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Understanding Variance

Variance can be cruel, or uplifting, negative or positive. One thing's for sure - it's here to stay. Even the best players in the world are subject to it. As Richard Swift put it in the awesome song of the same name, "But I wish sometimes that Lady Luck, she would find some time to spend with me ”. We can relate, Rich! What is Variance? Variance is the term given to the uncertain short-term outcomes for which poker is well known, but it can of course apply to the swings in fortune you will see in any game where luck plays a role. The good thing about luck, of course, is that it is borrowed, not owned. In the long run everyone will roll an equal number of sixes, if we sit around rolling dice. The long run can be very long indeed (arguably millions of hands depending on the game format in question), but in the longest of long runs, luck will be distributed entirely evenly across all players, leaving only skill to determine who is ahead. This is the case with any game where the skill element is significant enough to play a major role, which there is no doubt that it is in poker, well established as a +EV skill game (positive equity value), meaning that it is beatable by dint of skill if you are sufficiently better than your opponents (and if you are not playing < 10bbs deep and/or with insanely high rake). Does Variance Matter? If you have infinite (or just very large) bankroll and the patience of a Buddha, variance doesn't really matter, as you can simply endure (or even enjoy!) the potentially seismic swings and treat it as the thrills of the rollercoaster. For all of us mere mortals, variance tends to matter, or at least feel that it matters, a good bit. It can be pretty rough to play through a big downswing, and it can also certainly cause you to second-guess your play, perhaps in spots where there is no need to do so. It's certainly true that most experienced downswings tend to be a combination of variance and human errors, which will of course compound any impact which variance has on your play. Telling one from the other can be pretty tricky. On the flip side, positive variance is also a thing, though fewer people tend to realise they are experiencing it. If you find yourself on the positive side of variance, especially near the start of your poker journey, you may simply feel that you are God's gift to the game, long before your poker skills are really honed. This may give you a feeling of complacency which can limit your ability to grow as a player, or cause quite a shock when you hit your first downswing. Measuring Variance The tools are now available to measure variance really quite accurately, at least in terms of understanding how much of it exists in different types of poker games. This very fine tool from PokerDope is the best one online for doing exactly that, and you can program the settings of this calculator to measure how likely you are to have certain outcomes at a certain skill level in a certain MTT or SNG. There's also a similar calculator for cash. To save you some trouble, we can provide some good rules of thumb for you right here in this article. If you're playing cash poker and you are confident that you have a skill edge on the field, you likely need at least 30-40 buy-ins to avoid much risk of ruin (going busto) especially if you are multi-tabling or playing zoom format. For a SNG grind that goes up to at least 75-100 buy-ins , which is also a good minimum for micro stakes MTTs . If you move up to the midstakes or higher for MTTs , you really should be sitting down to play with at least a few hundred buy-ins available. For all formats this should be measured against your average buy-in. Managing Variance If you choose to control the amount of variance which you encounter, instead of simply "embracing the ride” as remarked above, we'd be in agreement that this is generally wise, and a good way of having a lower stress existence and enjoying the game to the max. Should you go this route, there are a number of ways in which you can control the amount of variance in your poker grind right from the off, and a lot of it comes down to game selection. As noted above, choosing cash as your main grind is one way to go, as you certainly need the fewest buy-ins in your bankroll to weather the variance. This is simply due to the fact that chips are chips in cash poker, and you can sit and stand up as you please. MTT players on the other hand might run great at the start of a tourney and terrible at the end, or vice versa, and this is one reason there is a lot of variance in the MTT grind. If you do play cash, you can further reduce the impact of variance by buying in with 100bbs rather than 200bbs , or by sitting out when you reach 150 or 200 big blinds , and sitting a new table with 100 , especially if you have more skill edge with 100 big blind stacks. Bear in mind this will also cap your potential value gained in each pot. Another way to crush variance is simply to table select well and to sit spots where you have a large skill edge, as the impact of variance will be less the more profitable you are in a game. Long-handed tables also have less variance (and sometimes less value) than short-handed. If we're talking SNGs or MTTs , the smaller the field size, the less impact variance will tend to have. It is really not possible to measure your skill level according to your financial results in MTTs for example until you have a game sample of many thousands of games played, simply due to the size of the potential swings. So the gold standard for a low variance MTT grind is soft field, small field size, good structure. If you want to reduce it still further, knockouts and progressives reduce variance since you can win money before the bubble, though again your potential ROI (return on investment) will also be more capped in these games. Making Peace with Variance However much you opt to control the impact of variance on your play, it is important to realise that it's a baked-in part of the game of poker, and that this is a good thing. Frankly, the fun players wouldn't keep coming back to the game if they had no chance to win in the short-term. This is especially true of the MTT world, where beginners (with a bankroll!) can rub shoulders with the best in the world, something which you can say for very few sports or competitive endeavours on this Earth. Variance keeps the poker world turning, and without it we would literally just have a bunch of battle-hardened regulars out-grimming one another at the felt all day long and playing for razor thin edges. Every game would be the Hot $215 on Pokerstars , essentially. The good news is that it is possible for you to make peace with variance and not to sweat its impact on your game, past taking sensible steps to limit this as noted above. Beyond that it is important to find equanimity, and to accept that we are going to frequently face outcomes we don't want in a poker game, there is literally no way to avoid that. Don't go folding those Jacks just because you might have tough spots with them, it's all part of the ride. Some simple steps to achieving a zero-tilt mentality with regard to variance are to remind yourself, if you're an MTT player, that you will frequently finish 11th , or 9th , or 24th when you make that deep run. If you're a cash player, you'll have downswing days, don't sweat it and don't chase those losses. Suffering over variance has compounded many a poker player's losses as they go on tilt after a casual player hits a 2-outer against them in a 400bb pot and they get steamed and start to punt, throwing bad money after good (to reverse the old saying). If you'd like to read more PokerDeals guidance on mindset, check out our PokerDeals Mindset 101 post here . Breathe, remember it's better than working down the mines, and remember how lucky we are able to sit and play this beautiful game. In the long run you'll deal out exactly as many bad beats as you'll receive. You can't avoid that, but you can certainly avoid stressing out over it. Enjoy the game. If it's no longer fun, it's time to hit the beach, the mountain trails, or just sit down with a friend or lover and get some real life EV time. by Lucky Luke

13 May
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Getting Your Head Around Postflop Poker

Playing good postflop poker takes a good deal of work and study. In this series we're going to open it up, and explore a lot of key areas to help you on your way in developing this skill set. Of course many factors influence your ranges and your optimal lines postflop, including the game format. In a game such as MTTs , for example, you will often be shorter-stacked, and also with relatively large pots which include antes . There will also be ICM effects which factor into how tight or loose you should play, and these effects may be harder to measure postflop but they still have an influence. Being shorter will mean more one or two street postflop lines, where the opponents have simply got all before the river. In cash games, on the other hand, stacks are usually at least 50-100bbs effective, and there is usually no ante . Pots are smaller, ranges are somewhat tighter, but there's far more complexity to postflop play due to the deep stacks. There are more complex lines possible with deeper stacks, and hence arriving at the optimal line vs. tough opponents is harder. Couple this with the lower variance in cash grind and you have a tougher format, stake-for-stake, and one with a lot more to think about postflop. Still, the basic principles for postflop play apply equally to both of these formats, and we'll explore these in today's piece, an introductory voyage into the world of postflop poker. For the sake of consistency, we'll consider cash game spots in this article. Single Raised Pots These are often referred to by their acronym as SRPs , and refer to any pot which has been raised preflop once only, so pots in which no 3bet / 4bet etc. has occurred. We'll look today mainly at heads up pots to the flop, where there is an open raiser and a flat caller. SRPs Raiser has Position In these pots the raiser is in position (IP) and the flat caller is out of position (OOP) . The most common example for this scenario is an opening position between UTG and BTN , and the BB in defence. Let's look at a couple of spots where BB is defending against an IP open. Using some incredible software called GTOTrainer we can quickly calculate what the game theory optimal solutions will be for different postflop situations. Bear in mind that in a real poker game our opponents will very often be playing nowhere near optimally, in which case we would opt to adapt these ranges. Nonetheless using such software will give us a very good idea of what kinds of hands to include in our betting range in a given spot. Let's look at a situation where the Cutoff (CO) has opened the pot in a $1 / $2 cash game to $5 , the Button (BTN) and Small Blind (SB) have folded, and the Big Blind (BB) has called. Let's pull up an average enough flop that doesn't drastically favour either the BB or the CO , such as J ♦ 6 ♦ 2♠ . Game Flow Game Flow is an important concept in poker, and it refers to the fact that once a player has taken an aggressive line and his opponent has only called, he has what is called initiative in the hand. He is the driving force behind the progress of the hand at this point, and it is usual for the caller (who is in this scenario OOP and acts first) to check to the aggressor. This is called acting in flow, and for the flat caller to bet into the last aggressor instead is known as lead betting or leading out . This is often not recommendable, but it's something of a sign of a beginner if you see a player leading in a lot of spots, as they may simply not understand the significance of game flow. That said, there are occasions where it may make sense to lead bet for strategic reasons, and GTOTrainer itself may suggest some lead bets in certain spots. These can still be hard to manage as strategies since they are unfamiliar to most players, but that may still make them interesting lines as your opponent may also be unfamiliar and uncomfortable facing these lines. BB in defence vs CO open As we can see however, in this case BB does not want to lead, at least not more than 1% of the time, even in the GTOTrainer simulation. We can surely simplify this 99% checking strategy into a 100% checking strategy without losing too much equity! Continuation Betting The preflop aggressor will usually have the option to continue betting in position after facing a largely procedural check from the OOP player. Let's look at GTOTrainer's recommended play on the flop for the CO here. CO on the flop facing a check from BB As you can see from the above image, GTOTrainer wants to take a mixed approach with most hands on the flop, meaning that we are mixing bets and checks with almost every hand combination. In reality one can take a more relaxed approach to this at most stakes and just mix up your gameplay without worrying about the exact frequencies. What's most important is to note here is that overall CO is continuation betting (c-betting) about 58% of the time. One common mistake made by a lot of regulars is to c-bet with too high a frequency without good reason, building a big pot without a coherent plan. There are some boards where you can c-bet a very high percentage. Hands most favoured for a check here include mid-strength suited and offsuit aces except for those featuring the A ♦ which always bet. Some weaker top pair, underpairs to the J as well as some 6x tends to check here quite a lot also. GTOTrainer also recommends a mix of sizings here, but is mostly using 1/3rd pot as a sizing, which seems reasonable on a board with one paint card and some lowball cards. The more connected the board, generally you'll want to use a larger sizing more often, although your betting frequency may go down. Responding to a Continuation Bet Let's take a look at GTOTrainer's recommendations for the BB facing a small 1/3rd pot cbet from the CO . BB's strategy against a small 1/3rd pot cbet from CO As we can see above, BB is folding around 1/3rd of the time here. One mistake often made by students of the game is to overfold the BB . This is especially problematic if our opponent is cbetting even more than the 58% GTOTrainer recommends here, since we'll be folding against an even weaker range. According to the above we are supposed to call here with hands as weak as 33 and even some Ax and Kx hands with backdoors to hit flushes or straights on the runout. Another great takeaway from this data is the best check-raises BB has against CO's cbetting range. GTOTrainer prefers to check-raise a lot with top pair, as well as top two, and its sets, naturally. However it also recommends raising a high frequency with hands such as 65s and 64s, 54s, 53s and 43s . These hands block important two card or set hands, as well as having combinations of backdoor or gutshot straight draws. This makes them quite appealing check/raise bluffs since they can continue on quite a few turn cards as a multi-street semi-bluff or hit a big made hand on turn or river. How would we respond if we knew that CO was cbetting 100% ? In this case he would have a far weaker range on the flop, and would be forced to surrender many more hands if we raised, so we'd be incentivized to raise much more often, probably making any mixed raising hands into pure 100% raises, and adding in more marginal hands as well to this raising range. We would also likely flat call a larger part of our range, and fold less overall. If we didn't make these adjustments, CO would get away with making more money with his 100% cbetting range. In reality this is a flop where some less experienced players will cbet more than this GTO 58% , but it's unlikely many players will cbet 100% here these days, knowing that BB can play back with at least some strong hands and big draws. I'd expect to see lower than 70% cbet from most players in this spot across most stakes. Evaluating what the player pool tendencies are in a specific type of spot is also part of the skill set required for optimal decision-making. It is worth mentioning here the difference between GTO and optimal play. GTO , game theory optimal, is how we would play if all participants were perfectly aware of one another's ranges and strategic adjustments, and is an equilibrium which would be reached with this mutual knowledge and within a defined set of parameters, such as using a finite number of specific sizings. Change these parameters and you'd reach a different set of solutions, a different equilibrium. Optimal simply refers to what will be best in a specific circumstance against a specific player. So there are many simple examples of when we would want to play in a way which is optimal against a specific villain but nowhere near GTO . For example if we know our opponent never folds we can play very thin and very large bets for value, but rarely are we ever going to bluff them. This unbalanced strategy will be golden against a calling station, but suicide against a good observant regular. What about Turn and River? Naturally as we proceed down the streets, our decision tree is going to get progressively more complex. We will often face scenarios where multiple lines can be considered optimal, or where a mix of lines can be considered best, depending on what we think our opponents are thinking. Should we barrel turn after cbetting, or would a check/raise be better on a specific turn card? How often will villain call a turn bet on this card, but then fold to a blank river card (a card that changes very little with regard to the players' ranges) if we fire off a final bluff in a triple-barrel bluff line? These are some of the toughest questions in postflop poker, since the tree of decisions becomes ever more complex as we proceed across multiple decision points for each player. Rest assured, PokerDeals has you covered for this too, as we'll explore a wide range of specific spots in the postflop poker landscape in order to help you to map it all out. For more awesome hand discussion and theory, as well as all the latest in poker, head over to the PokerDeals Discord today! by Lucky Luke Image courtesy of PokerGO.com

12 May

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