Thursday, June 15, 2006

It Always Friggin' Depends

Writing anything quasi-strategical about poker has to be one of the more frustrating endeavors, as you're always bumping up against a situation that is ever-changing based on the particular opponents, your individual mindset, what hands your opponents have seen you play, the position of Mercury in relation to Mars, whether that butterfly in China flapped its wings two times, as opposed to three, and on and on and on.

As far as addressing queries or emails about particulars involved in yesterday's post, well, that's sort of hard. Much of the difficulty loops back to a lurking kernel in what I was trying to get at, as I could post a particular hand from early in the session, which I played in one way versus an opponent, and post the same exact hand versus the same exact opponent from later in the session, played completely differently. And it's not because I'm being sneaky and meta-ey, it's just that I'm trying more to let the nature of the session dictate my play on close decisions, instead of approaching each decision with an overlay of assorted data that rigidly determines my decision.

(Yeah, I know, that needs mucho explication.)

So let's start at the big picture level, and try to tease out some things there. I'm mainly discussing shorthanded limit play here, including heads-up/three-handed. I'm also assuming that the typical opponent is very aggressive and has subscribed to the typical hyper aggressive style of shorthanded play advocated in various forums and books.

How Aggressively Do I Play Pre-flop?

This seems to me to be a major fork in the road, as far as the style you adopt. While it's a given that you have to open up your range when playing short, how you play those hands isn't a given.

I try to look at this in a grunt, militaristic sort of way. I sit down and have a finite amount of ammunition. My opponents will immediately start shooting at me. A lot. So I'm going to have to do a lot of shooting myself. Realistically, I don't have the option of not firing many rounds, as I'll get run over by the blinds and general aggression if I passively wait for only the best of shots.

So I have to fire many rounds and not be gun-shy. Okay. But I actually have a lot of leeway in how I use those rounds. Any uber aggressive monkey can sit down and, when they fire, fire as quickly as they can pull the trigger, with no other thought. And, honestly, that's not a bad style, and many players employ it to great success.

But there's no law writ in stone that says that's the only way to show a profit at the tables. Especially if you're playing against typically mindless, overaggressive opponents. While blazing away with them isn't wrong, it's also not necessarily maximizing your skills and/or advantages.

What does all that mean at the tables? It means that lately I've been opening up my limping range of hands, and calling with nearly anything from the BB if facing one opponent. I'm avoiding a lot of pre-flop blasting away, even if I have a reasonable chance of having the best hand (such as a serial button stealer open-raising and I have K7h in the BB). I almost never re-raise from the BB facing one opponent, even if I have a big pair. By limiting much of my pre-flop aggression (unless it serves the purpose of driving out blinds or isolating an opponent), I'm spreading out my ammo, allowing myself to call more from the BB and selectively limp more from other positions.

This flies in the face of getting money in when you likely have the best of it, especially the almost never re-raising from the BB part. All I can say is yep, it does. It leaves money on the table when you're ahead and your hand holds up. Guilty as charged. All I can say is that I'd prefer to see flops these days, and am willing to sacrifice some EV in particular situations to do so. The best way to take advantage of of overaggressive monkeys that just mash the raise button is to play as many hands as possible with them. You'll face more difficult decisions but that's life.

How Aggressively Do I Play Post-flop?

This is actually pretty closely tied to the first point. Generally accepted theory tells us that we have to blast away if the flop hits us at all, or if we have a reasonably strong draw. Blast away and don't slow down, as more often than not you're ahead.

This is probably where I diverge the most these days. In some spots, definitely, blast away, especially if it's a decent sized pot with multiple opponents and you have a good but vulnerable hand. But what about a heads-up pot, where you open-raise from the button with A4o and only the BB calls (and BB never folds any BB and absolutely loves to bet/raise at any sign of weakness), and the flop is 8d 8h 10d, and BB checks to you.

Common wisdom is that this is an auto-bet. And I will bet here, every now and then. But mostly I check. Because I probably have the best hand, and I know BB will bet the turn, no matter what it is, and probably bet the river, even if he has absolutely nothing. I'll even check if the flop is 8d 8h Ac, with the intention of just calling on both the turn/river, if BB continues to bet.

Yes, indeed, I lose some pots where he pairs on the turn/river, pots I'd have otherwise won with a flop bet that produces a fold. But I also avoid getting check-raised on the flop (and being forced to fold), something players like BB love to whip out on a board like that, often as a complete bluff. And I pick up more than a few bets from an improved K high who can't help but bet out on both the turn and river, trying to pick up what looks like an orphan pot.

The lurking issue is where you extract most value from typically hyper aggressive shorthanded players in spots like these. I used to think it was by fighting fire with fire, and automatically going to war when there was a reasonably good chance I had the best of it. While I understood the logic there, I couldn't completely buy into it. If that player's biggest weakness was always betting when checked to, with any two cards, there seemed to be better ways to take advantage of that. If their biggest strength is uber aggression, going to war with them seems to be playing into their strength.

Another side benefit of playing in what appears to be a "passive" fashion is that your bluff check-raises suddenly look a lot more scary, as do your leads from the BB on scary boards. It's not the worst thing in the world to passively play a hand you're not going to fold anyway, especially if it causes a typical opponent to remark "Jesus christ, you had top pair, grow some balls and bet, Alice..."

Just to be clear, though, I'm not advocating that turtling up and meekly check/calling is the path to success. I'll often go to war with middle pair on the flop, if I think someone is full of shit or drawing. I'll also sometimes just meekly call down with middle pair versus a single opponent, too. All I'm really trying to get across is that I've found success by diverging in some spots from the Church of Unholy Aggression.

Stealing a Lot

I'll attempt to steal with pretty much any two, and will do so a high percentage of the time. This fits into the see more flops category mentioned above. If I'm better at making tough decisions than mindlessly aggressive opponents, then it really doesn't matter what I'm holding when I try to steal. Granted, I'm not going to win many hands unimproved with 73o, but just because I try to steal and get called doesn't mean I'm obligated to always keep firing.

I take more stealy shots but don't keep firing if an opponent has proven that he'll never fold. Sometimes I'll just check behind on the flop and fold the turn when he inevitably bets out. Sometimes I'll just give it up and fold to a bet on the flop. I've tried to get out of the mindset that the value in stealing a lot is to aggressively continue to bet on the flop and turn, inducing a fold. There's obvious value there, but there's also obvious value in playing more hands (and playing them further) versus opponents that you have a skill edge over.

My attempt to steal percentage is higher now than it was in the past, but its based more in a desire to see more flops than it is to take down the blinds. Yeah, this puts me in tough spots, with third pair on the river, trying to decide whether to bet/call, but those are the spots where I have an edge, as a thinking player. If I want to be in those spots, I need to see as many flops as possible. Attempting to steal a lot virtually guarantees that, along with the value added bonus of taking down blinds a goodly percentage of the time.

Not All Sessions are not Created Equal

Barring out and out bad plays (such as becoming too passive while in the midst of a losing session), I'll often let how I'm running influence how I play. If I'm running well, I'll amp up the aggression on some marginal situations where there's very little ultimate difference between raising or folding, expectation-wise, raising it up if running well. If I'm running poorly, I tend to fold in the same spot.

If you play enough you start to recognize these spots, where the +EV of continuing is pretty fractional at best, and you're sacrificing very little by simply folding and taking a pass. If you do continue, though, you know you have to continue with much force and firing of bullets.

These days I let how I'm running largely determine whether I engage in these hands. I know that's heresy to the every-dollop-of +EV-must-be-maximized crowd, but I'm pretty cool with giving that up, if it keeps me grounded and in Zen place. I used to try to fight through that, blasting away even if I was on a downswing, and far too often it would only exacerbate the tilt monkey when I lost the hand and dug a deeper hole.

If I'm way up for the session, bash the hell away, variance and marginal +EV be damned. Not the most logical approach, I freely admit, but it causes less frustration for me in general.

Accepting Variance

If you play short, you're going to encounter a huge amount of variance. In individual sessions, each week, each month, etc. An enormous amount. And you can't avoid it, as even the most passive of players is going to encounter pretty wild swings in their bankroll. You play many more hands per hour, are involved in many more pots, and in generally can't avoid getting your money into the pot on a consistent basis.

You just have to come to terms with that. You'll do everything right and dump many American dollars, all in the space of a few minutes, regardless of how aggressive or passive you are.

Making Adjustments

If you want to get picky, all of my above babbling is really just making adjustments, if you get down to the nitty and/or gritty.

Far too often in the past I'd beat my head against the wall, ignoring what had already become patently evident based on the play so far. If I know an opponent is always going to call down with a pocket pair smaller than the board (like 22 on a board of 10 J 4 9), I'm the idiot, not them, for betting into them on the river with AQ. I can wail and moan "How can you call all the way down with that?" to my heart's content, but I'm playing poorly there, if they've already proven that they'll play that way.

Forums and blogs and books are great, great resources, and I can't recommend them enough. But eventually you have to find your own row to hoe, and find what works for you. Then, once you find that, you have to recognize each unique situation for what it offers, and adjust your play accordingly.

I'm pretty much just scratching the surface here, as sad as that sounds. I feel like I'm finally finding a style that I'm comfortable with, but still have much work to do on the adjustment side, as far as recognizing when I need to shake things up, based on how my opponents are reacting. That's kind of embarassing to admit, after playing Jebus knows how many hands, but much of my energy and thought has been bound up in trying to solve the poker problem, and cobbling together a contingency plan for every variation of every possible situation, sussing out the final, true answer to how to play AJs from UTG+1.

Lately, though, I'm finally getting away from that a bit, and taking the pieces that work for me but also bolting on a few detours here and there, including a few demonstrably "dumb" things, working towards cobbling together some sort of creaking, adjustable whole that works for me. Sometimes it does, sometimes it flails around miserably. But as long as its generally heading in the right direction and produces positive results over time, well, that works for me.

And yeah, in a nutshell, that's poker, right there. Do this, but not always, especially the times when you should do that.

Or, you know, it depends...

1 comment:

Mark said...

Great post. Your plan to see more flops makes perfect sense in shorthanded games where you're forced to play marginal hands. Regardless of style, the swings are still pretty damn swingy though -- there's no getting around that.