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Thinking Strategically

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: Apr 17, 2013


Andrew BrokosThe term “strategy,” in the academic parlance of game theory, has a very specific meaning not dissimilar from its more casual use. Wikipedia defines it as “a complete algorithm for playing the game, telling a player what to do for every possible situation throughout the game.” This is distinguished from a “move”, which is “an action taken by a player at some point during the play of a game.” A strategy is like a plan or a formula laying out which move you will make in any given situation.

Many players err by fixating on the profitability or expected value of an individual move rather than of an entire strategy. Calling a substantial preflop raise with 5-4 suited is probably not, in isolation, a profitable move. In all likelihood, you are well behind the raiser’s range. It can, however, be part of a profitable strategy depending on what you and your opponent(s) do after the flop. This article will help you make better moves by helping you to think of them in the context of larger strategies.
Articulating a Strategy

The number of possible situations in big bet poker games is tremendously large, so it isn’t practical to define an entire strategy for how you will play in any possible circumstance. It is, however, possible to approximate such a strategy by lumping together similar situations.

For example, suppose that you hold 10Club Suit 8Club Suit on a KSpade Suit QDiamond Suit JSpade Suit flop and are facing a $250 bet into a $300 pot. You’ll make an eight-out draw by the river roughly 32 percent of the time. Not coincidentally, these are almost exactly the odds that your opponent’s bet is laying you. So would calling be a profitable move?

That’s not something you can determine in a vacuum. Rather, you must consider your strategy for the rest of the hand as well as your estimate of your opponent’s strategy.
There are 2,162 possible turn-river combinations, but the game space is much larger than that since you and your opponent will both have multiple opportunities to bet and raise. Therefore, we have to start by simplifying. You don’t lose much in the way of precision by treating a $301 bet as the same as a $300 bet. There is no significant difference between the 2Spade Suit and the 3Spade Suit as a turn card, nor between the AClub Suit and the AHeart Suit.

Here’s a sample strategy that encompasses all possible turn situations:

Offsuit ace or 9 — bet if checked to, raise if opponent bets, raise if raised.
ASpade Suit or 9Spade Suit — bet if checked to, fold to a raise, call if opponent bets.
QSpade Suit — fold to a bet, bet if checked to, fold to a raise.
Any other king, queen, or jack — fold to a bet, check if checked to.
Any other spade — fold to a bet, bet if checked to, fold to a raise.
Any other card — call a bet of half-pot or less, fold to a larger bet, check if checked to.

You might actually deviate a bit from these plans in peculiar circumstances. For example, you probably wouldn’t fold to a bet of $10 on a QSpade Suit turn, even though your strategy generally is to fold to a bet on that card. However, such cases will arise rarely enough that they aren’t going to make much difference to the overall profitability of your strategy. You can cross those bridges when you come to them.

As detailed as this, it is still far from a complete strategy. Many of the moves within this strategy will result in you seeing a river card, and you need to define moves for all of those situations as well. The further you get from the current decision point, the more possibilities there are and the harder it is to plan for them all in much detail. I’d consider it sufficient to say very broadly that I’d treat spades as good bluffing cards if my opponent showed weakness but fold if he showed strength. I wouldn’t otherwise try to bluff, and I’d be cautious with a straight if a flush or full house were possible.

The value in thinking through all of this is that you can see the cruxes on which the profitability of this call depend: (1) How much can you expect to win if you make a straight? (2) How often will you successfully bluff a spade turn? (3) If you miss on the turn, how often will you get to see the river card and what will it cost you?
All of these questions require assumptions about your opponent’s strategy, but at least now you know which questions to ask and where to focus your attention.

Sources of Value

When there’s still money to be bet and poker to be played, it isn’t intrinsically valuable to have the best hand or the right odds. You have to think about your and your opponents’ likely strategies to determine how much you can expect to win, how often, and at what price. When we boil all that strategizing down to a couple of questions, we see that it’s mostly about estimating three different sources of value:

1. Winning what’s already in the pot by showing down the best hand. This involves estimating how often hero will have the best hand and, importantly, how often he’s able to take it to showdown, meaning to what extent he needs to fear getting bluffed out. We largely ignored this in the above example because mostly you will either make an extremely strong hand worthy of value betting or have so little showdown value that you’re better off bluffing: even pairing your ten or eight won’t be worth much. Making a running two-pair or trips is worth something, but it happens so rarely that it doesn’t contribute much to your bottom line.

2. Winning what’s already in the pot by bluffing. This requires assessing which cards will be good to bluff and how often those bluffs will succeed. In the above example, we’re only talking about bluffing if a spade falls and your opponent checks, so you will have to calculate how often that situation will arise and how often your bet will succeed when it does.

3. Further bets that go into a pot you will eventually win. These could be value bets that get called, bluffs that you induce, or even bets that your opponents puts into a pot that you eventually bluff him off of. This is roughly what people mean when they talk about “implied odds.” In this case it’s how much more you expect to win, beyond what’s already in pot, if you improve to a straight. Don’t forget to subtract your losses from the occasions when you make a straight but lose to a flush or full house.


Unless it’s your final action in a hand, you can’t evaluate the profitability of a single move such as a call or a raise, only the profitability of the strategy of which that move is a part. Thus, it’s essential to know at least the broad outlines of your strategy for proceeding.

When you call a preflop raise from a frequent continuation better with A-J offsuit, it’s not enough to know that you’re ahead of the preflop raiser’s range. You can predict that his strategy will involving bluffing a lot of flops, so if your strategy is simply to fold to a continuation bet unless you flop a pair, the call probably isn’t profitable unless you can expect to win a quite large pot on the occasions that you flop top pair.

Recognizing this can help you to play the A-J better. If your opponent’s preflop range really is weaker than your hand, then you ought to be able to devise a profitable strategy for dealing with his continuation bets. Perhaps you will reraise the A-J preflop, and then you will be in the position to continuation bet the flop. Or perhaps you will plan to call or raise a continuation bet on certain flops that don’t give you a pair.

The point is that you need some additional source of value beyond merely winning “your share” of pots by flopping top pair. You may have a good hand, but you can’t win money without a good strategy. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He blogs about poker strategy on and is co-host of the Thinking Poker Podcast. Andrew is also interested in education reform and founded an after-school debate program for urban youth.