Authors note: As I wrote, when I returned home I would return to the job of studying and writing, including strategy writing. It's been a long time since I've wrote a proper strategy article, so I brought a number of consultants to help me with this one, so much thanks to 2+2 posters Luckychewy, NoahSD, and Eagles. You guys do a great job of making me look smart. I'd like to get the 'Things it took me a whle to learn' series up to at least 30 entries, and if I keep feeling like writing it after that I'll continue. If people have suggestions for things they'd like to see covered which haven't been touched on previously, just leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.
Many people in poker have reached the point where they're considering probable hand ranges and their equity against said ranges. One thing many people aren't doing however, is considering all potential variables against each part of a range and the optimal decision against each part of that range. A big reason their not doing it is because it can be complex and not time efficent in the middle of a hand, particularly against a thinking player smart enough to balance his range with a wide array of hands.
What kind of variables are we talking about when contemplating optimal decisions against ranges? Well the first thing that comes to mind is the type of player we're up against. This is one of the reasons having some degree of read becomes so important; once you start thinking elaborately and on different levels every peice of information becomes precious. Allow me to give an example from a very simple hand I played in a $22 single rebuy add on tournament:
Bond18, UTG+1: 16,284
Blinds 200/400 with a 50 ante. 9 handed.
Bond18 holds As Js UTG+1.
Preflop: UTG folds, Bond18 raises to 990, folds to CO, CO calls 990, 3 folds.
Flop: 9c 4d Tc (Pot 3030)
Bond18 checks, CO checks.
And here's where things get more elaborate. At the time of the hand I was playing a ton of tables, did not have any pokertracker software running (which is soon to be rectified once I'm settled) and as a result was readless in the hand against this particular villain. Now let's go over how our action and intentions change depending on our read of villain.
1. If we have a read that villain is generally weak-tight: If we have a good inclination that villain in the hand is weak tight then the turn is a clear bet when we think how his range will react. When he has a draw or pair+draw combination he will almost never push us off our hand because it is not in his playing style to do so. We'll wind up getting value from those plus one pair hands and our river intention should be to check/fold on very bad scare cards because he'll never pay off with worse plus rarely bluff us. On safe cards we should likely bet smallish because a large bet likely won't get paid off from a weak player and we gain more value than checking to him because he won't value bet thin and he won't bluff his missed draws often. Additionally, the turn is very easy to play by betting against this villain because we can feel very comfortable folding every time he raises us.
Let's think about the range of hands that calls checks back this flop for a more weak tight player. For that particular player, it can be huge. He'll check back all his over cards, all his pairs under the board, sometimes even things like QJ which have major equity but he's too weak to bet, second pair hands like AT, and sometimes he'll pot control top pair weak kicker type hands like JTs. For this particular player, his flop check doesn't tell us a ton, but if we combine his flop check+turn cram range we can feel very comfortable folding to it, even though we're not exactly sure what it is we know that the majority of hands in it will crush us.
2. If we have a read that the villain is a moderate LAG capable of shoving for both pure value and as a semi bluff: If we're assuming that we will still be bet/folding against this type of villain most of the time but that he's aggressive enough to bet the turn with a combination of hands when we check to him than a check/call may be the better play. The more you beleive the player is loose-aggressive and capable of mixing in shoving the turn for both value and a semi bluff the more apt you should be to check/call rather than bet/fold because your bet loses equity as he puts more and more hands into his shoving range, since you are intending to fold.
My consultant for this article, NoahSD, put this thought perfectly when he said "Just the idea that just cause you almost always have the best hand doesn't mean you have to bet is prob a big revelation to a lot of people." The reason people bet those situations most of the time is because they're concerned about protection and they're not fully thinking about the reaction of their opponents range against that bet. Their not thinking about which route will actually result in gaining more value long term instead of just winning the hand at the moment. Checking to gain value as opposed to betting isn't exactly a new concept, but plenty of people still look at scary boards and bet without fully thinking over the implications against the villains range and reactions. This all ties back into the article about having a plan.
Just looking at the difference in playing between against these two player types really helps illustrate why it's important to have the ability to balance your range against thinking players in a number of situations. If you're never semi bluffing the turn then a thinking player knows he can comfortably bet/fold the turn against you every time and will be correct in doing so. However, also keep in mind that you don't need to balance your range against random/bad players because exploitable/manipulative play becomes the better option to deceptive/optimal play.
However, if I were in the villains shoes for this particular hand I'd never be shoving the turn as a semibluff because none of the hands in my range that get to the turn this way would be reasonable to do so with for a few reasons. Namely, I think we get called too often and the hands we could shove with are better off flatting against the vast majority of opponents. That doesn't mean your opponents won't try that semi bluff though, and that doesn't mean you shouldn't be thinking about situations where you should be mixing in appropriate bluffs and semi bluffs to prevent your range from being easily predictable against thinking players. Just because you know better than something doesn't mean your opponent necessarily does.
Let's discuss one more variable in making optimal decisions against ranges; the options available to us we normally never consider.There is a brilliant line from the well of Jman28 that helps illustrate the overall concept of this article that I will quote him on:
"Meeting Tom (durrrr) was a huge part of my move to high stakes play. He opened my mind to thinking about situations completely differently. I remember one time when he was discussing a hand with h@ll in front of me, where he had something like weak top pair and was facing a big river bet. He was like, 'I think a call is better than a fold' and I thought to myself, 'yeah I agree' and then he said 'but I would shove' and I exploded. I realized that you should think of every possible option you have in nlhe. You usually have a ton of them."
That's it in a nutshell, during a poker hand you need to think over all your options and the way your opponents range is going to react to those options, otherwise you pass up opportunities you might not have otherwise realized.
I'm not advising that you need to mix your play up with all kinds of insane stunts and general fancy play syndrome. What I am saying is that very often in a hand we wind up debating between two options. Am I going to call or fold? Am I going to call or raise? As it turns out, in many situations there might be other options that we hadn't previously considered that just might turn out to be more profitable. Clearly, we need an example here, which is where Luckychewy comes to the rescure with a hand he played in the 2009 WSOP Main Event:
Luckychewy, MP1: ~4,600,000
Blinds 30,000/60,000 with 5000 ante.
Luckychewy holds 7d8d.
Preflop: Folds to Luckychewy, Luckychewy raises to 150k, folds around to the BB, the BB calls.
Flop: Ah 7c 3s
BB checks, Luckychewy checks.
BB bets 225k, Luckychewy calls.
BB bets 300k, Luckychewy raises to 1.035 million.
As Chewy explains it "On the river I believed his bet sized indicated a bluff or marginal strength hand. By raising I don't think I ever have to worry about him calling me with an Ax hand or 3 bet bluffing me, and the only downside would be if my read was off and his river bet is strength, but that wasn't my intuition at the time."
Because Luckychewy had showdown value in the hand many people might consider this to be a call or fold situation, however if we think fully about our opponents range and what his bet sizing indicates, we can feel moderately confident that his hand is polarized between monsters and hands that are going for blocking value. The hands that are blocking value are often one pair hands that will beat our one pair hand, and if Chewy's intuition is correct (and the Ah helps reduce the probabilty of the most likely monster, a flush) then we don't expect to run into too many monsters. Because he believes this opponent will almost never call the raise with one pair hands the fact that Chewy holds a pair becomes irrelevant because raising will show a long term profit greater than calling or folding.
So remember, don't just think about your opponents range and your equity against it, think about how your opponents range reacts to every option and possibility open to you, then pull the trigger on which you believe to be best. As 2+2 poster 'Eagles' puts it "Always consider that you do not have perfect information of villain's range. You can estimate what his range is but you will always be missing information so it is important to leave room for error. Now and then people show up with hands that are so totally inexplicable it would be impossible to anticipate. It's not often with most players, but it is non zero."