These lessons are oldies but goodies
When trying to improve your poker game, it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in trying to make a never-ending series of small adjustments, in a way that makes it very difficult to pinpoint the specific impact that each adjustment makes without a huge sample of hands to analyze. What a lot of people miss out on, however, is that there are several ways that you can close up existing leaks and develop your understanding of the game much more rapidly, simply by adopting new broad-stroke strategies that other players fail to take advantage of. A small change can produce great results, if you change the right things.
Split up your opponents’ ranges
If you’ve been playing poker and working on your game for some time, you’re probably familiar with the idea that it’s no longer considered appropriate to consider a hand of poker in terms of what your opponent’s hand might be. Instead, our analysis must always recognize that our opponents always possess a range of different hands, since there are always many possibilities as to which hand they actually have, and the short-term outcome of any one hand is less important than the theoretical implications of what the opponent’s entire range might be if the hand happened many times over.
However, what’s often ignored is that when analyzing a specific decision, we must remember that our opponents always have more than one different type of range. More specifically, they have two ranges — a value range, and a bluffing range. What this means is that when we’re analyzing a decision and trying to establish whether the opponent might be bluffing or not, it’s vitally important that we remember that a player can’t just generically be “bluffing” in non-specific terms. They have to be bluffing with a hand that is realistically possible given the action in the hand up to that point.
Let’s look at a hand example. Imagine we have top pair, top kicker on the river having bet both the flop and turn, and face an all in bet from an aggressive opponent. You might analyze this decision by saying something like, “well, he could have two pair, or a set, or he could be bluffing.” This isn’t exactly inaccurate, but it’s likely to lead you to make a lot of loose calls. The reason for this is that if your opponent is going to be bluffing, he has to be bluffing with a hand good enough to call bets on the flop and the turn.
Granted, some players will occasionally “float” a flop or turn bet with nothing in order to bluff a later street, or turn a weak value hand into a bluff, but in the vast majority of instances where there are no obvious busted draws, your opponent is unlikely to be bluffing. Don’t just curse yourself for calling or your opponent for flopping a set — think carefully about your opponents’ value and bluffing ranges, and you might find it easier to analyze hands and make big folds when necessary.
Deliberately practice the math
More or less everyone is aware of the importance of math in modern poker. There are many reasons why understanding the math is key to success in any form of the game, since it forms the foundation of everything we understand about poker. The language we use to talk about poker and analyze hands is really just a substitute for math — if we could communicate in math, we wouldn’t need language to talk about poker.
Despite this increased awareness, it’s still very uncommon for players to make a conscious effort to get better at poker math. Instead, many players simply choose to define themselves as “feel players,” and are content to have a below-average knowledge of the math involved in their decisions. This is a huge edge gap that very few players are working to fill. If you can turn yourself into someone whose mathematical understanding of the game is constantly improving, you’ll have an instinct for the fundamentals that will make all your future decisions much easier.
How can you do this? One word — improvisation. You can improvise a math problem for nearly any type of poker situation using only an online random number generator, the calculator on your computer, and your favourite poker equity simulator. If you want to practice preflop calling ranges in MTTs, for example, you can generate a pot size, call amount, and opponent’s shoving range. You can then calculate how much equity you need in order to call, give yourself a random hand, and decide whether it’s a call or a fold. You can also estimate your equity with that hand versus the opponent’s range, and grade yourself based on how close you were. This provides you with a literally infinite number of opportunities to practice the mental arithmetic involved in poker, and it can be adapted to suit any mathematical situation.
Take specific notes on your opponents
This is perhaps more relevant for online players, but the principle remains true for live players as well. Far too many players are content to assume that small pieces of information about their opponents are not useful, and to ignore the information that is presented to them at the table. Perhaps it’s because they’re not paying attention, they’re distracted by their phone or their web browser or the music they’re listening to. Perhaps it’s because they’re not looking out for the information in the first place. But most commonly, it’s because they register the information, and then forget about it by the time it becomes relevant. After all, our brains can only remember so much.
The easy solution to this problem is to take notes on your opponents. This isn’t always easy to do, since it’s rare that you get enough specific information to take a solid, reliable, useful note. Taking a note that you saw that your opponent three-bet fold on a 30 big blind stack is not a useful note, for example, as almost every player will do that sometimes. However, if you see a player make an unusually large three-bet, then fold to an all in shove of 30 big blinds after spending a full 60 seconds in the think tank, and shows you pocket Jacks before they muck their cards — that’s a specific note that will give you a big clue for the future. In this instance, it will help you remember that this player is likely to be a weak-tight player who gives his opponents too much credit for strong hands. Extrapolate this process of specific note-taking over the course of time, and you’ll pick up plenty of useful information on your opponents which might come in useful one hand later, one orbit later, or if you’re a tournament regular, perhaps even one year later.
Keep it simple
There are innumerable things you can to do improve your poker game. It would be foolish to pretend that these are the only three things that make a complete strategy. But it would also be foolish to believe that it’s not possible to make simple, broad changes to your approach and your learning style that will benefit your game greatly as it develops. Many players have gotten so caught up in trying to learn game theory, range balancing or combinatorics that they end up trying to run before they can walk. Make sure you’re not one of them.
Matthew Hunt is a professional poker player and coach. His services and training videos are available at Tournament Poker Edge, the world’s leading tournament poker training site, and he can be found on Twitter under the name @theginger45.