by Barbara Connors
Poker and baseball aren’t two subjects that usually go together, but today I want to talk about one of the greatest players in the history of baseball, Ted Williams, aka The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. Of Williams’ many remarkable accomplishments during his 19-year career playing for the Boston Red Sox, he was the last player to hit over .400 in a season, a feat he achieved in 1941. No one, not even the most chemically-enhanced modern- day players, has been able to match this feat since. In his 1970 book, The Science of Hitting, Williams discussed how he was able to achieve this. He made a graph of the strike zone, which he carved into 77 mini-zones, and then painstakingly charted his expected batting average for each of those 77 zones. Swinging only at pitches in his best zones would give Williams a batting average over .400, while chasing pitches in his worst zones would reduce his batting average to .230.
This still matters because there are important lessons to be learned from Williams’ remarkable discipline. Especially in poker, discipline is critical. Knowing your “zones” — which hands produce a high probability of winning, and conversely which hands are more liable to end in a loss — is key to your long-term success or failure as a poker player.
Of course in poker the “zones” are always going to be relative, depending not only on which cards you hold, but also your position, how many opponents you face, etc. Pocket nines have a much higher expected value, or “batting average,” from late position, against a small field, than they do under the gun, facing off against a full table. Still, there are plenty of charts available that can tell you the expected value of any given starting hand from a certain position and against a specific number of opponents. These numbers are a starting point, but they are crucial to know.
The expected batting average of any given hand can be affected by a number of factors, including things such as relative position (where you sit in relation to an aggressive player), the types of opponents you face, and stack sizes. Yes, it’s a lot of work to memorize expected value charts and then make adjustments based on the situation, but this is what champions do.
The beauty of poker is that, at least in a cash game, you’re never going to have two strikes called against you. You’ll never be in a situation where you have to swing at the next pitch. In a cash game, you can wait. If not for a ball that sails right over the heart of the plate, since premium hands don’t come around all that often, then at least wait for something in one of the good zones, something with a positive expected value that will keep your poker batting average north of the Mendoza Line.
Of course in a tournament the situation is quite different. With a small enough stack and big enough blinds, sometimes you are forced to chase after that low outside pitch. It’s a Hail Mary situation where you must hope to get lucky, which is precisely why you want to avoid chasing after bad pitches. It’s one thing to shove with A-9 offsuit in a tournament when you’re about to get blinded out. But why put money in with a subpar hand when you don’t have to? Sure, it’s no fun to stand there with a bat on your shoulder watching the game go by, but losing because you called with bad cards is even less fun.
Ted Williams once said that the most important part of hitting is to get a pitch that you can do something with. In other words, even a great champion found it very difficult to make gold out of lead. Perhaps one of the secrets of his greatness is that he knew better than to even try.
Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at email@example.com.