When I give poker advice, either on the 2+2 strategy forums
or privately, I ask players to include the reasoning behind their decisions. After all, the point of asking about a situation is not to learn how to play it if ever occurred exactly the same way, but to figure out the concepts that really matter so that they can be applied to a wide variety of difficult spots. Perhaps
most informative is when people give me explanations that
are largely irrelevant to the situation, or demonstrate serious flaws in their broader understanding of the game. These are opportunities to produce the “aha!” type moments that can lead to significant improvements.
This article chronicles 22 different reasonings HUSNG students have given me when explaining their actions, along with why they each suggest the chance to get better. Some of them are misapplied to far too many situations, and some of them should never be applied at all. Most are about in-game decisions,
and a few have to do with a broader approach to the game. Throughout, the common theme is that each incorrect rationale focuses too little on calculating EV, relying instead on emotional heuristics or misconceptions about theory. Do you understand the error in each?
1. “When bluffcatching, if I call the turn, I have to call the river.”
This is only true when playing against a maniac who always triple barrels after betting twice, not against the vast majority of the population. The river decision is its own independent equity calculation based on your assessment of how often your opponent gives up on bluffs and what percentage of his range that gets to the river are value hands. It is quite often optimal with a bluffcatcher to call the turn and fold to a river bet.
The error tends to come from people’s irrational desire to either say they lost the minimum, or say they won the maximum. If I’m folding on the river, they think, “dang, I’d have been better off folding on the turn”. That’s a results-oriented fallacy that takes away from your EV, both in folding to too many turn bets and in making crying calls on too many river bets.
2. “If I get caught bluffing, I’ll be down to 300 chips.”
While I will concede there are sometimes very small differences where a stack of t1000 might not be worth exactly twice as much as a stack of t500 in a HUSNG, in practice, cEV very closely mirrors $EV. The difference is almost never going to
be enough to correctly stop you from making an otherwise +EV bluff. The elements of the equity calculation here are the pot size, your bluff size, and your fold equity. If you should be giving up, the math from those three numbers is going to be why, not your shortstack if you get caught.
3. “I’ll fold and wait for a better spot.”
Similarly, especially in the era of the rematch button, you’re looking for a +EV spot. Hourly rate is a much better stat to be proud of than your ROI. The question you should be asking yourself is whether the play is +EV. When you’re folding, “waiting for a better spot” isn’t generally going to be why except in more extreme scenarios, like passing up on 52% equity against an opponent open-shoving 75bb deep. In general though, making the play that gives you the best equity in the hand is going to be what wins you the most money overall.
4. “So I raised to define his hand…”
When arguing that he should check/raise an
in a limped pot 20bb deep instead of check/calling, a winning $100 player remarked to me that by raising, he was able to define his opponent’s range more, eliminating all the junky hands. As if we had anything to fear from seven high! Knowing what our opponent is likely to have is not a benefit in and of itself. Raising for information is a play that always should be grounded in equity, not out of unwarranted fear of playing against a wide range.
5. “Readless, I like to play fairly nitty, not wanting to get into a marginal spot against a player I don’t know anything about.”
Generally, this is said by people who go on to pass up against highly +EV spots because they are not sure of your opponent’s tendencies. It’s poker, and when Oreos aren’t involved, we’re never sure about any of your reads. It’s always a probabilistic guess. When you know nothing, go by the population tendencies of how likely villains in general are to have each hand in his range. Don’t fail to four-bet shove 77 just because you don’t know whether your opponent’s three-betting range is too tight for that to be profitable. Do a calculation. Based on range of villains I generally face, how often is it profitable, and how often is it not? That’s a better approach that will lead to a +EV decision.
6. “If I’m facing a minraise or a limp in the BB, I can use the NASH chart to help make my decision.”
NASH, the more technically correct cousin of SAGE, details the push/fold and call/fold equilibrium strategies for the small blind and the big blind respectively. It guarantees at least a certain amount of equity. However, it is best used as a solely general guideline for <10bb poker, and exploiting players with 2x raises, openshoves, folds, and limps generally leads to superior results better than what NASH provides.
While it is suboptimal >10bb, NASH is at least relevant. Unfortunately, many players use the NASH chart to dictate decisions like shoving over limps. You might as well use Phil Hellmuth’s hand rankings to decide. When people limp, they have a completely different range than “Any Two Cards”. Do the math of how much fold equity you have, what your equity is when called, and what your equity is from checking behind or making a smaller raise. Don’t get lazy and try to use a chart for everything.
7. “All-in luck graphs are for whiners who like wasting their time feeling bad about themselves.”
While some HUSNG players get all of the action they could ever want at a buy-in and speed they’re positive is their most profitable, most people will not have that experience. There are deepstacks, reg speeds, turbos, and superturbos, all at the stake you’re at, the level above, and the level below. Because EV-adjusted winnings have much better predictive value than your actual results, if you’re not positive which stake level or game you should playing at, you hate money for not taking a quick look at all the information available to you.
8. “Let’s not inflate the pot out of position.”
This is another reason that bypasses the correct rationale
for taking an action and becomes quite hollow when the real reason doesn’t apply. There are plenty of times when you
want to inflate the pot out of position, with great hands, poor hands, and everything in between. If you’re using this logic, make sure you identify WHY it would be such a bad thing if the pot is bigger: Is it that you’re not getting value out of enough hands? Is it that too much of your opponent’s range can play well against your hand and decrease your equity? Focus on the math, not the often misleading generality.
9. “I don’t want to build a pot with a marginal hand.”
Similarly, there are plenty of times when you should be making thin value bets on the flop and turn with hands that can’t stand up to further aggression. In fact, sometimes with a marginal hand, your best play is to be aggressive and get the money in while there is still at least some value to be had. Progressing as a poker player means winning pots with more than just your monsters and your bluffs, it means making the most in EV
on every single value hand you are dealt, even if that means playing it safe less often.
10. “If I have Q6 on a 642 board, I hate all turn cards that aren’t queens or sixes.”
Thinking like this often leads people to over-protect their hand and be too scared of what cards can come. For example, if you had the Q6 in position on this hand and your opponent check/ called a bet, a Jack on the turn would improve your equity in the hand against his range. Just because a jack increases the amount of hands that beat you doesn’t mean that the card increases that percentage in your opponent’s range of hands. Don’t be scared, make a real value bet, and don’t try too much to push people out on these type of flops. The reason for doing so is emotional, not mathematical.
11a. “Let’s bet big, I have a big hand!”
11b. “Let’s bet small, I don’t want to scare him off.” Different types of players tend to have one of these two instincts when learning the game. Each seems immediately justifiable, but neither is well thought out when applied globally. Whether to bet big, small, or anywhere in between with your monsters depends on your opponent, the board texture, your opponent’s range, your image, your perceived range, and a host of other factors. Often, players will quickly bet big or small without thinking about any of these details, just out of instinct.
The first half of this article introduced how there are dozens of common flawed ways of thinking about HUSNG poker that are pervasive amongst average midstakes players. In general, they tend to make use of heuristics that end up distracting from an accurate equity calculation at the core of the decision. We’ll now broaden this understanding towards your poker career
and out-of-game poker choices, with a few more examples of specific common in-game situations interspersed along the way.
12. “I haven’t really thought about how much I’ll play poker and when I’ll move on from the game, or applied that to any of my decisions.”
Buried at #12, this is perhaps the biggest large-scale leak you can fix if you have it.
When you decide how much to study poker, whether to invest in a coach or a training site, whether to move up, how many buy- ins to carry, what game selection to employ, and so many other decisions, you are making choices that are drastically affected by how much you’ll play in your life.
If you pick one stat to focus on maximizing in your poker career, it shouldn’t be ROI, your current hourly rate, or
even your lifetime profit. For most people, the best goal is maximizing your lifetime hourly rate. Make the most from the time you put in, both in fun and in money.
If you think you might give up poker in a couple of months, a subscription to a training site is far less valuable than if you know you are in it for the long haul. If you have no ambitions of moving up, focusing on bumhunting to maximize your current hourly rate is better, but otherwise, you’re holding yourself back from the skills that will allow you to succeed at the next level. Start thinking about where you see yourself in poker in a few years and how to give yourself the best possible career path.
13. “There isn’t much of a point in studying how to beat fish; I want to learn how to beat regs.”
Do you think you’re beating fish as badly as Phil Ivey would? That you’re playing perfect poker? If you’re sane and don’t think this, money is a continuum, and the extra 2% of EV
ROI you pick up against a regular fish is just as important
as the extra 2% of EV ROI you pick up against a decent reg
in an individual match. Learning how to beat good players is important as you move up, but complacency about how you play against fish is lighting money on fire. Maximally exploiting bad players is an exceedingly complicated concept and one that deserves to be treated as such. If you think you should “just play ABC”, you’re missing out on a lot of money.
14. “I know this strategy is unexploitable, so it’s what I choose to use.”
This attitude falls back on the crutch of knowing a play is +EV, afraid to search for lines that have even better equity.
For example, many players want to ease themselves of the emotional swings of playing shortstacked poker by strictly adhering to NASH and consoling themselves about how they had positive expectation, never mind the boatloads of EV they threw away to be convinced of that.
15a. “Deepstacked poker is pretty simple, I don’t have much to learn there.”
15b. “Shortstacked poker is pretty simple, I don’t have much to learn there.”
I would get absolutely crushed against the best shortstacked HUSNG player in the world, and similarly dominated against the best deepstacked player. There’s always plenty to learn. Heads- up players have notoriously big egos, and defense mechanisms that get in the way of improvement. Always be excited to
learn when someone says you’re not playing well. Take it as
an opportunity to get better and win even more money in the future, or learn more about why your play was actually correct. Don’t close yourself off from chances to improve just because you want to feel confident in your game.
16. “So I checked to be deceptive…”
This is in the “tell me more” family of errors, where too often, people think this is reason enough to trap. Why is checking the best option, equity-wise? What does your opponent’s range look like? How do you know it’s worth being deceptive against? Learn what are and aren’t sufficient reasons to take a particular line.
17. “I like to mix up my play and take different lines, with or without reads.”
Translation: I like to take suboptimal lines just for fun. If you’re not going to have a long history with your opponent, don’t play them like it. Take the most profitable line.
18. “When I hit the turn after check/calling the flop, I should almost always check the turn to give villain a chance to bet again.”
Check/call the flop, and insta-check the turn when you hit:
along with looking away from the computer screen right after you see that you hit, it’s an instinctual reaction. However, when that card is an overcard to the board against a player who does not double barrel wide for value or for bluff, leading the turn often does far, far better on average than checking. Take into account your opponent’s range, how much of that range is now marginal showdown value that is likely to check, and consider leading rather than just mechanically checking to the aggressor.
19. “If villain calls flop bets light, he’s a station, and I shouldn’t bother bluffing against him very much on any street.”
When people call flop bets light, they have a significantly weaker range for the rest of the hand, a range that produces much more fold equity than against players who call the flop in fit-or-fold fashion. True, some players will call down all the way no matter what they have, but it’s a mistake to shut down on bluffing just because you find out your opponent likely has a weak range.
20. “I don’t know how I’d be exploitable if someone analyzed my database.”
In thinking about balance and exploiting the tendencies of other winning regs, the best thing to do is know yourself. You know how you feel in different spots, you know how you play, and you know where you can be exploited. Or, at least, you should. Take a while to think about it. Here are a couple common tendencies for winning low-mid stakes husng players.
1. When you raise a healthy-sized river bet, it’s almost always for value.
2. When you three-bet and readlessly check a 987ss flop with two times the pot left in your stack, your range is pretty weak.
Sound familiar? Do this type of analysis on your own play, knowing everything that you know about it, and it will help you understand how to exploit others.
21. “If I have a suited hand in the BB and flop a pair and a flush draw, I’m pretty much always check/raising because I know I have great equity.”
This is just to hammer home the point with an example a lot of mid-high stakes players can make errors on. Just because you know you have great equity and a non-monster does not mean it’s best to check/raise. When you have a pair and a two-card flush draw on the flop, you’re in good shape. Anything besides folding is going to be +EV. Break down your opponent’s range and what actions make the most against different hands. While check/raising is often best, a good percentage of the time, check/calling or leading is preferable.
22. “If I make this play, I might make money in the short run, but I’ll soon become exploitable.”
This reasoning serves as a crutch for people who are afraid to deviate from their moderately winning strategies, and is not grounded in equity. It’s okay to be exploitable. You play most people only for a game or two and should be trying to maximize your value from their tendencies. If you think your opponent might be catching on, keep being a moving target, and continue to exploit. Having a strategy that is willing to be dynamic takes more effort, but it gets rewarded when you click the withdrawal button.
To take your game to the next level, you have to figure out what aspects of your thought process about the game are distracting you from what really matters: Your EV, both in-game and in your lifetime poker career. Talk with your friends about this list, defend ones you think you might disagree with, come up with more that I’ve forgotten, and work hard to rid your mind of the flawed understandings that keep you from making the most from the hands you’re dealt and the games you play.