Part 1: You gotta believe

It’s all about taking advantage of your opponent until they give you a good reason to change. There’s an old adage true to many games and sports, and it’s true to poker too: Never change a winning game; always change a losing one. At first glance, these two attributes seem to be at variance with one another. One admonishes you to stay the course while the other suggests that you only stay the course if it’s working, but try another tack if what you’re doing is not producing desired results.

The suggestion to never change a winning game, always change a losing one is really based on your course of action at the poker table, and not so much at the analysis. When we are analyzing our opponents and their play, we’re going to have to trust our analysis and commit money to it if our analyses are correct more often than they’re wrong. The actions we take—betting into an opponent, checkraising if our opponent is aggressive, bluffing overly tight opponents, are the kinds of things we’re suggesting you shouldn’t change if you’re winning, but always look to change if your results are not up to par.

The analysis—as opposed to the action we take—is part of poker’s inner game. After all, you can put your opponent on a hand or range of hands and then take any action you think is best under the circumstances. Those actions can range from checking to betting, or from folding, to calling, to raising, to reraising, and the particular action you choose is based on what will win the most amount of money against this particular opponent in this situation or cause you to lose the least. The action is quite independent of the analysis. But the analysis has to be right in order for you to choose what you believe will be the most effective tactic under the circumstances.

Sometimes you’ll be wrong because your opponent stepped completely out of character and took an action that was interpreted incorrectly by his opponents. At the final table of the 2004 World Series of Poker, both Josh Arieh and Greg Raymer— who were playing very aggressively at the final table—both folded after investing a significant amount in the pot when they faced a reraise by “Action” Dan Harrington. Harrington’s image is that of a very tight player—his nickname is a tongue-in-cheek reference to how tight he usually plays—and he was playing that role to the hilt at the final table. He entered very few pots. When he played a pot, he invariably came in raising, and when he showed down a hand, it was invariably a high-quality holding.

Although Arieh and Raymer each had a good chunk of change in the pot, they folded rather quickly when Harrington, who had two worthless cards in his hand, made a play at the pot. This was so totally out of character for the image Harrington worked so hard to create that I’m sure Arieh and Raymer each said to themselves, “Oh, no; he’s got pocket queens, kings, or aces,” before folding their hands.

Continue reading part 2 where I go in to why and how to trust your analysis at the poker table.

Part 2: Trust your reads

In part 1 we talked about how Dan “Action” Harrington played his opponents, and not his cards. Both Josh Arieh and Greg Raymer were playing aggressive poker, but every time Harrington re-raised, they both folded. With a very tight image, Harrington entered very few pots. But when he did, he came in raising, and he only showed down high-quality hands. Although Arieh and Raymer had significant money in the pot, they folded when Harrington made a play at the pot. This was so totally out of character for Harrington’s image that Arieh and Raymer each bought the story, and never realized that “Action” Dan had stolen a big pot right out from under their noses until seeing it on TV months later.

Their reads were wrong. And they were wrong not because Arieh and Raymer did a bad job at sniffing out an opponent’s hands; they were wrong because their opponent worked his image to set them up, and when he did, they read him based on his pattern of play up until that point. They did not read him for a bluff, nor did they have any reason to think he chose that particular hand to bluff.

If we are all products of our behavioural patterns at the poker table, Harrington’s behavioural pattern earned him at least one ticket to steal a big pot. Had the big raise come from either Raymer or Arieh, I’m sure the player stirring the pot would have been called by the other. Each realized the other played aggressively, and each would have made a stand if they had a real hand accompanying their bet.

But to call Harrington in that situation they needed a great hand, not a good one, and if “Action” Dan was able to read both of them for good-but-not-great hands—the kind most expert players will lay down to a tight, conservative player who comes in raising—he earned that pot. The fact that Raymer and Arieh misread Harrington on that particular hand does not mean they needed to question their ability to discern what their opponents held based on any clues they could pick up at the table, combined with betting patterns and the cards that were exposed on the various betting rounds. That would have been the worst thing they could have done.

They each took the hit and continued on from there. Their ability to make good reads most of the time had gotten them to the final table and there was no need for radical surgery just because another expert players had set up a terrific bluffing situation and followed through with it.

On that hand, Harrington succeeded. He never showed his hole cards, so as far as his opponents knew—at least until they saw the results on TV later that summer—he did have a big hand, and they made good lay-downs. Don’t distrust your reads when you’re playing poker as long as they’ve been correct more often than not. What might seem like a bad read may simply be a reaction to your opponent stepping out of character for a hand or two.

Trust your reads as long as they’re working for you the majority of the time. If they’re not working, it’s usually a case of interpreting betting patterns incorrectly, so watch your opponents, watch the hands they turn over at the showdown, and adjust accordingly. If you seem to go astray only every now and then, just keep on course. It’s usually the right one.