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Real Poker: Rules Based or Judgement Based?

by Roy Cooke |  Published: Jan 17, 2018


Most poker advice promotes a simple rules-based strategy. Something titled along the lines of, Six Simple Secrets to Crush Poker. And there is a good reason for that; if they named the book Six Complex Algorithms to Lose Less at Poker, the book wouldn’t sell very well. But, truth be told, playing poker well is a complex affair. And those who are looking for simple answers to poker’s complex problems aren’t going to go far.

For those who don’t know basic strategies, a few simple unknown rules can improve their game. Most of the “rules advice” is generally sound. But knowing basic strategy won’t win much, if anything, unless you’re against very weak opposition that doesn’t comprehend basic strategy.

Great players fully comprehend basic strategy, but know when and how to exploitatively adjust when non-standard situations dictate non-standard counter-plays. To do this effectively, you need to read situations well and relate to your opponents’ thinking and emotional tendencies. That takes focus, knowledge and recall.

For example, a common “rule” is to never open-limp. But in certain situations limping can be far the best play. If you’re in a “limpfest,” one with little to no preflop raising, plus lots of calling, and hold a hand like 5-5 or 9Heart Suit 8Heart Suit that infrequently makes a large hand, just calling increases your implied odds. That’s because the lower entry price, plus the greater frequency of getting your hands paid off due to the larger field make calling the higher EV play. It works because you’re in a game where opponents aren’t exploiting your limps by raising and putting pressure on you.

Another example where limping is the correct play is when there is frequent raising behind you. With big hands like big wired pairs and A-K you can limp and reraise when you’re raised. This play can be particularly effective if a constant raiser is directly behind you and you can pick up callers prior to your reraise. You’ll get lots of large EV+ (positive expective value) calls and fold equity selecting the correct situations to formulate this play. Effecting this play can also have the positive effect of making your opponents think twice about raising you again in the future.

A more complex and impossible to exactly quantify example is preflop hand range charts. Once again, they can often be good general guidelines, but take two different situations with 6-6. In one you have a tough opponent who will never pay off three streets without having an overpair beat vs. another in which they will lose their stack with any top pair hand. Are the two situations equal? No, they are vastly different. The value of a hand is in its implied EV, not the current equity the hand has against a varied range.

Learning a judgement-based strategy is much harder than learning a few simple rules. But if you want to play winning poker in today’s tougher environment, it’s a must. First you need to learn poker’s basic concepts. David Sklansky’s book, The Theory of Poker, is good place to start. It encompasses poker’s basic elements. However, a much harder task is going to be learning when to apply those concepts. Carefully review through the hands you play. Were you conceptually correct in your strategy? Disregarding the results, was it the highest and best valued possible way to play your hand?

Additionally, watch your opponents. Think about how they think. How do their emotions affect their play? What counterstrategies can you implement to exploit them? Are they too tight? Then expand your bluffing range. Do they call too much? Value bet wider. Expand that thinking to a higher level. Do they always call wider when a draw misses the board? If so you can expand your value betting in that select instance and only that select instance. Most players will have some kind of exploitable leak! Unearth those additional select spots. Over the course of the year, it can add up to a lot of value.

Do you see what I’m doing here? I’m uncovering non-standard situations in which I can effectively increase my edge. Over time, finding such situations can add greatly to your win rate. And your opponents won’t likely notice any difference. To them, you’ll just appear lucky!

So don’t ever play in a strategy-by-rote rules mindset. Think about how you can exploit your opponents’ thinking and emotional reactions, and actualize those counter-plays.

Don’t be good, be great! ♠

Roy CookeRoy Cooke played poker professionally for 16 years prior to becoming a successful Las Vegas Real Estate Broker/Salesman. Should you wish any information about Real Estate matters-including purchase, sale or mortgage his office number is 702-376-1515 or Roy’s e-mail is His website is Roy’s blogs and poker tips are at You can also find him on Facebook or Twitter @RealRoyCooke. Please see ad below!