Wednesday, January 18, 2006

It Depends

Many thanks for all the comments on the post yesterday.

I think it's a pretty interesting question, and for me is the sort of thing that's making playing shorthanded infinitely more engaging of late. Because, really, the best answer often truly is "it depends," which means that you have to constantly be engaging your brain and adjusting your play, instead of just playing by rote memorization and mouse-clicking reflexes.

I can't argue with the logic of everyone that said to pump the pot pre-flop with your good hands, always three-betting, and getting as much money in against an inferior opponent playing any two cards, and power your way through the hand. That's the easiest answer and the one that fits most snugly with the prevailing poker wisdom out and about in the cosmos.

But there's also a danger in easy answers sometimes, and this might be one of those cases. Answering blind aggression with more brute aggression inevitably leads to, you guessed it, lots of aggression.

Instead of babbling on endlessly trying to answer an unanswerable question (well, ignoring the real answer of "it depends"), I'm just going to touch on some broader issues raised by the question and answers from yesterday, all of which play a role in trying to come to some sort of "answer" as far as whether or not you should ever three-bet in the scenario posited yesterday.

1) The Value of Disguise

You play a lot more heads-up pots in shorthanded games, as well as more hands per hour in general. You also play a lot more hands that go a river showdown. Unlike ring games, you quickly pick up information about your opponents' playing tendencies, and you nearly immediately have the chance to capitalize on it.

At the same time, you also inevitably broadcast much more information about your own playing tendencies. And it's a pretty serious mistake to say "Ahh, whatever, people don't really pay close attention, whatever." Because they do. And even if they didn't, in that particular game, you'd be a fool not to be aware of the value of disguise and mix up your play. Yes, it takes a little more thought, but that's what your big juicy poker brain is for.

Long story short, you want to avoid playing in a predictable fashion. True for any form of poker, really, but more so with shorthanded play.

Looping back to the post from yesterday, from the point of view of deception, I think it's pretty much a wash, as far as whether you simply call any raise from the button or always three-bet. Both give away no further information about the relative strength of your hand, simply that you want to continue to play.

One last thing to note, that no one touched on, is that the other players at the table are watching you and the button go to war, and gaining information the entire time. You won't always be facing a raise from the button, so be sure you keep that in mind, when it's CO that raises and everyone folds to you. It's a very similar situation, as far as how you respond to the raise, but CO has the advantage of watching you become entangled and react to many hands, whereas you may not have the same amount of information on him or her.

2) Momentum

The biggest argument for always three-betting pre-flop is that you gain momentum in the hand, plus you're first to act on the flop. Keeping in mind that the flop will miss you (and your opponent) 2/3s of the time, momentum is pretty damn valuable when you both whiff on the flop, but you bet out. Many opponents will just roll over in that situation and fold and you'll take the pot uncontested with Q high. Picking up uncontested pots like that is pretty vital when playing shorthanded, as otherwise the blinds will eat you up.

That momentum, though, comes with a price. You're out of position and contesting a decent-sized pot against a single opponent who can have any two cards. That's obviously not a bad situation, or even an unwelcome one, due to the fact that you're a superior player, but bad position is a pretty serious handicap, even heads-up against a lemur.

If you weighed all the above in an imaginary scale, I'd guess that the value of having momentum would slightly outweigh the disadvantage of being out of position the entire hand, and tip slightly towards the side of always three-betting.

3) Extracting Full Value from your Strong Hands

The real balancing act playing shorthanded is getting full value from your good hands. This is pretty agnostic to position and applies whether you're UTG, the BB, wherever. Throw out blinds and steals and bluffs and winning uncontested pots early and other things that largely cancel out one another and you're left with the source of your real profits: playing the best hand in such a way that you extract full value from opponents with good but second best hands.

It's pretty obvious, but if you three-bet someone and an A flops (and they don't have an ace), the action for a wide range of your possible hands just got killed. You bet on the flop, they fold. You check, they smell danger and check behind. You then bet on the turn, they fold.

(Yes, indeed, there will be instances where you 3-bet with AK, they have AQ, an A flops, and you go to war and win many bets. That's not the norm, though, so I'm going to acknowledge it then conveniently ignore it, as hands like that really take no thought or additional skill to play correctly.)

Let's say in that same scenario you simply call the raise pre-flop, and see that same flop with an A. If you check to the button, he will almost always bet, because that's what bad, overaggressive buttons do in that spot. And he'll do it all the way to the river. And you'll have the option, the entire hand, of either calling or check-raising, as you see fit.

While you lose momentum by never three-betting pre-flop, you gain the ability to extract more value from your strong hands on later, more expensive streets. Especially against opponents that aren't so good and act in predictable ways. The ability to wait to show interest in the pot by raising on later streets is pretty valuable, instead of tipping your hand early with a relatively inexpensive extra preflop bet.

I'd argue that if you look at the foundation of most big pots, you'd see a surprising number of them didn't involve a pre-flop three-bet or cap. Yes, you have the classic wars of big pairs going at it, pumping in many bets, but what you more commonly see are small pots that suddenly blow up on the turn/river, when someone gets there with two pair, flush, or straight and an opponent with a big pocket pair or TPTK refuses the believe they've been outdrawn.

4) The Range of Hands You Play from the BB

If you always three-bet preflop from the BB, you'll play a smaller range of hands than if you never three-bet preflop.

If you never three-bet pre-flop, you can play a much wider range of starting hands.

I don't think you can have the best of both worlds and play a much wider range of hands and always three-bet. I know, I know, that runs contrary to popular wisdom, if he's playing any two cards, but I don't think most of us are able to consistently bring heat like that, and continue to bring it, even in the face of repeated bad beats and suckouts and dominated hands. It's one thing to talk about, hypothetically, as far as relentlessly throwing in bets against a lemur that'd have the audacity to play like that, but it's another thing to pull that off in real world conditions. All I can say is try it, for many, many hands, and get back to me with the results.

In the end, this one largely comes down to personal preference, I think. If you like hammering away at overaggressive Stealey McGees, pick you spots more selectively and hammer away as hard as you can. If you'd rather dink and dunk and get involved in more hands (and face more tough, marginal decisions), you might be better off taking the road of lesser resistance, and calling pre-flop with a wider range of hands in lieu of three-betting.

So add all that up and what do you get? It depends. "Never" is a pretty damn strong word and really has no place in the discussion at all. If there's any value in all this babbling, it's probably exactly that, as far as avoiding being rigid in your thinking when it comes to poker, and thinking things through for yourself. People are successful poker players with all sorts of styles, so don't be afraid to experiment with your own approach and see what works for you, despite what monkeys like myself might advocate.

The most important thing is to take the time to think it though, not so much as far as whatever particular conclusion it is that you come to.


Pokerwolf said...

Excellent set of posts.

I will say that there is a possibility of three-betting pre-flop and then checking on the flop to allow the aggressive button to bet. Depending on the aggression of the button (and your table image), this allows you to three -bet *and* check-raise if you want to do so.

It all depends on how aggressive your opponent is.

Garthmeister J. said...

You know, I'd like to credit AlCantHang with beginning the "lemur" craze. Every time I see that word in a poker post, I giggle.

Lemur. Hehehe.

CC said...


I would also add three-betting some secondary drawing hands (maybe 10% of the time) and low connectors (maybe 5% of the time). I agree that you have to counterattack so that the three-bet isn't too predictable for you. Otherwise, I do like three-betting your big hands 70% of the time and calling the other 30%.

Having said all that, I doubt I could or do actually do any of it... That seems like a lot of thinking you have to do. Couldn't you multi-task if you want to think so much, maybe do ceramics or crossword puzzles?