The Introduction and an Excerpt to The Course by Ed Miller

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The Course: Serious Hold 'em Strategy For Smart Players by Ed Miller

My newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players, is now available in paperback and e-book formats. I have a sneak preview of a couple chapters from the book to give you some flavor for what’s within.

 

Introduction

 

When I was a kid, my dad watched a lot of golf. Every Thursday through Sunday, our television was tuned to that week’s PGA tournament. This was before the Internet, and we had only one TV, so many days I was a captive audience.

Through those thousands of hours of watching televised golf, I heard hundreds of players interviewed before tense Sunday matchups and after crushing losses. For the most part the words washed over me. If you’ve heard one cliché-filled athlete interview, you’ve heard almost all of them.

But one day, in one of these interviews, I heard something that stuck with me. I couldn’t tell you who said it, but the idea was powerful. You don’t play against the other players, the golfer said. You play against the course.

When you enter a golf tournament against a hundred other players, you can think about it one of two ways. You can think about it as “you against the field.” To win, you have to beat every one of your opponents. You’ve got to beat the one who drives a million miles, and you’ve got to beat the one who never misses a putt. You’ve got to beat the one who can get out of every jam, and you’ve got to beat the one who thrives under pressure no matter how intense.

That’s one way to think about it. The other way is to ignore all that. Those other players don’t matter. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. It’s not your concern. In some sense, a golf tournament involves only two players—you and the course. The course sets the rules. It creates the challenges. It puts up the obstacles. Your job is to analyze the problem, formulate a strategy, then execute.

That’s it. If you pick the right strategy, and your execution is crisp, the winning takes care of itself. The other players will beat themselves one way or the other. If you conquer the contours of the course, then you can ignore all the competition and claim your victory.

It’s a powerful idea. It separates the things you can’t control—the other players—from the things you can—your own strategy and execution. It’s also an idea that perhaps applies even better to poker.

In poker, it’s easy to get distracted by all the other players. This guy called twice and spiked a gutshot straight against you. That guy won’t stop calling every time you play a pot. The woman across the table made the nuts against you three times in a row.

It’s all noise. Ignore it. A hold ’em game is not you against nine opponents. It’s you against the course. Master the course, and you’ll see results.

If you don’t ignore it, you risk getting caught in a dangerous trap—trying to change your opponents. If someone keeps calling and drawing out on you, then the natural response is to try to get that guy to stop calling so much. Maybe you bet bigger. You figure that if you use a big enough gun, you’ll be able to blast the guy out of your pots.

This approach, however, is exactly the wrong one. The more you simply react to what your opponents are doing—and especially the more you try to change the way they play—the more you ensure that you’ll never win at this game.

Just play the course. In poker, the course isn’t your opponents, but it is created by your opponents. Your opponents, by the strategies they use to play the game, decide where the sand traps and water hazards go. They also decide where you’ll find the fairways and greens. The more flawed your opponents’ strategies, the wider the fairways, and the bigger and more forgiving the greens.

Your first job is to survey the course. Every time you sit down to play, you examine the action to determine where the hazards lie and where the plum landings spots are. Next, you devise a strategy to hit the good spots as often as possible. Finally, you execute.

If you do that consistently—survey, strategize, execute—your opponents won’t be able to keep up with you.

 

This is my ninth poker book. When I tell my non-poker-playing friends that I’ve written nine poker books, they ask, “Is there really that much to say about poker?”

The short answer is yes. No-limit hold ’em is a game with a depth and subtlety that equals chess. People have been playing chess for hundreds of years. They’ve written thousands of books on the game, and still haven’t mastered it. In contrast, while no-limit hold ’em has been around since early in the last century, its popularity exploded more recently, beginning with the 2003 World Series of Poker. Only since then has the poker community devoted significant resources to teasing out the game’s finer strategic points.

I co-wrote my first book about poker strategy in 2004. The collective strategic knowledge about hold ’em has been in a constant state of flux since then. With each new book I’ve written, I’ve learned more about the game.

This book is the product of how I’ve learned to teach poker for the past ten years. I won’t waste your time telling you that a flush beats a straight. I also won’t rehash basic strategy points you can find in a hundred different places. That’s what Google is for.

Instead, I’ve focused on presenting only high-value concepts. If I’ve done it right, this book will give you a series of “aha” moments, one after the other. These concepts are the most important, practical, and instantly applicable ideas that win money in real no-limit hold ’em games.

The book is broken down into a series of skills. Read the first skill, practice it, master it, and move onto the next. Once you have mastered the first three skills, you can expect to have sustained success in the lowest-level games offered in public card rooms.

After you get through the next four skills, you should have what it takes to win at the next level. And finally, if you master all the skills presented here, you should be able to play a professional-level game at some of the higher stakes.

Hold ’em isn’t a simple game. You shouldn’t expect success to come quickly and easily. But this complexity is precisely what makes it worth playing. If it’s not easy for you, rest assured it’s not easy for your opponents either. Most people who play the game regularly in public card rooms are, quite frankly, terrible players who make mistakes on nearly every hand. (They will also be happy to volunteer “advice” about how you should play more like them. Ignore them. Always, always ignore them!)

On top of this, the game’s short-term luck factor serves to obscure relative skill levels among players. If you play ten games of chess against someone who is much better than you, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose nine or all ten of those games. After an experience like that, no one could believe they were in fact the better player.

Yet, in poker, the better player won’t beat the worse player every time—not even close. The noise of hand-to-hand results often hides the edge the better player enjoys. Throw in a little old-fashioned self-delusion, and many people play for years and years thinking they are among the best players in the room, while actually being among the worst.

This book’s main goal is to cut through all that noise. I want you to understand clearly what it means to be good at poker. I want you to focus on the stuff that’s truly important. And I want you to tune out everything else.

I want you to expect a challenge. As I said above, poker excellence doesn’t come easily. As I’m sure you already know, it will take consistent hard work on your end. But I also want to help you succeed. And I want you to understand that your poker goals are attainable if you study the right concepts and put forth enough effort.

This may be a new idea for you to consider. But I encourage you to see poker as an exercise in self-improvement. Every day that you read, every day that you study, and every day that you play, you get a little better than you were the day before. This is how you should measure success—not by money won or lost, but by whether you continue to improve day after day.

Don’t worry about your opponents. They’ll win and they’ll lose. Along the way, they’ll naturally have a lot of things to say about the game, very little of it valid. What happens with, and to, your opponents is both irrelevant and beyond your control.

In the end, it’s just you and the course. Learn to read the course. Learn to beat the course. And every day strive to score better that day than you did the last. Do that, and the winning will take care of itself.

 

Static Versus Dynamic Boards

 

In no-limit hold ’em there are 22,100 possible flops. Each of these flops creates a unique ordering of hand values for the cards held by each player at the table, and a unique distribution of hand equities. If you had a central processing unit implanted in your brain, you could study each of these 22,100 flops independently to understand perfectly how each affects hand ranking and equity distribution.

If you’re not yet enhanced with unfathomable computing power, twenty-two thousand unique outcomes is just way too much information to calculate and retain. It makes sense, therefore, to put different flop types into groups, where a given group of flops tends to behave in a certain way.

The most important grouping is the distinction between static and dynamic flops. A static flop is one like K♠7♦3♥—where the hand values (particularly hands near the top of the pile like 7-7, K-7, A-K, and K-Q) are relatively unlikely to change on the turn or river. If you’re ahead on the flop, you’ll probably still be ahead on the river. In this example, either you hold a king or you don’t. There’s no flush draw available. And the only straight draw is a gutshot between the 7 and the 3. Only one overcard (an ace) can come on a subsequent street to beat you if you hold the king.

A dynamic flop is one like 9♣7♠4♣—where hand values (again, particularly the ones at the top of the heap like 4-4, J-J, A-9, and T-9) are likely to change significantly on the turn and river. Several factors can make a flop dynamic. But the most important one is a “low highest” card—meaning, where the highest card on the flop is a relatively low card. When the highest card on the flop is a 9 or lower, as in this case, your flop is dynamic, since it’s likely one, or possibly two, overcards will come by the river. These overcards can completely upset the ordering of hands.

Flush and straight draws can also make a flop dynamic. But players tend to overestimate the importance of draws, compared to simply the rank of the highest card on the flop. As you know, a pair of jacks beats a pair of nines just as surely as a flush. But it’s a lot easier to make a pair of jacks, so the reordering of hands is more drastic when an overcard hits the board than a flush card.

Here’s the math behind a jack hitting versus a flush completing. Say the flop comes 9♣7♠4♣. There are 55 total possible flush-draw hands, and if I started counting them all for this flop—A♣K♣, A♣Q♣, A♣J♣, A♣T♣, A♣8♣, etc.—and I counted every possible combination, I’d get 55 hands.

In hold ’em, this is always the number of possible flush-draw hands when two of any suit hit the flop. 55.

There are a total of 180 possible hands that have a jack in them (excluding J-J). That’s more than three times as many flush-drawing hands.

So, say I hold A-9 on this 9♣7♠4♣ flop. More hands leapfrog me in the rankings if a jack hits than if a club hits. When a club hits, only 45 hands improve to beat A-9 (plus a few stray two pair hands). It’s 45 hands, not 55, because the appearance of a third club eliminates the possibility of hands using that card. That is, if the turn is the 2♣, no one can hold A♣2♣.

But when a jack hits the board, any two cards that include a jack improve to beat A-9. That’s 135 possible combinations—far more than the 45 possible flushes. Of course, sometimes the flop action will eliminate many of the hands with a jack and another random card. But sometimes the flop action won’t eliminate many hands—if it goes check-check, for instance. Or if someone makes a C-bet, he could be betting any two cards.

In any event, an overcard hitting the turn will usually overturn the ordering of hands as much if not more than a flush card.

There’s more to say on this topic. For now, keep in mind that static flops are ones where hand rankings—yours and your opponents’—are unlikely to change much on the turn and river. Dynamic flops are ones where hand rankings are likely to change significantly on the turn and river.

Static flops—K-7-3, K-Q-4, A-9-5, Q-J-2, K-6-6—will typically feature one or two high cards. These flops become semi-static when there’s also a flush draw present. And when the flop also contains a straight draw, or is all one suit—flops like A♣Q♠9♣ or K♦7♦6♦—then they’ve slid toward a gray area between static and dynamic. Even on flops such as these, there’s a good chance the player who flops top pair will continue to hold the best hand by the river. But clearly, added straight and flush possibilities muddy the situation.

On the other end, a rainbow 8-4-2 flop is dynamic, even without flush draws. It’s just too likely an overcard will hit on either the turn or river. When you add a flush draw, it gets even more dynamic. If you straighten the cards like 8-7-5, it also gets more dynamic.

Remember that with static flops, there are large equity differences between the various hand levels. If you flop a set on a static board, you’re nearly a lock against anyone else. If you flop two pair including top pair, you’re a big favorite over any one-pair hand. If you flop top pair with a good kicker, you’re a big favorite over someone with a lesser kicker, and you’re a pretty big favorite over middle or bottom pair.

As you move down from the best to the worst hand, the equity differences between each set of hands is large.

On dynamic flops, equities tend to run closer together. For instance, take a dynamic flop like 8♣7♠5♣. And consider three hands playing this flop—A♣Q♣, J♠J♣, and 8♦6♦. Each of these hands comes from very different hand tiers. But all three of them have equity against one another. There’s no clear ordering of best to worst, and it would be difficult to convince the player holding any of these three hands they’re so far behind they might as well give up.

The strategic implications of static versus dynamic boards are many. But for now I’ll drill down on one last idea. On static boards, if you bet, you’re presenting a clear threat. “Whatever hand you have,” your bet says, “I have a better one. And against a better hand you have little chance to win.”

On dynamic boards, however, a bet doesn’t carry the same threat. At best, a bet says, “I have a hand that has a good chance to win,” to which an opponent easily could say, “So do I.” And there’s a call.

So what does any of this have to do with Skill #4, barreling?

In general, on a static board, you need fewer barrels to “get the job done” than on a dynamic board. Seen the other way, if your bluffs haven’t worked after betting the flop and turn on a static board, there’s a good chance you should give up. But if your bluff bets haven’t worked on a dynamic board, you may still want to give a river bluff a shot. It’s likely your opponents are still drawing and by the river, have missed everything. That, or they’ll worry that your river bet means you outdrew them.

Consider these examples:

In both cases, it’s a 2-5 game with $1,000 stacks. Two players limp. You make it $25 to go on the button and the limpers call. There’s $82 in the pot.

First, the flop comes K♦Q♠3♥. Your opponents check, and you bet $60. The first limper folds, and the second limper calls.

The turn is the 6♥. Your opponent checks, and you bet $160. He calls.

The river is the 6♦. Your opponent checks.

In a typical 2-5 game, you should probably give up if you’re bluffing. (Notice that I never told you what hand you held. For the purposes of this example, it’s not important.)

Why should you give up? On a K♦Q♠3♥ flop, when your opponent calls your $60, he could have a king or a queen or a straight draw—hands like A-T and J-T. He could have even better hands like two pair, or a set. And it’s possible (with some player types) that he’s got a hand weaker than a queen.

But it’s unlikely he called with too many weaker hands than a queen. It would not be normal for most players to call this flop with a hand like 9-8, or 6-4, or even 2-2. Therefore, the fact that he called has meaning. And since you’d expect your opponent to have folded a good portion of weak hands or hands that totally missed, the fact that he didn’t fold makes his average remaining hand considerably stronger.

In this example, the turn brings a brick. He checks again. You bet again—a largish bet for a typical 2-5 game. Your bet says something clear on this static board. “Ok, I know you flopped some kind of hand, but I really think I have you beat.”

When your opponent calls, in effect he’s saying, “I’m not sure about that.”

On a static board like K-Q-3-6, both the bettor and the caller are clearly saying they have made hands, and each person feels there’s a good chance their hand is best.

On the river, the board is now K-Q-3-6-6. The confidence in each player doesn’t change much. The caller still feels his hand is best. If you bluff, it’s a pure power play. A river bet says, “Ha! I’ve got a monster, and I’ve got you on the hook for the full ride.” For the bluff to succeed, your opponent must understand this implied dialogue (not a good assumption about many low-stakes players), and your opponent must also believe you. He must also have the discipline to lay down a hand you know he likes.

In general, this is a losing bluff strategy. You don’t barrel to muscle people off hands you know they like. The goal of barreling is to catch your opponent with too many bad hands, and watch them fold to get rid of them. In this hand, on your K-Q-3-6-6 board, the flop barrel accomplishes this (because many hands look pretty weak on a K-Q-3 flop). The turn barrel also does this by getting an opponent to relinquish all his marginal hands after he called a flop, hands like A-T and Q-9. By the time the turn is bet and called, the caller will have a small remaining set of fairly strong hands. Barreling time, for this pot at least, is over.

Consider a different board. It’s the same 2-5 game with $1,000 stacks and the same pre-flop action (two limp-callers).

This time, however, the flop comes 9♣7♠4♣. Your opponents check, you bet $60, the first limper folds, and the second limper calls.

The turn is the 5♦. Your opponent checks, you bet $160, and he calls.

The river is the K♦. Your opponent checks again on this 9♣7♠4♣5♦K♦ board

You might consider firing a final barrel of perhaps $300 into the $522 pot. Why is this situation different?

Because this board is dynamic. Your opponent could have been calling with a variety of different hand types. He could hold a one-pair hand like A-9 or T-T. He could hold a flush draw like A♣J♣. He could hold a pair, plus a straight draw, such as 7-6 or 6-5.

The implied dialog on this board is very different from the one on the static board above. When you bet the turn, you’re not representing any particular sort of hand. But because you raised pre-flop, many players will tend to give you credit for a hand like A-A or Q-Q.

More importantly (remember, barreling is mostly about what your opponents might hold), your opponent could hold anything from a pair to a flush draw to a straight draw, to a combination of two or three of those things. A player might call the turn on a board like 9♣7♠4♣5♦ for lots of reasons. And by no means do all of them imply the player feels they have a strong hand worth showing down.

The river card—the K♦—is likely a bad card for the caller almost no matter what hand he holds. If he has a flush draw, he missed. Likewise, all the straight draws missed. Even if he held a hand like T-T, he now has to worry you had something like A-K and have outdrawn him.

The bottom line? Because the flop started out dynamic, your opponent will likely have found more hands to call with on the flop and turn. But by the river, a significant percentage of these hands will have bricked out. Your opponent can still have plenty of weak hands he’ll consider folding out.

 

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