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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: Playing With Rule Changes

Miller Explains How Meaningful Decisions Can Create An Edge

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Every so often someone sends me an email or a message on Twitter that goes something like this.

“Ed, I like reading everything you write about poker. But I’d like you to admit one thing — poker just can’t be beaten. Between the rake and all the luck involved, no one can win. I wish you’d be more honest about that.”

Ok. I do try to be honest about how difficult it is to win at poker. I don’t try to pretend that poker is the road to easy riches. I don’t try to pretend that most poker players win. They don’t. They can’t.

But the person asking this question is wrong about what I perceive the main point—that no one can win. That poker is an unwinnable game. This simply is not true. Very good players have an edge and win over time.

What it takes to win is to create edges during play that sum to a greater amount than what you pay in rake. To create an edge playing poker, you need one thing — a meaningful decision. A decision is any time you get to make a choice while playing. A meaningful decision is one where two reasonable players could make substantially different plays given the same situation.

For example, let’s say you have pocket aces in the big blind. A player raises all-in and it folds to you. You have a decision — you can either fold or call. But you don’t have a meaningful decision. All reasonable players would call.

This decision does not create an edge for you, because every player would make the same choice.

Meaningful decisions are the ones that could “go either way” or that you routinely see other players approach differently.

For poker to be a winnable game, there must be enough meaningful decisions to overcome the rake.

The rake is a relatively static thing. It might be a percentage of the pot up to $4 or $5 or $6 per pot. This amount will vary a little bit based on how often players build big pots versus small pots, but you can reasonably approximate it as a fixed cost of playing. For example, say you observe that a cardroom rakes $4,500 on average every 1,000 hands. You can reasonably say that each pot rakes $4.50. And if you are one of ten players, then you pay on average $0.45 per hand.

Of course this is not a perfect model for how rake gets paid, and perhaps the real number for you is $0.40 or $0.50 per hand because of how you play relative to your opponents. But either way, rake is a roughly fixed cost. And the way to overcome it is to make better choices than your opponents — and to have more meaningful choices to make.

With simple math you can see that if you pack more meaningful decisions into each hand—all other things equal — it will be easier to beat the rake. Since the rake is a fixed cost, it’s almost certainly easier to be a winner if there are five meaningful decisions per hand rather than one. With this in mind, I want to bend the rules of poker a bit and see what the changes do to the “beatability” of the game.

Six-Card Hold’em

If you’ve played hold’em long enough, you’ve certainly heard someone wish for the river to be eliminated. “If they just ended the hand after the turn, I’d be a huge winner at this game! Everything I lose is from bad river cards.”

I think the people who say this really believe it. They don’t win at the normal hold’em game, but if the river were eliminated, they would win.

Does this make sense given what we’ve said so far?

I don’t think so. In both limit and no-limit hold’em, the river is a source of a lot of meaningful decisions. In no-limit hold’em, this is true ten-fold. Not only are there many difficult river spots, but bet-sizing decisions become extremely meaningful. And because the bets are large on the river, these decisions are all the more “meaningful.”

Removing the river from no-limit hold’em would go a long way toward making the game less beatable for those players skilled enough to win.

Ironically, the people who think that removing the river would benefit them might well be correct. Because it’s possible that they lose quite a bit in the normal game, and that removing the river would remove a lot of the skill and therefore they would still lose—but they would lose less per hand.

But the main point stands. If you have trouble winning at poker, removing meaningful decisions from the game is certainly not what you need to turn it around. You just need to get better at making the decisions.

Check-Raising

When I started to play poker, there was still some lingering debate about whether check-raising should be allowed. Most people accepted it as a legitimate part of the game, but occasionally if you check-raised someone would pipe up and impugn your honorability. And once or twice I played in cardrooms that actually forbid the play in all games.

So what would happen to the game if you disallowed check-raising? Well, disallowing the check-raise is bad for players who are aspiring to win. It removes meaningful decisions from the game in two ways. First, if you check, your decisions are directly constrained. If someone bets, you can only fold or call.

Second, your decision is indirectly constrained even before that. Because when making the original decision to check or bet, your decision is not on the surface any different, but this decision is often much less meaningful than it is with check-raises allowed.

If you can check-raise, then if you hold a good hand, you often have a meaningful decision between betting and checking (to check-raise). But when check-raising is disallowed, the decision is no longer meaningful and often betting is the only reasonable alternative.

Removing check-raising from the game removes meaningful decisions and therefore makes poker less beatable.

Mixed Games

If you play mixed games, you will notice that often the games are designed to increase the number of decisions per hand. For example, many mixed games involve choices about discarding cards in addition to betting decisions. Crazy pineapple, for example, has you discarding a card before the play of the hand is over.

Split pot games also increase the number of meaningful decisions, because you often have to decide which half of the pot you are playing for—sometimes implicitly and sometimes with an explicit declaration. You will sometimes find split pot games with card discards and many betting rounds.

In general, the devious folks who invent these games are trying to pack as many meaningful decisions into the game as possible—all to make the game more profitable for those who can make all the right plays.

It’s certainly possible to design a poker game that is unwinnable for any player. But all the popular variants provide enough meaningful decisions per hand to allow skilled players to come out on top. ♠

Ed MillerEd’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.