind when all in for $44. The preflop raiser called. Then the button reraised to $100. The preflop raiser folded.
“Should I have reraised the flop?” the storyteller asked me, “Or should I just have called the $44 when it came back to me?”
This is how most players approach hand analysis. They tell a story, reach a (usually bad) outcome, and ask if they should have taken a different action (presumably to avoid the bad outcome).
The question here presupposes a rules-based approach. “What’s the rule for playing flopped sets? Do you play them slow or fast?” Or, perhaps the assumption is that the rule is clear for playing flopped sets in the general case, but that this particular hand adds a wrinkle that might call for a new rule.
As in, “The rule for flopped sets is to play them slow on the flop, but then this guy went all in and now I’m not sure if I’m supposed to build a side pot or not.”
I think this entire approach is flawed. The goal behind this hand analysis is to create rules for a game that, at its core, has no such rules. More to the point, whether to reraise the flop or not depends on what else you know about the situation.
Say you happen to know (or at least think very strongly) that the preflop raiser has a flush draw. In that case, you should probably reraise, because you can expect to get called, and because it does you no good to gift the draw a cheap card.
Now say you happen to know (or at least think very strongly) that the preflop raiser has a weaker hand like A-K. Calling the flop is now a slam-dunk play.
“Okay,” you say, “If I know what the guy has, I can make good decisions. Duh. The problem is, I don’t know what he has.”
Right. You don’t. That’s why you need to gather as much information as possible before you commit your stack.
Let me make this point by first taking a short detour through the mid-stakes online cash game no-limit hold’em scene.
The regulars who play online no-limit hold’em cash games these days are, in general, very good. What makes them good is that they give away little extraneous information about what they have. They make sure their hand ranges are balanced so you can’t reliably make assumptions like, “Well, he bet the flop and checked that turn, therefore he probably has X.” Sure, your opponents will sometimes have X, but they’ll also have Y and Z, and they’ve taken care to balance how often they have each type of hand to make your play as difficult as possible.
They also take care to size their bets in a way that avoids divulging information. If you try to reason by saying, “He bet $240, so he must have X, because he would have bet at least $300 with Y,” you’ll find that you are wrong nearly as often as you are right.
Of course, mid-stakes online players aren’t perfect. They do divulge some information. And players who can identify and leverage that information can create a consistent advantage for themselves. These edges might be on the order of 1-2 big blinds per 100 hands. So at a $5-$10 game, maybe $10 to $20 per 100 hands played.
At $1-$3, that would be $3 to $6 per 100 hands.
When you play live, you get perhaps 25 to 30 hands per hour. So if your edge is, say, $6 per 100 hands, at a live table you would be making something like $1.50 to $2 per hour, on average.
That’s peanuts you say? Good live players win much more than that you say?
Yes, and yes. I agree. In live games, edges are available up to ten times bigger than those available online. Ten times.
How is that possible? It’s because there is a tremendous amount of information available in live games that simply doesn’t exist online. Obviously, physical reads exist live that don’t exist online. But—perhaps even more importantly—information is available in the form of wildly unbalanced hand ranges and gross bet-sizing tells.
The reason you can create edges ten times bigger live than online is because in many cases in live play, you can gather so much information about your opponents’ hands before you commit stacks that it’s almost as if they are playing their hands face-up.
The rules-based mindset misses out on the value of most of this information. When you think about strategy like, “I like to semibluff when I flop a flush draw,” you are implicitly ignoring the information that creates large edges. And you’re doing that in hopes of locking in a much smaller edge.
Played properly, live no-limit hold’em is a war of information. If you play at the $1-$2 through $2-$5 levels, your opponents will volunteer information about their hands left and right. Your decisions should be designed to leverage this information to make as many “perfect” decisions as you can.
This information-based mindset is central to my live no-limit play. I’m trying to make decisions based on the information that’s been available to me. And if I don’t feel like I’ve gotten enough information yet, I usually wait until there’s more information. The turn and river cards are my friends. Not only do I get information from the cards themselves, but much more importantly, I get information from my opponents as they react to the cards. Sometimes it’s physical information, but more often it’s information embedded in how they choose to bet (or not bet) the new card.
Over the next few issues, I’ll be writing more about information-based play. As well, I’m hosting two webinars with Jonathan Little on the topic. You can find more information about the webinars here. ♠
Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.
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