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Decisions in Poker

Poker Decision Making

Greetings. The subject of this article is the game of poker. We work with a few assumptions. Chiefly, we wish to win at poker. What does this mean? Why is it even possible? To be sure, it is unusual for a casino game to be winnable. So let’s examine something we know is not winnable: roulette. What do we mean by not winnable? The game is fairly simple, so let us examine that first.

We pick a single number with a payout of 35 to 1. So if we win, and bet $1, we get $35. That sounds pretty good. There are 37 (or 36, depending on continent) choices of numbers, and since the ball doesn’t have any bias the true odds of winning are 1 in 37 (or 36). So for the game to be fair, we would need to have a payout of $37 for every $1 we bet straight. Similar things happen for all the bets in roulette. The house rigs the game against you.

But poker is different, right? We all know that poker is winnable. What makes it different to roulette, is that you can influence what odds you will be getting, true odds, by the decisions you make. These decisions are important: every single one. So, to close the loop on the roulette example: does the decision of which number to place a straight bet on affect your odds of winning? Of course not. But in poker, the decision to raise, fold, call, and soon, does affect your odds of winning that hand. Now, if you make particularly good decisions, relative to your opponents, you can drive the long-term winning percentage to 50% and even beyond. This is what we mean when we state from the outset that we want to win at poker: to have a greater than even money chance of walking away having gained money rather than lost.

For better or worse, there is the other side of the coin. For every player who wins a hand, there are one or more players who lose a hand. On a larger scale, for every player who makes money playing poker, there are one or (most often) more players who lose money playing poker. What makes them lose money playing poker? I hear you say: bad decisions! But this is not the case, and it is a very important point. It is not bad decisions: simply put, their decisions are just not up to scratch. They make decisions which are not as good as the decisions the winning players make. These may not be ostensibly bad. Let’s talk some poker to make that point clear.

Disclaimer. The reasoning used in these examples will not be completely explained at this time for the sake of brevity, and so that we remain focused.

Cash Game Play – Example #1

Blinds are $5/$10 and everyone has $1000. Say you limp in late position with KJ s. There are four players to the flop and the flop comes 2TQ with two flush cards: you have an open-ended straight draw with a flush draw. The blinds check, and the limper bets the pot. Action is on you and you have a $40 bet to contend with. You think “damn, I know I have a good hand, but this guy is betting the whole pot, I don’t know I guess I’ll call.”

The example is an interesting one to analyze independently of the point I am making; regardless, what is the correct move here? It is most certainly to raise. Is calling incorrect? You have a strong hand in this situation, and examining the odds of winning over various hands here will tell you that against some hands you are an underdog (like AA, KK and QQ , approximately 5:1) but against others you are doing quite well. Against a set of 2s, you are a favorite, for example. So against his range of possible holdings, your hand is in great shape. But these are just numbers; poker doesn’t stop on the flop.

There is a turn card, another round of betting, and then a river card with a final round of betting. Your hand is hard to play on these later streets, most especially the river. It isn’t a made hand, in that if you don’t hit the draw you have king high. If you hit a J , is it good? If you bet and he raises all-in on a K turn card are you going to call? These are hard decisions to make; by that we mean precisely that it is hard to determine in this particular case which choice will yield the greatest return in the long run.

Conversely, because they are hard there is a lot of money to be made by making them correctly. Therefore we do not want to raise all-in on the flop: this is losing us too much value. But, since our hand is strongest from the flop, we wish to get as much money in as quickly as possible. In simple terms, our equity at this point of the hand is too high to not raise. There are other factors at play in this specific hand that lead to making a raise on the flop the best possible move, but the point is this: while calling is not a bad decision, it is not as good as raising.

Pre-flop Play – Example #2

Blinds are $5/$10 and everyone has $1000. You are dealt AA. The best starting hand in hold’em! You think “wow, ok, so now to deceive everyone I’m going to pretend like I have a weak hand and pounce on them later. I call.”

Before we berate this play, first let us defend it. Pocket aces is the best starting hand in hold’em. We are a favorite against any hand preflop. So as long as we don’t fold, there is no move we can make on this street that will lose money in the long run. Anything we do on this street will win money in the long run.

While true, this is awful thinking. Your play preflop will not lose you money, correct, but it will not win as much as raising. Further, in this case, by committing yourself to putting a lot of money in later in the hand you are making things terrible for yourself and great for all your opponents. Let me be specific. Say you just call with your AA. I am in the big blind and look down to see my garbage 69 offsuit. I check. The flop comes K69. I have two pair, and you still have your overpair. Now my hand is a massive favorite: 75% over your hand from the flop. Of course, now I will start betting and you will think your trap has worked. But you have only trapped yourself.

This can happen against a lot of hands: small pairs and suited connectors are the usual examples. Because you allow your opponents to outlay a small risk for a potentially big reward, limping pre-flop with pocket aces is a bad move. Even if you do not commit yourself to putting more money in once your ‘trap’ is sprung, it is a bad idea. This related to the notion of maximizing value, in other words, putting in as much money as possible while you are a favorite without making your opponents fold too often. Unfortunately, examining this topic in detail is another article in itself.

The overarching point to take away from this example is that by limping pre-flop with aces we are not making an intrinsically bad decision; even if we play in a completely random manner after the flop, it will net us money in the long run. But it is not as good a decision as raising; therefore, those people who raise their aces will be earning more money than us, on average, in a single session. Returning to the thought which started this example, by limping with aces preflop we are drifting into the mass of people who are not making a large number of obviously unprofitable decisions, but who are just not making good enough decisions.

So, now, we have some intuition about how not-so-good decisions can be thought of as ‘bad’ decisions: they make you relatively less money in the long run compared with the best decisions. Since we understand this point, we can move on to dissecting how good players make their decisions. When a good player is faced with a decision; any decision, what do they think about to guide them on their way? What is the process in their mind? This is really a huge step in the poker development of any player. All too often we see people who make plays because others told them to, they don’t want to look like idiots, they saw Barry Greenstein do it on WSOP, and so on. These are not profitable thought processes.

The overall goal of this article is not to examine anything in detail, but to give a framework of thought that you can use to think about each decision in a way which will lead you to the correct decision. So while this article is no holy grail in the sense that it will tell you exactly what to do to win the most money you can in poker, it is a definite step in the right direction.

There are five key factors that every good poker player must consider. The first of these, and the most important, is position.

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