All Poker is the Same; All Poker is Different; What Poker Really Is
By Tony Guerrera
Many poker variants exist, and anyone who plays in a good dealer’s choice home game knows that new ones are made up every day. Hold’em, razz, Mexican poker, blind man’s bluff, baseball, follow the queen, whatever: the list is long enough to be an article of its own! Additionally, each game can be played as a cash game or as a tournament. With different betting structures and tournament types, the number of ways one can play poker is seemingly infinite! So many variants. So many settings in which to play each variant. How can it all be poker?
On the most fundamental level, it’s all poker because it involves cards and because the following 4-step process will lead you to success:
1.) Put your opponents on hand distributions
2.) Put your opponents on action distributions
3.) Evaluate you own hand (or put yourself on a hand distribution if you’re playing a game like Blind Man’s Bluff)
4.) Pick the most profitable line of play
Piece together betting patterns and tells to deduce your opponents’ hands and responses to all possible action you can make. Evaluate your own hand in the context of your opponents’ hands and responses, and make your decision. Extract value from your made hands. Don’t pay opponents off with your losing hands. Know when to lay down monsters. Know when you can make your opponents fold regardless of the cards in your hand. Poker is this and much more. If you think that poker is simply sitting around for good hands, and hoping that they hold up, you’re missing the big picture. Poker is really about doing whatever maximizes your profits, and sometimes, the actions that maximize your profits can be counterintuitive.
Since this article is about what poker really is, I should have just said “utility” instead of “profits” because utility combines money and happiness. Some players gain utility even if they play in a non-optimal way with respect to monetary expectation value (mEV). And life is all about maximizing utility. In this way, poker is largely an individual experience-even people playing the same exact form of poker can be playing two different games!
Understanding the distinction between mEV and utility is really important. It’ll bring increased awareness of your opponents and yourself. I assume most of you reading this article (and my other material) are seeking to maximize your profits, so you’ll be happy to know that I happen to maximize my utility by playing for blood; I focus solely on doing everything that maximizes my mEV.
Maximizing your mEV for a specific poker variant may require many hours of away-from-the-table analysis in addition to many more hours of playing time. But if you understand the 4-step process, you are in a position to be a winning player in any game. Well, it should. Poker is poker. But even if you understand the 4-step process and happen to be an expert in one or more forms of poker, mastering a particular poker variant in a particular setting can be really tough.
For example, not all players skilled at no-limit hold’em cash games are skilled at no-limit hold’em tournaments and vice versa. Furthermore, excellent single table tournament players can do horribly in multitable tournaments, and players who excel in multitable freezeouts might not play rebuy tournaments successfully. Even closely related forms of poker can require quite different approaches.
To be great at many forms of poker, you need to see the big picture regarding the 4-step poker playing process, and you need to recognize the subtlest differences between each form of poker. How do default players in game type A play versus those in game type B? What’s the minimum edge required to attempt a double-up in tournament A versus tournament B? Cash game A features blinds of $3-$9, while cash game B features blinds of $6-$9; what impact does this have on play? When you’re playing poker at its highest level, these are the types of questions you need to ask: both at the tables and away from the tables.
When playing, throw your ego out of the picture-something that’s always good to do. Think about enjoying the poker-playing process regardless of your performance and regardless of what your opponents may think about your play. When not playing, think carefully about hands you’ve played-making sure you accurately reconstruct as many details as possible. Note what successful opponents are doing. Do calculations. Talk to your friends. Read books. If your results in a particular game seem stagnant, consider coaching.
Some people label the away-from-the-table stuff work. But to me, it’s just as much a part of playing the game as sitting at the tables. I love debating lines of play with friends, discussing poker on my radio show, and running calculations. The stuff away from the tables enables you to think about poker in unique ways-ways outside your comfort zone that allow you to make profitable adjustments to your game. Regardless of the many different ways it can be played, poker is ultimately about embracing the creative problem-solving process.
Tony Guerrera is the author of Killer Poker By The Numbers and co-author of Killer Poker Shorthanded (with John Vorhaus)
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