Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: Balance In Live Cash Games
Don't Ignore Balance, Even At Lower Stakes Games
Balance is a commonly misunderstood concept. The idea is that if you take the same action with different types of hands—very strong made hands, strong made hands, draws, air, and so on—and you pick the right frequencies to have each of these hand types, you are balanced. If you are balanced, your opponents can’t choose the right actions against you, because everything they try will work against some of your hands, but backfire against others.
Balance is a critical concept in high-level poker. Played at the top level, poker is, in large part, a game of information. You want to tease out as much information about your opponents’ hands as possible while hiding as much information about yours as you can.
Many players struggle, however, with the question of how to use balance at smaller stakes. What value does hiding information have at $2-$5, for example, when the three guys across the table are going all-in blind before the flop every hand?
Okay. That’s not actually what’s happening in your $2-$5 game (unless you’re luckier than I am). But the point remains, what does it mean to balance your play in a $2-$5 game where most of your opponents aren’t adept at teasing the information out of your hand ranges?
Some people say to ignore the idea. There’s no point in trying to balance your play at small stakes. In fact, they say it’s counterproductive. The best way to play $2-$5 is to ignore balance and try to take advantage of your opponents’ weaknesses.
In one sense I agree with this. Against recreational players, it’s much more important to try to exploit the information your opponents give you than it is to worry about hiding information in your own play. Absolutely.
But, I think many, if not most, players who hear the above advice take it to mean something that I don’t agree with it all. They take it to mean that you don’t have to worry about making yourself hard to read. You can feel free to play all your hands in the most straightforward way possible, and your opponents’ bumbling play will reward you lavishly.
Maybe this was good advice ten years ago, but it certainly isn’t now. Because if you make yourself dead easy to read, even your not-so-good opponents will make reads and start stealing pots and making laydowns against you.
It’s one thing to ignore balance—to not worry if you have the right frequency of bluffs and value hands in every situation. In fact, in order to exploit $2-$5 games, you must strategically forgo this rigid sort of balance in most situations.
It’s another thing entirely to play half your hands as if they were face-up.
Here’s what I mean. If you play at the same stakes in the same player pool long enough, you’ll begin to see the same hands played the same way by most of the players. If someone flops top pair, good kicker on a flush draw board, for instance, they’ll bet the hand on the flop, bet it perhaps half pot on the turn, and then check it down on the river.
Or if they flop an ace to ace-rag from the blinds, they will check-call the flop, check the turn, and if it checks through, bet about half-pot on the river.
Or if they flop top pair on a dry board, they will bet the flop, check the turn through for pot control, and then—if checked to on the river—make a modest value bet.
Or if they flop a flush draw, they will check-call the flop, check-call the turn if they miss, and then bet out on the river if the flush comes in.
These are situations you and everyone you play with will see over and over again. When you see these betting patterns, it will often be obvious what your opponents hold. You may feel like this gives you an edge in the game, because if you so often know what your opponents have, you can make the perfect plays against them.
But most of the edge is lost if you are just as predictable in these situations! Your opponents aren’t brain-dead slugs. They play in the same games you play, and they see the same betting patterns you see. They may play too many hands preflop or gamble too much or even fail to understand more complex situations. But for the hands like these that go the same way over and over again, they’ll be just as clued in about what’s going on as you are.
Which means they’ll be making perfect plays against you.
This is where balance comes in. In these common situations where everyone “knows” what you have when you play the hand a certain way, you need to mix in other hand types so that their perfect plays against you aren’t so perfect anymore.
Here’s an example. Say it’s a $2-$5 game with $500 stacks. A player limps, and the player on the button makes it $25 to go. You call in the big blind with K J. The limper calls. There’s $77 in the pot and $475 behind.
The flop comes A 10 3. You check, the limper checks, and the preflop raiser bets $35. You call, and the limper folds.
The turn is the 3. You check, and your opponent checks.
The river is the 9.
If you bet in this situation, it will be “obvious” that you have at least an ace. If you bet small, it will look like you have ace-rag and your trying to get value from a hand like Q-Q. If you bet very large, it will look like you can beat an ace and you’re assuming that the preflop raiser was pot-controlling an ace on the turn.
But, of course, you have just king-high. So betting either small or large with this busted hand adds balance to what is likely your normal ace-heavy mix of hands in this situation.
Trying to balance every hand range you ever hold from preflop through the river is a complete waste of time in small stakes no-limit games. In fact, it’s worse than a waste of time, since you can make a whole lot more money if you are willing to skew your play to take advantage of the many opportunities for profit your opponents give you.
But balance isn’t a meaningless concept at $2-$5. A number of situations come up over and over again, and your opponents will have assumptions about what you’re likely to hold in these situations. You need to first be aware of when a hand is entering one of these common, rote scenarios. Second, you need to prepare your strategy so that you will have more balance in these situations than your opponents do. You need to have some surprises in store. If your opponents expect an ace, you need to have some bluffs—and maybe some monsters too. Do this, and you’ll grab a real edge over the competition. ♠
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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