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Third Time's the Adjustment

Manipulating opponents online

by John Vorhaus |  Published: May 21, 2008


The accelerated pace of play online allows us to manipulate our foes in ways that are generally ineffective or impossible in the real world. The controlling idea here is something I call third time's the adjustment. Here's how it works …

Give an attentive poker player one look at a move, and he'll wonder, What was that about? Show it to him again, and he'll form a postulate about the way you play. Make the move a third time, and he'll have a counterstrategy prepared. You yourself have often worked this trick in defending your blind against an inveterate blind stealer. The first time he steals, you let him get away with it because you don't know whether he has a real hand or not. The second time he steals, you label him a blind stealer. The third time he tries to steal, you're ready, and you play back at him.

Now here's the thing: In the real world, such a sequence may take an hour or more to play out, depending on how long it takes your blinds to come back around. In fact, only the most attentive and retentive players will track the sequence and plan a response. Online, though, you can whip through three laps in minutes, and the frequency with which certain situations repeat themselves allows even the most inattentive opponents to catch on.

This is exactly what you want them to do.

In the real world, we have to worry about our best foes not just figuring out our moves, but also deploying effective countermeasures. After all, if they're focused enough and smart enough to detect our trends, they're also (possibly) smart enough and focused enough to anticipate our adjustments. Online, though, we can count on our worst foes having knee-jerk reactions to our play. They absorb our patterns without really understanding what those patterns mean, and they react to those patterns without considering that we may be anticipating their reaction. Online poker, then, with its sizzling pace of play, gives us the chance to victimize our foes by their predictable assumptions and flawed responses.

You attack a guy's blind. He folds. Two minutes later, you attack it again. Again, he folds. Two minutes later, you attack again. This time he's ready to take a stand -- but this time you actually have a hand. Yes, you're lucky to pick up a real hand at an opportune moment, but you're also prepared to exploit the luck that comes your way. Should you happen not to pick up a real hand here, you merely refrain from attacking his blind. You know the guy is primed to play back at you, so you don't give him a chance to do so unless and until it suits your ends.

Here's another example of third time's the adjustment, from the end stage of a sit-and-go tournament …

Fortunately for you, you're down to heads-up play. Unfortunately, your opponent currently has you outchipped by about 4-to-1. Given the size of the blinds relative to your stack, you know it's time to start making some all-in moves and try to double through. Do you wait for a premium hand before pushing all in?

Hell, no.

While your stack is still large enough to have some fold equity, you go ahead and shove with whatever. Given the random distribution of hands, it's unlikely that your opponent has cards he can call with here, because this is the first time you've pushed, and his first impulse will be to believe that you have a quality hand. In the name of not letting you double up and get back into contention, he'll fold anything less than a premium hand to your first all-in stab. (And if he has a premium hand? Oh, well. That's bad luck, and that's poker.)

Now, though, he's on guard. Now he's alert to the possibility that you've taken your small stack into push-and-pray mode. Good. This is exactly what you want him to think. You swap the blinds back and forth a few times. Since you're playing online, this takes all of 45 seconds. Then you pick up a semistrong hand.

And, you push all in again.

Of course he's suspicious. Of course he's wary. He thinks you're just trying to bully-bet your way out of trouble. And, of course, you are. But he still can't call because, again, he probably doesn't have a hand, and, again, he can't discount the possibility that you do. So he folds once more. Even as he folds, though, he cements a picture of your strategy in his mind. He figures you for desperate. He concludes that you'll keep making desperation raises with semistrong hands (or even no hand at all), and that all he has to do to beat you is wait and call you down with a major holding. He might not even wait for all that major a holding, since the lower he thinks your raising standards have fallen, the lower his corresponding calling requirements will go.

Meanwhile, you're anticipating this adjustment, and you're right out in front of it. Having taken a couple of shots with indifferent hands, you picked up a couple of blinds before your foe was in the mood to call. Now that he's in that mood, you just wait to pick up a hand of real quality, something like Q-Q or J-J, go all in, and hope to get a call from a worse hand, like A-X or 10-10. Will this happen? Sometimes. If it doesn't, you continue to joust and to trade blinds, let some time pass, and create the impression that you've given up your desperation-raise strategy. Then you go ahead and steal all over again! Prime him to call, and manipulate him into calling with a worse hand.

Luck is a factor here, but not the way we conventionally think of luck. It's pure luck, for instance, to pick up pocket aces when your foe has pocket kings. Of course the money will go in the middle. It's a no-brainer. What we're talking about here is something called applied luck, whereby you launch a sequence of events leading to one concluding action if the cards break your way, but a totally different concluding action if they don't. With applied luck, it doesn't really matter if you get lucky or not, since you have a plan for every eventuality. Plus, no matter what happens, you've got your foe leaning the wrong way, because you're anticipating, or actually dictating, his adjustments. Use these two tools, applied luck and third time's the adjustment, to shape your opponents' responses and take their money down.

John Vorhaus is the author of the Killer Poker book series. He resides in cyberspace at, and in the blogosphere at John Vorhaus' photo: Gerard Brewer.