Well, after a bit of a losing streak up at Motor City, I’m back at home two buy-ins lower than what I started with. Still up for the week, but it’s always a shame when you’re on a real hot streak and then Lady Luck decides to catch up with you. Though in all fairness, some of the losses I endured were entirely due to my own playing mistakes and not solely luck.
Anyways, before I start this entry, let me put this into context. I studied math and philosophy in university, so obviously theory really interests me. Obviously, as poker players we are really most interested in the practice IE actually playing the game. I am no exception to this rule: after all, what good would it be to sit around on your rumpus and write about a game you never actually play? However, just because the end goal of poker is to master it in practice, one must first learn the underlying theories of the game. In order to tame the Beast we call Texas Hold’Em, you must first discover what it is that makes it tick. What makes the Beast work the way that it does. Only then can you ever hope to master the actual practice and art of playing poker. And that, friends, is why I take such a great interest in the theoretical aspects of poker: because by thinking about them from an abstract point of view, it helps me improve my own game. And by writing about it, I express those ideas in a concrete language that not only helps me even more, but also helps YOU out, the reader.
So, now that I’ve explained why I think it’s important to understand and appreciate the theoretical side of poker, let’s actually dive into it. So, from a theoretical perspective what exactly is poker? Well, it might help to first examine games that it is not like. Take chess, for example. Poker and Chess do have an element of strategy in common. They are also both games of competition. But elementary similarities aside, what makes them different? Besides the obvious things, such as chess being strictly two-player while poker is multiplayer, one of the two extremely critical differences that separate Poker from Chess is uncertainty. In chess, there is no such thing as randomness. There is no deck to shuffle, no shoving all-in and leaving yourself at the mercy of the fate that Lady Luck chooses to deal to you. The current, previous and future states of the game are all completely determined by the actions of each player. This is opposed to poker, where although the actions of a player (such as a well-placed bet or a check-raise) can affect the state of the game (by inducing folds), the game-state is just as much effected by the random element of what cards are dealt onto the board. In this sense, poker incorporates an element of chance whereas games such as Chess have absolutely no randomness to them.
The other major difference between a game like Poker and a game like Chess lies in what information is available to each player. Once again, consider the game of Chess. In Chess, the entire game state is known to each player. The board is there for all to see; there are no hidden pieces, no sneaky tricks (save the potential future actions of each player), no “lucky draws” that a player can rely on. All the information is visible to all the players equally. This is opposed to poker, which is a game of limited information. In any format of poker, whether it be 7 card stud or Texas Hold’Em, there will always be various unknown factors which you will never know for certain until it comes time for the showdown. In particular for poker, these factors are cards in other players hands and the cards that have not yet been dealt.
Okay, so that’s all fine and dandy. In poker, we don’t know everything because certain pieces of information are private and known only to Lady Luck or our opponents. In chess, it is possible (but highly dependent on the skill of the individual player) to know everything because all the information is publicly available. But what does any of this have to do with the practical aspects of poker: namely, sitting down at a table and winning money? Before you shrug that rant off as a bunch of word-vomit, try to answer that question for yourself. Given what we know about poker and how it compares to other games like chess, what conclusions can we draw from the facts?
Well, let’s state the obvious once again: poker is a game of incomplete information. And the goal of any competitive, serious poker player is to win the most money possible. How does one win that money, exactly? By winning the pot. But in order to win the pot, you have to know that your actions are going to not only win you that particular pot, but maximize the profits which could be made off said pot. Therein lies the key of poker, and the answer to our question.
When we play poker to win, we go about winning by putting an opponent on a particular hand, and adjusting our play accordingly. To give a blatantly obvious example, in a Texas Hold’Em game, if we knew our opponent had a pre-flop hand of KK and the flop comes up K-K-7, then you’d be an absolute fool to call any bet they may make. In fact, you’d be a fool to stay in that hand period if you knew that what your opponent was holding was indeed KK. Likewise, if you had AK pre-flop and you knew your opponent had a hand such as 44, then you would be a fool to fold there. In either scenario, if you knew what your opponent had in their hand you’d adjust your play accordingly to either minimize losses or maximize profits (respectively).
Notice the common theme here: if you know what your opponent has in their hand. In other words, as the common saying goes “Knowledge Is Power”. To know what your opponent has in their hand is to know exactly the precise strategy to maximize your earnings (or minimize your losses). That is to say, to know your opponents cards is to win. And winning is what we’re here to do, right? The power that you, as a player, gain from being able to make an educated guess as to what your opponent is playing (that is, to put them on a general range of starting hands), is absolutely 110% essential to your success as a poker player. Because you know a piece of knowledge essential to solving the poker puzzle that nobody else except the specific player knows puts you at an extremely great advantage against other players who do not possess this same skill.
Now that we’ve laid down the theory, let’s translate that into practice. What does all of this mean when you’re sitting down at the poker table, grinding your way to profitability? As you’ve probably already guessed, it means you really should be trying to get a read on what exactly it is your opponents are playing with. You have to use what information is publicly available (their recent play history, their tells, their betting patterns, position, tendencies to chase/bluff, etc) in order to take a stab at information that is not publicly available (what hand your opponent has). If, as a poker player, the only persons cards you’re thinking about are the cards in your very own hand, then you’re doing something seriously wrong.
Okay, so in what seems like a lengthy college essay I’ve stated the obvious: if you want to succeed at poker, you need to be able to put your opponents on an opening range of hands. That’s all well and true, but it’s also extremely obvious. So what gives, why write the long-winded entry? My reason wasn’t to inform you that the ability to predict makes for great strategic decisions: I’m assuming most of you reading this are well aware of that (and if you weren’t, no big deal – now you know!). My point, rather, was to illustrate the theoretical thought process so you can apply it to your own game. I wanted to guide you, the reader, step-by-step through how I think out problems on an abstract, analytical level so you can try to do the same on your own. You only stand to gain by harnessing the power of poker theory.
It’s very true you could read about this sort of thing in a book. You could do some hard-core studying and memorize, verbatim, each and every single passage from your favorite poker book like it is the Bible and play that way. And you might even make some money in the process. But although you might have memorized some strategies, you’ll never truly have learned them. As a future teacher, I can assure you there’s a difference between knowing something and understanding something. To know is a great start – without knowledge of a thing, we can’t ever hope to understand it. But to merely know is not sufficient – what we must seek is for genuine understanding, to understand not only that something is the way it is, but why it is the way it is. And that, in a nutshell, is why I wrote this entry on theory – to introduce you to my own personal style of thought process, so that maybe you can go about developing your own understanding, as opposed to mere knowledge.