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The Scoop With Matt Hawrilenko

The Scoop With Matt Hawrilenko

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Oct 15, 2010


Matt Hawrilenko has long been known as one of the most talented limit hold’em players in the world, and he is a regular in the biggest cash games online, where he plays under the name of “Matt Hawrilenko” on Full Tilt. He also has had great success in live tournaments, with almost $1.9 million in tournament cashes. He is known for his analytical approach to the game, and he shared some insight into how game theory can help people to play better poker.

Diego Cordovez: In your Full Tilt bio, it says in a couple of places that you take a math-based approach to limit hold’em — that you use your math skills. Of course, I have always considered that a backhanded compliment. To what extent is that hype? What does that really mean?

Matt Hawrilenko: Well, I do take a math-based approach. But I also think that separating a math-based approach from gamesmanship is a false dichotomy; I think the two can, and should, work together. I met Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman early in my poker career; they wrote The Mathematics of Poker. Ultimately, I think the two approaches get you to a very similar place. People hear “math-based approach” and immediately say, “Oh, so you play the percentages?” Well, yes and no. I generally say that it’s the language that you need to speak to talk about the game. I think math can contribute a lot of valuable stuff. Obviously, computers can’t attack the entire real game of poker, because the game tree is so big, there are so many different decision nodes. But what Bill and Jerrod do, and I’ve tagged along, is create toy games that look kind of like real poker, are solvable, and can provide inferences into the bigger game. It’s kind of saying, here are the types of hands that you need to value-bet, here are the types of hands that are most profitable to bluff, and here are the approximate ratios of that. And as your read changes, you obviously have to weight that more. So, in that sense, the two can be used in conjunction.

DC: One thing about math is that it seems to be misunderstood as a term; people really do think it refers to arithmetic. Obviously, it’s much more about logic, game theory, and becoming non-exploitable. What would be an example of a game that you’d adapt to limit hold’em that might surprise people as an example of math.

MH: Well, the first thing I can think of is the ace-king-queen game. I think it was Mike Caro who originally came up with this game. There is one street of betting, a deck with three cards, and two players. You get dealt either an ace, king, or queen. The first guy automatically checks, and the second guy has the option of betting or checking. So, how do you play this game?

The first thing you come to realize is that you should always bet your ace. What do you do with your king? If you always bet your king, the guy will fold his queen and call with his ace, which is clearly negative expected value. If you bet only your ace, eventually he’ll catch on, so you also have to bet your queen sometimes; depending on the size of the pot, you bet your queen a third of the time or whatever the pot dictates. So, now he will have to call sometimes with his king to keep you from bluffing. And there are situations that are a lot like that in limit hold’em. When you have a hand that can beat a bluff but isn’t going to bluff out any other hands, that is the ace-king-queen game. If someone has fourth pair on a K-Q-J-7-2 board and tries to bluff, it’s a huge mistake, which can be learned from the ace-king-queen game.

Adam Schoenfeld: If you see someone make that kind of mistake once, do you feel like you now own him?

MH: Own is a big word, but I feel pretty excited to be at a table with him. Mistakes like that are very clearly mistakes, and I don’t care who it is who is making them. ♠