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The Game Plan Cometh

by Matt Matros |  Published: Aug 28, 2019

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Matt MatrosI’m back! In fact, I’ve been gone so long that many of you might not have known I was ever here. Well… I was, earlier in this century, for 100-plus columns. What have I been doing the last four years? I’ve played a little poker, become a father (which put an end to the poker for a while), made a couple World Series of Poker final tables, and most recently, published my first pure strategy book The Game Plan: How Casual Players Become Threats in No Limit Hold’em Tournaments.

During the long months of infant care, where sleep was a fantasy and I focused more on correctly buttoning onesies than correct button opening ranges, I missed poker more than I’d expected to. I had to skip two straight WSOP summers and most of a third because of the new family obligations, and I found myself wanting to get involved in the tournament scene some other way. And I thought, there are lots of casual players buying into tournaments year after year whose playing style dooms them to almost certain failure. Couldn’t I maybe help them?

The Game Plan presents a series of rules aimed at saving the occasional tournament player from themselves. I had thought I would be able to construct such a plan in a few days and write it up in a manner of weeks. Hah! It turns out making a quick and dirty guide to poker improvement is complicated. Months and months of tinkering with, writing, and rewriting the rules finally led to a finished product I’m extremely proud of. I argue that The Game Plan will help casual players make decisions more easily and improve their results.

The rules in the book all derive from the most fundamental strategic concepts in poker. To give just one example, Rule 7 (Preflop Three-Bet) dictates that from any position other than the big blind, Game Plan followers should either reraise or fold, never call. Let’s look at how this approach might change a beginner’s results.

Say a tough player opens under-the-gun in the early stages of a no-limit hold’em tournament, and you’re sitting in late position with pocket jacks. You might elect, reasonably, to call. Most pros would probably do the same! Now let’s say the flop comes king-high. Here’s where things diverge. Many beginners would simply fold to the continuation bet from the opener, whereas most pros would call.

Now let’s say the turn is a blank and the opener bets again. Almost all beginners (excluding fish who simply call everything) would fold at this point. Pros, however, would use their hand-reading skills, their assessment of all their opponent’s previous hands, and a deep consideration of what their own range should look like before determining how to proceed. They might end up calling, raising, or folding, but they would have sound reasoning behind their decision. Home game players and other amateurs don’t have that toolkit, and therefore they make the (correct, for them) choice to fold.

So, let’s go back to the beginning. What happens instead if our casual player follows the Plan and reraises with their two jacks instead of calling? For starters, most of the time they probably win a small pot immediately. When they don’t, they will often pick up a slightly bigger pot with a bet on the flop. If the UTG player has shown resistance, then our casual player will either fold (like on that king-high flop) or call down (if the jacks are an overpair or better). Yes, we will lose more money on the king-high flop playing this way when our opponent happens to have a hand. But we win so many pots we would’ve otherwise lost, it more than makes up for it.

Let’s try to calculate how well the reraise approach does on that king-high flop, using some simple assumptions. It’s reasonable to guess that our opponent will fold about half the time when we take an aggressive action. Let’s say our plan is to reraise to 6.5 blinds preflop, and then bet 8.5 blinds on the flop if we’re called. In that case, we win a small pot (say, 4 blinds profit) about half the time (when our opponent folds preflop), a medium pot (say, 8 blinds profit) about a quarter of the time (when our opponent calls preflop but folds the flop), and we lose 15 blinds or so the other quarter of the time (when our opponent doesn’t fold ever).

By this rough estimate, the jacks are doing better than break-even (.5*4 + .25*8 -.25*15 = 0.25 blinds in positive expectation) even on this bad board! Compare that to the first strategy I mentioned, where the jacks just call preflop. In that case, we are simply losing chips because we always fold to a bet on the flop or turn. To be fair, we could still win occasionally if our opponent checks the turn, but it’s clear the beginner would do far better with the aggressive preflop approach—and that was when I picked a hand where many pros would call preflop! Imagine how much casual players would improve if they turned some of their bad preflop calls into good three-bets.

You might’ve read the above analysis and thought, “Hmm, it seems even pros might do better three-betting.” Good thought! Pros believe they can overcome the disadvantage of passive preflop play with superior decisions after the flop. They might be right, but most pros get carried away with this idea. To pick just one example, in 2014 I tracked all the hands I played in the WSOP main event (the only time I ever did this). 41 times I called a raise when someone opened in front of me, and I won only 15 of those pots.

On the other hand, I reraised 18 times when someone opened in front of me, and I won 12 of those pots. One tournament does not prove anything, and of course I had a better hand on average when I reraised than when I called, but the experience still convinced me that I wasn’t three-betting enough. I have since adjusted and my results have improved. For casual players, there’s no doubt that the baseline play should be three-betting rather than flat-calling a raise.

For the next few columns I’ll introduce some more rules from The Game Plan and explain some of the thinking behind their construction. If you want all of them, however, and if you want to put them all together to form your new strategy, you’ll just have to buy the book. ♠

Matt MatrosMatt Matros is a three-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, poker instructor, and the author of the strategy/memoir The Making of a Poker Player. His new book, The Game Plan, is available now from Amazon. Want to see how the Game Plan would apply to a hand you’ve played? Write Matt at jacksup@mattmatros.com.