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Head Games: Decisions/Decisions in High-Stakes Cash Games and Tournaments

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jul 10, 2013

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The Pros: Dan Cates, Scott Augustine, and Reid Young

Craig Tapscott: Why have things shifted online, in no-limit cash games, from a focus on preflop aggression to one of seeing more flops in the last year or two?

Dan Cates: There are few reasons for this. Firstly, I’d say the change has been a bit more gradual than [just] over the last couple of years. In the golden years of poker, most players didn’t really know about three-bet bluffing, three-betting in position, let alone four-bet bluffing, cold four-bet bluffing etcetera, so for a while, doing this stuff printed money. However, as more and more people become aware of these kinds of aggressive plays preflop, it became less lucrative. Not to mention, when you raise as a bluff it has to work more often because you have to match the bet in the first place. Four-bet bluffing, three-bet bluffing, etcetera, are quite expensive bluffs. Once everyone knew about these kinds of plays, the area with most potential for improvement was postflop. Not only is postflop far more complicated and more of an open book than preflop, but in general, capable opponents will not let themselves be run over preflop because they know, more or less, all there is to know. Postflop, however, not everyone knows anything and it can be difficult to know an opponent’s plan. Because it is more difficult to know your opponent’s plan, and due to the complexity of postflop play, this is where today the focus has shifted and where the big edges can reside. Whether it can be mastered or not is another matter.

Scott Augustine: The toning down of preflop aggression, which became popular a few years back, is a direct result of people four-betting less. Once training sites and forums started preaching the power of three-betting preflop, the logical progression was to introduce a four-bet as a bluff. This was a pretty raw concept that is still being refined today with both frequency and sizing. Originally, people were usually making a three-bet to about 10 big blinds, which triggered a four-bet to about 25 big blinds. Eventually people realized that with a smaller four-bet you can accomplish the same thing as a bigger one when in position, given that it does not bother you when they flat, as you are able to make good decisions in a bloated pot. Another contributing factor to a lowering of preflop aggression is that people are now developing a range to flat the four-bet. When in position, it makes sense to four-bet a polarized or non-linear range. This is because our opponent should be three-betting more or less his top “x” percent of hands. So, against that range, we want to be putting in more money with our really good hands and balancing it out with our lowest equity hands that we are not folding, but which could use the extra fold equity as a boost. Since they are low equity, we do not really care when we four-bet and fold them. This strategy encourages flats from our opponent, because when he shoves with his pretty good hands, he is only getting it in bad as long as we are not bluffing too much. It is not rare now to see people flat a four-bet with say A-J suited, out of position, since they are getting the right price and are doing well enough versus the four-bettor’s overall range, just not his four-bet/calling range.

Reid Young: Preflop dynamics and aggression are easier to solve than are all postflop plays. Postflop play with deep stacks involves an exponentially larger amount of decision points than preflop play, all of which are opportunities to exploit an opponent’s strategy. Think solvable on pen and paper versus not solvable by the world’s most advanced super computers. It is that large of a difference. Anyone can look down at pocket aces and know that it is a great hand preflop. They can probably tell you that aces is the best hold’em hand. Being check-raised on the turn with 150 big blinds and trying to decide what to do with top pair and a weak kicker is a completely different dynamic. How can you make the best decision here? The answer to that question not only encompasses preflop decisions, but also flop play and then breaking down turn play as affected by preflop and flop play. By exploiting the more complex interactions in the game, the more learned player rises to the top. Preflop wars, insofar as they are understood by players at a given buy-in level, are largely close to a zero-sum game. So this trend is not so much a preference of seeing more cards to make better decisions, but a telling sign of a progression of knowledge of the average poker player.

Craig Tapscott: What do you consider when deciding between a profitable and an easy decision compared to a more profitable but much harder line to take?

Dan Cates: When it comes to the choice of taking a more profitable decision versus an easier one, I nearly always lean towards taking the more plus expected value (EV) one. Taking the easy route, as a general rule, doesn’t pay the big bills in poker or in life for that matter. Exceptions to this rule are when you are not sure what the most plus EV decision is, or if you are playing a tournament and you have to decide whether to risk your tournament life or not. That being said, when you are facing difficult spots, it helps to have a plan should, say, your opponent raise. 

Scott Augustine: This is a tricky concept. As a general rule, I would contend that we should view each possible way to play a hand on a graph of equity realization. On the x-axis, I would label it “Ease of Decisions” and have it extend from Easy to Hard. On the y-axis, I would label it “Equity Cost” and have it span Low to High. As you start out in poker, you are going to only pay attention to the Ease of Decisions axis, and pretty much ignore the Equity Cost because you are not experienced enough to realize the equity of the hand fully. With more and more experience I would have certain thresholds where I would be willing to risk making a mistake for the equity I am gaining. A simple example of this concept would be playing A-A preflop. If you are first to act, under-the-gun, you could open shove your whole stack in with A-A preflop and be satisfied you have made zero unprofitable plays in the hand. Clearly that would be a poor strategy, as it is very easy for our opponents to play well against it. Conversely, if you look at a hand and think of a way to play it that, in the long run, earns you a fraction of a big blind, but there is a ton of guesswork to the frequencies and tendencies of our opponents, then I would just take the easier line and forgo the added value from the rocky road of a path. Some hands are also just easier to play than others, which is why pocket pairs leading to sets are so popular. They are highly profitable and pretty hard to screw up. These are extreme examples, but every line falls somewhere in between and it is up to the player to decide his level of information on his opponents as well as how well he can use that information to decide which path to take.

Reid Young: Quantified uncertainty is variance. If we define difficult lines as higher variance ones, then the answer to the question should at least take into account bankroll size. Are you in a tournament during which chipping up and embracing lower risk-of-ruin plays ends up being more profitable? Should you make low risk calls at a particular limit, but avoid slightly positive expected return all-in bluffs preflop? It’s possible that both are true when you consider the variance of each play combined with the expected return. Outside of a tournament, if you are incorporating loss leading plays into your strategy, then you are sacrificing value and using a worse strategy than the best one. It’s not a point of contention, but a mathematically proven fact. Tournaments seem different because chips have inherent value, and when you run out them you have no profit potential. That’s bad. So in tournaments, the game extends beyond immediate decisions. The goal is actually to win the entire contest. Cash games are more about immediate profit, so value is a more transparent concept. In a cash game with sufficient bankroll, the best players always maximize their value, regardless of variance. Personally, I adopt the philosophy that embracing variance as a necessary part of the game, and even habitually taking higher variance lines is a great way to force opponents to make mistakes against you and to fear you. Fear, in poker, is just a word for inducing opponents to make mistakes. ♠