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Capture the Flag: Jason Les

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Sep 16, 2015

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Jason LesName: Jason Les
Age: 29
From: Costa Mesa, CA
Years Playing Poker: About 10
Lifetime Tournament Earnings: $756,476
Top Poker Accomplishment: 5th in 2014 $100,000 No-Limit Hold’em Alpha8 Las Vegas for $431,640
Twitter: @heyitscheet

High-stakes poker pro Jason Les is widely regarded as one of the top heads-up no-limit hold’em players in the world, and just this summer he had his breakout year at the WSOP. He recorded a runner-up finish and a third place for nearly $300,000 worth of scores.

Earlier this year, Les was among a team of four poker pros who beat a world-class poker bot in a two-week long battle in Pittsburgh. It received a lot of attention and proved humans are still on top.

Card Player had a chance to talk to the 29-year-old Les about poker strategy, as well as his high-stakes poker career and the match versus the poker-playing bot called Claudico.

Brian Pempus: People often say that tournament days are really long and grueling, but with cash games people sometimes play marathon sessions when the games are good. Can you talk about how being a cash game player might make it easier to fend off the fatigue in a tournament?

Jason Les: I typically play heads-up cash online. The hours for that are all over the place. When I am outside the country playing on PokerStars, I am sleeping at all random hours of the day, because when you get good action, you can’t quit. It’s not like you can wake up tomorrow and it’s going to be there. You have to take full advantage of it. This did get me prepared for playing a lot of hours [at the WSOP]. Playing 12 hours a day for a tournament is very easy in comparison to some of my sessions when there is a good cash game running. Tournaments are different though. You are there in person, and it’s not the same as kicking back at home on your computer. But, for sure, playing lots of cash makes the tournament grind seem much easier and not super taxing on me. It just feels like another day of poker.

BP: Can you talk about the state of the online heads-up cash games these days?

JL: I think that over time the skill required to beat heads-up cash has increased, but there is still action out there to be had. If you are passionate and enjoy playing, you can get out there and get in games. A lot of people create this idea that heads-up is completely dead and there is no action, and it’s because they are setting boundaries on who they are willing to play. There is no action for the top three players, so they live with not having that much action, but there are plenty of people getting heads-up no-limit action all the time. I think heads-up is a great way to learn how to play poker. You get involved in so many different hands and get used to thinking about so many different situations. It’s a great way to prepare for all types of no-limit hold’em formats. If you want to work on your game, you should play heads-up and try to challenge yourself.

BP: Are you at the point where you will play anyone at anytime? Or are there some people you shy away from, especially if you are having an off day for whatever reason?

JL: At this point, I’m pretty much willing and able to play anyone besides my friends. I am not going to start a session versus Jungleman after I have been up for 24 hours or something like that (laughs). You want to be in a good mental state before you take on the top names. I am in a position to take action from pretty much anyone I can and challenge myself versus everyone out there. I haven’t been able to play that much heads-up cash in awhile, and I am looking forward to getting back out there again and mixing it up with some people and having some good matches.

BP: Can you talk about the counter-strategies you and your team developed to defeat the poker bot Claudico earlier this year?

JL: Since Claudico wasn’t adjusting, the goal was for it to play its Nash equilibrium strategy that it hoped we would not be able to beat. If we could find a weakness in it, we could massively exploit that. We wouldn’t have to worry about it noticing something we were doing over and over again and adjust to being exploited. So, our style got really crazy. We were doing weird bet sizes all over the place when we found out stuff that would confuse it. We took advantage of Claudico not taking blockers into account when it did different bluffs and when we would bluff it. It would try, for instance, to represent the nut flush and I would have the nut-flush blocker in my hand. I would know that it had to be bluffing because of that and I could make pretty wide calls for that reason. On the other hand, I could bluff with blockers and it would maybe make some bigger folds. The blocker thing was mainly us catching it bluffing though. That was the big deal. There were some really big pots. Claudico used really big all-in bet sizing to really put pressure on us, and it was a good overall strategy. Its river strategy was hard to play against even though we did pick off a lot of bluffs. In certain situations when I had a blocker, I knew it was representing some hands that it couldn’t have. Another thing we were able to take advantage of was the fact that it only understood a certain number of bet sizes because there is only so much time and computing power they can run through a supercomputer. They can’t have a strategy for every single bet size. They’ll go through 1/4 pot, 1/2 pot, 3/4 pot, full pot, 1.25 pot, and so on. If you ever bet an amount in between those, it would round up or down depending. What that would do is cause it to treat bet sizes a little differently than they actually were.

BP: So these big overbets on the river from it were very polarized?

JL: Yes. I do give a lot of credit to them for creating that river component. It was polarized. It would have total air or the nuts or close to nut hands a lot of the time as well. You had to really understand theory and what was going on to play appropriately. You can’t fold every time. It was a difficult situation. There’s a $500 pot and Claudico is all-in for $19,750. You really have to think appropriately about your range and what you want to be calling with. The blockers played a big part of that. The CMU team is aware of the blocker situation and know what is going on here. While we were able to take advantage of this now, I imagine in the future they’ll have taken that into account a lot more. It won’t be as easily exploited.

BP: This really massive overbetting on the river isn’t something we see in high-stakes heads-up matches between humans. Why is that?

JL: In the match versus Claudico, we were playing 200 big blind stacks. Online, it’s always 100 big blind starting. So, you can get that deep, but generally you aren’t. Humans typically don’t have a strategy like that because it is so difficult to balance appropriately. Claudico could do things at perfect balance, so it didn’t have that same kind of concern. Big bets are very tough for a human to do without some sort of bias whether it be to bluff or for value. Another thing is that Claudico would slow play a lot of hands in ways that humans never would. Sometimes it would bet and sometimes it would check; you couldn’t put Claudico on a hand because it just did whatever. So, there could be a situation in which I know a human would never have the nuts because they would never slow play on this board. Claudico very well could just because that’s the way it decided to play [that hand]. It could check the nuts until the river, then just go all in. Most humans aren’t going to do that because they won’t get good value from the hand. So, in short, it is very difficult for the human mind to do that strategy with the appropriate frequencies and the appropriate hands. ♠