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Debating the Best Play

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: May 01, 2013

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Andrew BrokosMany successful poker players have a history of competing at a high level in other games or sports such as backgammon, chess, Magic: The Gathering, Starcraft, and golf, to name just a few. For me, it was policy debate, a somewhat more obscure extracurricular activity found at numerous high schools and colleges in the United States. Though not as obvious a predecessor to poker as a card game like Magic or a gambling game like backgammon, I do believe that my background in competitive debate gave me many of the skills that enable me to succeed in poker, and I want to share some of those with you.

Be Prepared For Anything

I imagine many of you will not have heard of policy debate, or will know it only from its imperfect representation in films such as the HBO documentary “Resolved” or the Denzel Washington film “The Great Debaters.” As the name implies, it’s about arguing. Students compete in teams of two, alternately arguing for or against a broad policy proposal that serves as the year’s topic. For example, the high school topic for the current academic year is “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.”

Obviously this is an extremely broad claim, and the Affirmative team — the ones assigned to argue in favor of the proposal — have a lot of leeway to decide how, specifically, they will propose to make this change. Their opponents, the Negative team, must be prepared to argue against anything the Affirmative chooses to throw at them, whether it’s building high-speed rail lines or repairing rural bridges.

As the Negative, you never know exactly what your opponents will advocate until the debate starts, at which point your preparation time is extremely limited. However, months before the first competition of the year, you already know what the overall topic will be, so in another sense you have a tremendous amount of time to prepare. The trick is to anticipate and prepare responses for the arguments you are most likely to hear.

The same sort of preparation is essential in poker. In a casino, you have at most a few minutes to think through an important decision, and if you routinely take anywhere near that long you will infuriate your fellow players. Online, you generally have a matter of seconds to assess a situation. Consequently, really in-depth analysis of tricky situations, using tools like equity calculators, has to be done away from the table. You have to anticipate the kinds of situations in which you’re likely to find yourself and know in advance how you’ll respond to them, because you simply don’t have the time to figure it all out from scratch at the table.

This is why so many poker books for beginners focus on preflop play. Common preflop situations arise so often that it makes sense to have a more-or-less set strategy for how to play them. You probably know which hands you will or won’t raise if the action folds to you in middle position, for instance, and what you will or won’t play if there’s a raise in front of you.

Your progression as a poker player should include mastery over more and more of these situations. Once you’ve nailed preflop opening ranges, you might start studying three-betting or move on to common flop situations and think about what your continuation betting strategy will be when in or out of position on various types of flops. You should remain conscious, when playing, of the spots that give you trouble so that you know to study these in further depth away from the table.

Fight on Your Own Turf

As you might imagine, it’s a lot easier to debate the Affirmative than the Negative. As the Affirmative, you get to choose the specific policy to be debated, and since you will debate Affirmative in roughly half of your debates, you can and should be much more prepared to debate your preferred policy than the Negative team.

Much of the strategy of debating Negative revolves around finding ways to shift the debate onto grounds that are more familiar to you. Generally teams will have broad lines of attack that they know well and that potentially apply to a wide variety of possible Affirmative proposals. They’ll seek to make the debate about these arguments instead of those raised by the Affirmative team.

This is an underappreciated skill in poker. Its most obvious application has to do with game selection — many no-limit hold‘em specialists would have a lot more money if they’d never wandered into a pot-limit Omaha game — but there’s more to it than that.

Over the course of my poker career, I’ve split my time between cash games and tournaments. When I run into really elite tournament specialists at, say, the World Series of Poker, there’s a danger that I’m going to be outclassed. Their singular focus has enabled them to put a lot more hours into studying common tournament situations than I have. Thus, I try to ensure that when we butt heads, it’s on territory more familiar to me.

For example, these players are usually a lot more experienced than I am when it comes to preflop reraising wars and playing postflop when the pot is large relative to the effective stacks. However, they’ve probably played fewer turns and rivers with significant money behind than I have. Consequently, when I have a close decision between calling or three-betting, I err on the side of calling. This way, we have more money behind when we play postflop, giving me more opportunities to outplay them on the turn and river and them fewer opportunities to outplay me preflop and on the flop.

Think about your strengths as a player. Be honest about your weaknesses as well. You should certainly work to improve areas where you are weak, but you should also think about what options are available to you to increase the number of opportunities you have to play the situations you handle best and minimize your likelihood of ending up on unfamiliar turf.

Success is a Mix of Skill and Luck

At a typical debate tournament, all teams might debate six preliminary rounds, half as the Affirmative and half as the Negative. Then, the top 32 teams would be seeded in a single-elimination bracket as in the NCAA basketball tournament. In those “elimination rounds”, a coinflip decides who is the Affirmative and who the Negative. At the national championships my senior year of high school, the team that won the coin flip chose to argue the Affirmative and won in 15 of those 16 debates.

Here’s a not-so-thinly-veiled brag: my partner and I were the only team to win from the Negative side. We actually waived the coinflip and agreed to debate the Negative because we knew what our opponents’ Affirmative case would be, and were extremely well-prepared to contest it. Perhaps our opponents could have learned something from the old gamblers’ adage to be suspicious any time you’re offered a wager that seems too good to be true!
By the way, in the next round, we won the coinflip, debated Affirmative, and lost to a superior team anyway. Skill overcomes luck in the long run.

Seeing Both Sides of an Argument

I frequently post hands on my blog that I played in an unconventional way. I consider them interesting precisely because they are unconventional, and I try to explain why I think a particular situation called for an exception to a common poker “rule.” This kind of analysis helps to bring to the fore the reasons behind these rules, leading to a better understanding of how to apply them.

It never ceases to amaze me how many commenters will tell me that I played the hand badly and cite the “rule” in question without so much as mentioning all of the reasons I gave for why I believed this case to be exceptional. The tendency to focus on a single argument and ignore any possible counter-arguments is a significant impediment to improving as a poker player.

I learned early as a debater that there are no perfect arguments. To succeed in debate, you have to be honest about the weaknesses of your position. It’s not about trying to find an irrefutable argument; it’s about being prepared to defend against the disadvantages of your position and to prove that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Many poker players seize on a potential disadvantage of a play and ignore all of its advantages. For example, checking 10-10 on a 10Heart Suit 6Club Suit 2Heart Suit flop does risk giving a free card to a heart or gutshot straight draw, and some people simply won’t do it for that reason. In my opinion, though, it often makes sense because of the potential upside of giving an opponent a chance to pair an overcard and play a big pot with you. You have to have the flexibility of mind to compare the advantages and disadvantages of all of the options available to you. Rules are helpful guides for beginning players, but if you never think beyond them, you’ll never improve.

Because of my background in debate, arguing about the best play came naturally to me. I fit in well on poker forums and made valuable contributions because I knew how to respond to other peoples’ arguments rather than simply ignoring them and trying to make my own point more loudly or rudely. Whether I was ultimately right or wrong, I learned more about the issue in question by understanding the arguments for and against it, and that’s the single most important piece of advice I hope you’ll take from my background in debate. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He blogs about poker strategy on ThinkingPoker.net 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.