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Bipolar Disorder

Very weak or very strong

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Feb 18, 2011

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I have been playing poker a long time, and there are many plays that have been around longer than I have been playing. It is always fascinating when a play is given a name. For years, people overplayed drawing hands, like flush draws, in both high draw and no-limit hold’em. Then, David Sklansky coined a name for this type of play — “the semibluff.” In the years after it got a name, it became a better-known play. More people semibluffed, and more people knew that their opponents might be semibluffing, and played accordingly. In fact, semibluffing became overused, or at least misused. I guess that it’s much easier to explain that you tried a semibluff that didn’t work than to state that you made a misguided raise with a draw and then had to fold to a big reraise. (This is a total disaster. By just calling, you put less money into the pot, and had a chance to hit your outs. Here, you put extra money into the pot, and deprived yourself of the chance to draw out.)
Another common situation arises when Player A makes a strong bet or raise and his opponent, Player B, raises or reraises. Player B is representing a very, very strong hand. With a weak hand, he’d fold. With a moderate hand, perhaps just good enough to beat a bluff or perhaps almost good enough to make a reraise, he’d call. Therefore, his reraise indicates a very strong hand — or does it? Perhaps he is bluffing. Could he be trying to represent a monster, when he really has little or nothing? There is no need for him to make this play with a moderate hand, as he can just call and expect to win a reasonable percentage of the time. So, he is either very weak or very strong. Now there is a name for this situation. Someone christened it “polarization.” Now, we frequently hear or read of a player explaining his actions by stating they were based on the fact that his opponent was polarized. And like the semibluff, plays based on polarization have become common, and, in fact, also are overused or at least misused.
Sometimes, each player thinks his opponent is polarized. Very often, both are correct. This can result in one player dumping off a lot of money to a monster. Even more fun are those situations in which not only are they both correct, but they both are operating with a weak hand. These hands quickly become three-, four-, or five-bet. These bizarre confrontations become gigantic games of chicken; each player hopes that his opponent gives up first.
Strangely enough, David Sklansky and Alan Schoonmaker’s new book DUCY? discusses strategy for an automotive variation of chicken in which two cars speed headfirst toward each other, and the first one to veer off loses. The recommended strategy is to visibly discard your steering wheel, so that your opponent knows that you can’t veer off. Therefore, your opponent veers off to save his life, but loses the bet. In the hold’em variation of chicken, you have no steering wheel to pull off, but you can achieve the same effect by being the first player to go all in. Your opponent knows that you can’t be bluffed, so now, your garbage will push his garbage out of the pot. These bipolar hands are a lot of fun to watch, but pretty harrowing to play. (You might add DUCY? to your supplemental reading list. It is a funny, interesting book that may improve your poker and your thinking, but I can’t say that it’s a must-read book for every serious poker player.)
My own experience in polarized situations is that I get them right fairly often in live cash-game play against familiar opponents. I am sure that either consciously or subconsciously, I pick up some information that helps my decision-making. Likewise, I get them wrong fairly often online against unfamiliar opponents. I am sure that some expert in the depths of game theory might eventually find an algorithm that states how often you should bluff in these spots. It certainly wouldn’t be a simple one, since both opponents and stack sizes are variables.
My advice is to learn as much about your opponents as you can. Try to determine how tricky they are. In general, some of them will tend to make a lot of tricky plays, and others will be much more straightforward. Unfortunately, there will be some who find a nice balance between the two extremes. Try to stay out of their way, and win your money from the other players. ♠

Steve “Zee” Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful games player. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at many major tournaments and playing on Full Tilt, as one of its pros. He usually spends much of the fall hanging out in his bars on Avenue A — Nice Guy Eddie’s and The Library near Houston, and Doc Holliday’s at 9th Street — in New York City.