Most people I play against seem to think they’re pretty darn good at poker. No matter the hand, no matter the situation, they have an answer for how to play it best. Check here, call there, fold a lot. That’s all there is to it.
There’s something about how so many of these people play, however, that I can’t help but find amusing. Their well-considered strategy, honed over many tens of thousands of hands played, is strictly inferior to a strategy I can summarize in four words.
You check? I bet.
Here in Las Vegas, many a $2-$5 game goes off that can be beaten with just those four words. And the people you’re beating with it are the very ones who have played so many hands and are so certain about what they’re doing.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the math.
Say I’m on the button and everyone has folded to me. I raise preflop and get a call. Let’s say for the sake of keeping the numbers easy that I’ve made it 10 to go and been called. (Let’s also assume that any extra dead blind and ante money gets raked away.)
The pot is 20. The flop comes. My opponent checks, and I bet 10 (half pot). Half the time my opponent folds, and half the time he calls.
Say he calls. The pot is 40. The turn comes. My opponent checks, and I bet 20. Again, he folds half the time and calls half the time.
Say he calls again. The pot is 80. The river comes. My opponent checks, and I bet 40. One more time, he folds half the time and calls half the time.
If my opponent and I play ten thousand hands using these strategies, who do you think comes out ahead?
Notice I haven’t mentioned specific cards at all. That’s because I’m discussing two strategies, not individual hands. To get really good at poker, you must learn to zoom out from thinking about specific hands and think instead of one strategy versus another.
So who wins?
My opponent folds 7/8 of his hands and calls to showdown with 1/8 of them. Let’s assume that the 1/8 of hands he gets to showdown with are always the best possible 1/8 of hands (not a fair assumption, of course, as it assumes that my opponent is able to predict perfectly on the flop where his hand will fall by the river). In hands that get to showdown, therefore, I will win 1/16 of the time and lose 15/16 of the time. (That is, I will luck into a hand that beats his average showdown hand 1/16 of the time.)
Let’s break it down. Half the time, I win 10 when he folds on the flop. One-fourth of the time, I win 20 when he folds on the turn. One-eighth of the time, I win 40 when he folds on the river. At showdown, I lose an average of 70 (accounting for the chance I luck into a winner).
So how do I do on average playing this game?
EV = (0.5)(10) + (0.25)(20) + (0.125)(40) + (0.125)(-70) = 5 + 5 + 5 – 8.75 = 6.25
I win an average of 6.25 per hand. That’s more than half the preflop raise size.
All I’m doing is betting half-pot whenever my opponent checks. I’ve given my opponent the benefit of psychic powers, and yet my couldn’t-be-simpler strategy crushes his more considered strategy.
What’s my opponent doing wrong? He’s folding too much, of course. He’s also not raising enough.
“No one actually plays like that,” I can hear you protest.
I disagree. Lots of people play like this, at least in $2-$5 and to a lesser extent $5-$10 games in Las Vegas. Sure, no one plays precisely like this with exactly these ratios. But plenty play closely enough that a strategy to simply bet half pot whenever checked to beats them.
So I said my opponent folded too much. How much is too much? When do I start losing money by betting every time?
What if my opponent folds only 30 percent of the time when I bet? The new numbers are
EV = (0.3)(10) + (0.21)(20) + (0.147)(40) + (0.343)(-52.56) = 3 + 4.2 + 5.88 – 18.03 = -4.95
I’m losing now. Let’s try one more with a 40 percent fold percentage.
EV = (0.4)(10) + (0.24)(20) + (0.144)(40) + (0.216)(-62.72) = 4 + 4.8 + 5.76 – 13.55 = 1.01
I’m winning again, but now it’s just a small percentage of the preflop raise size. At a 40 percent fold rate, we’re close to the break-even point.
I’m done with the math, but think again about the conclusion. Even if my opponent calls me 60 percent of the time on each street, my strategy to bet every time beats his strategy to call me down with his good hands and fold the rest. Regardless of how he chooses which 60 percent of hands make the cut at each juncture—he no doubt puts a lot of thought into each decision—he loses.
I think of it like he’s running repeatedly into a brick wall.
A Few Thoughts
Say someone raises preflop, and you call with two unpaired cards. How often do you think you make a pair or a draw on the flop? It’s a whole lot less than 60 percent of the time. If you’re just checking and folding on the flops you miss, you’re beating yourself. (A fix? Check-raise when you miss. A lot.)
Say someone raises preflop, and you call with any hand you’re likely to play. How often do you think you have top pair or a strong draw by the turn? Unless you’re really tight preflop, it’s not 36 percent (60 percent of 60 percent) of the time. Again, if you’re folding everything else, you’re beating yourself.
Betting half-pot when checked to is very frequently a good thing to do.
If you find an opponent who you think folds too much postflop, as much as possible build up pots early in the hand. For instance, if we could raise preflop to 20 instead of 10, we double the average win per hand. Cheat your preflop raise sizes big when the table isn’t getting to showdown often. And cheat your flop bet sizes bigger also.
Most players increase their folding percentage as the hand proceeds. They’ll call preflop raises most frequently and call flop bets frequently also. The turn is where they really start folding, and they’ll fold all but the very strongest hands to a big river bet. This pattern performs even worse than a flat percentage against my “You check? I bet.”strategy. By calling so much early in the hand, my opponent just builds pots that I will eventually win.
In real poker, it’s not this simple. But it’s close. So many players, particularly “solid” regular players, can be beaten by the simplest of strategies.
Actually, they beat themselves. You’re just there to collect the spoils.
[This article appeared originally in Card Player Vol. 25 No. 3]