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Find The Short Cuts

by Ed Miller |  Published: Dec 09, 2015


Ed MillerI’ve played a number of different games over the years. I’ve studied seriously chess, debate, and poker. I’m presently looking at daily fantasy sports with a similar level of time investment. I’ve also dabbled in dozens of other games from card games like bridge to computer strategy games to strategy board games to athletic games like golf and tennis.

There’s a common thread in many of these games—the existence of locally-dominant strategies. A locally-dominant strategy is a relatively simple strategy that wins against the common strategies that most players at a certain level of the game employ.

It’s a short cut. A hack. A tactic that’s both simple and difficult (but not impossible) to beat. In the earlier days of basketball, when teams first began putting big men under the rim, that became a locally-dominant strategy. The serve-and-volley era in tennis is another example. Daily fantasy sports is presently in an era where simple, locally-dominant strategies abound.

These locally-dominant strategies often become so dominant that the rules of the game are changed to make the strategy less effective. In basketball, for instance, they widened the key to mitigate big men under the rim.

In a well-designed game, locally-dominant strategies can’t become universally-dominant. If someone identifies your strategy and game plans for it, they should be able to beat it.

Like many games, poker has locally-dominant strategies. It has short cuts. These short cut strategies are simple—things like, “If this happens, always raise.” They work because most players play strategies that are naturally vulnerable to them. And they continue to work because most players are not capable of identifying and countering them.

Here are a few locally-dominant strategies that tend to work more often than not until your opponents become fairly sophisticated.

Strategy #1. Raise donk bets in heads-up and three-way pots.

A donk bet is when a player, rather than making the customary check to the preflop raiser, decides to bet out instead. Because most players have a natural inclination to sandbag at least a little bit with their very strong hands, a donk bet from most players indicates at least a certain level of weakness.

You can raise most donk bets and expect it to show an automatic profit. Either the player will fold immediately or will call and fold the next street. The play won’t work every time, of course, but that’s not necessary for it to be a locally-dominant strategy. It just has to work often enough to be net profitable—and it has to work against most players.

Note the qualification that the pot be heads-up or three-way. In more multi-way pots, players are more inclined to bet out with their strongest hands, and the strength of bets in general is higher.

Strategy #2. Bet half-pot on the turn or river if your opponent stops betting.

Say your hand isn’t that great. If your opponent has driven the betting preflop and on the flop, and then checks the turn, bet. If your opponent has driven the betting through the turn and checked the river, bet.

Betting half-pot gives you 2:1 odds on a fold. If your opponent folds more than 33 percent of the time, the play shows an automatic profit.

The typical player who drives the betting and then checks will almost always fold more than 33 percent of the time if you bet. Betting is locally-dominant any time you have a hand you don’t really want to show down.

When opponents drive the betting and check, one of three things is going on. The player intends to give up. Or the player is worried about a scare card. Or the player is getting tricky and trying to induce a bluff.

Among typical players, option three is pretty uncommon—particularly when they bet the turn, but check the river.

If it’s option one, you’re getting a fold. If it’s option two, your opponent may call—but he may also fold. These are the “decisions,” and players definitely decide to fold in these situations with regularity.

Your opponent would specifically have to game plan for your turn and river betting for it not to pay off. Most players won’t.

Strategy #3. Represent the flush.

It’s hard to make a flush. Unsuited hands outnumber suited ones 3:1. And even if you start with a suited hand, it’s going to be the right suit only one time in four. (It’s actually less than that, due to card removal.) On any given hand, making a flush is a longshot. This is true even if two or three players are trying to make a flush.

On the other hand, opponents are very quick to believe that you have a flush if you go through the right motions. When there’s a flush draw on the flop and it comes in on either the turn or river, your opponents will either have the flush themselves or worry that you have it. Usually they won’t have it. Flushes are hard to make.

So represent it. Do so shamelessly. Whenever that flush comes in, it’s your signal to come to life. No-limit players these days hate to pay off the “obvious” flush draws. Again, if you bet just half-pot, you give yourself 2:1 odds. Your opponents need to fold only 33 percent of the time to make representing the flush a better play than not. Typical players will fold far more often than that.

This strategy applies most when there are only three flush cards on board. Once there are four board cards of a suit, making a flush becomes much easier, and your opponents may be a favorite to hold one. That doesn’t mean you can’t bet them off it, but it’s a more complicated decision.

Final Thoughts

Poker is a complicated game. The ideal strategy for no-limit hold’em is incredibly complex.

No one can play perfectly, but people try. So they come up with their own strategies—and these strategies are often complex, just like the ideal strategy. “If this card comes then I bet, but if that smaller one comes then I check.” Or, “This is a hand I raise preflop, but that one is a limp, and this other one I like to limp-reraise, unless there aren’t enough people behind me where I raise it instead.”

Against the ideal no-limit hold’em strategy, there are no short cuts. You can’t just raise the donk bets, because the ideal hold’em strategy perfectly mixes in strong hands. You can’t just represent the flush because the ideal strategy knows how hard it is to make a flush and calls down accordingly.

But human strategies, complex as they are, are not so resilient. The most complicated reasoning is often vulnerable to the simplest of tactics—raise.

Over the years, the players I’ve known who have done the best have identified and abused locally-dominant strategies. Instead of looking for the answers in more complexity, they’ve taken a step back. They found short cuts.

Plenty of short cuts still work today. It’s up to you to find them. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site