The ingredients of a winning poker strategy


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2010) in Bluff magazine.


Decades ago, I attended the World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. Jack and Benny Binion pampered the players and even provided free meals for all.

Their casino restaurants were highly regarded and the food was rave-worthy. I was especially catered to, probably because of my close association with Doyle Brunson, Jack’s friend. Despite this, I remember sneaking away from the Horseshoe with $40,000 stuffed in my pockets to eat elsewhere. Was it to dine at an even more upscale restaurant?

No, it was to walk up Fremont Street to visit McDonald’s. Ever had a Big Mac from McDonald’s? Maybe you don’t like them. Whether you do or not, please follow me along this poker path, because we’re hiking toward something important.

Ingredients

I’ve probably eaten over 1,000 Big Macs in my lifetime and suffered several of those fabled “Big Mac attacks.” You know the ingredients, right? Of course you do, if you’re old enough to remember the television jingle: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame-seed bun.” That “special sauce” is probably just Thousand Island dressing, but why spoil the mystery?

Millions of people think Big Macs are the perfect hamburger – one with unique taste and texture. But it isn’t the ingredients that make it so popular.

To build it successfully, you need to know how big the patties should be, how much special sauce to apply, how much lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions. You even need to know the thickness of the bun, and in the case of a Big Mac, there’s a third layer that fits between the patties.

Now we get to poker. The ingredients of a winning poker strategy involve using each hand in each situation for betting, folding, calling, raising, checking, bluffing, and sandbagging. So, I could make an analogy, suggesting that the perfect recipe for playing 5♥ 5♣ on the button in hold ’em is to raise the blinds if everyone else folds, then to just call if reraised. Bet again if checked to on the flop if all the cards are small, and so forth. The ingredients: bet and call.

Taste

Do you like my recipe? Well, it could be a good one, but it might taste awful. I’ll tell you why.

What if I tried to cook you a Big Mac using the ingredients in the jingle. Suppose that I piled on too much lettuce and onions and added too little sauce. You wouldn’t like the taste. And my Big Mac would suck.

Same thing with poker. You can raise with that pair of fives from the button and that makes sense. But raising is only an ingredient in the long-term winning recipe. If I’m reraised, I can argue in favor of a call. And that’s also only an ingredient.

Now that we have defined these actions as ingredients, we need to ask a profound poker question: How much. Or in this case, how often.

Sauce

The more often you use a particular tactic, the more you’re adding that ingredient to your overall strategy. And just as you can put too much or too little sauce on your Big Mac, you can raise too often or too infrequently with that pair of fives.

One of poker’s most difficult concepts is mixing up or randomizing decisions. Against alert opponents, you need to do that, otherwise you’re too predictable and they’ll take advantage. That part of the concept is easy to understand. I’m actually against randomizing, preferring to use other factors, especially psychology, to determine when to do what. But the fact remains, I’m varying my decisions.

The part that’s less obvious is that the deception you’re employing isn’t just right now. It part of the overall recipe that makes your strategy taste right to your opponents. Too much or too little of any ingredient and your opponents will realize that you’re not playing right, and they won’t buy your Big Mac in the future.

Near the border

In poker, most of the hands you’ll play aren’t extremely strong, and obviously they shouldn’t be extremely weak, either. They will fall somewhere in the middle, and whether to play them won’t be obvious. They’ll be at our near the borderline of playability – or callability or raiseability. (I like to make up words.)

If the decision is to play or fold, then you can suddenly decide to play every single one of them for the next six days and gain a very loose image. But if you do that, skillful opponents will begin to bet against you with weaker hands and make money doing so. They’ll also raise you more often and win pots easily. They’ll do even more damage in other ways, but that’s not my point.

My point is that you’ve taken the borderline-hand ingredient and added too much to the recipe. So, you’ve got to use less of that ingredient.

You can also argue that each individual borderline hand should be folded. So, you could rationally throw away all of them for six days. But if you do that, you’ll appear very tight and observant opponents will be less likely to call when you have quality hands. You’ll be able to bluff with more success, but that advantage will be overwhelmed by the disadvantage of not being called.

Proportions

And, of course, what I’m saying doesn’t just apply to the decision about whether to play a borderline hand. It applies to every other close decision – raise or call, check or bet. If we want to succeed at poker against savvy competition, we’ve got to use the right ingredients in the right proportions.

We don’t do this simply for short-term deception, but to balance the entirety of our play. And the key to accomplishing that is the sauce, which – in case you’re not following me – are the borderline decisions.

Take an assertive stance with too many borderline decisions and you’re adding too much sauce; take a timid stance with too many borderline decisions and you aren’t adding enough sauces. Either way, your Big Mac sucks.

Serious players need to stop thinking about poker in terms of the right or wrong play for each situation and focus, instead, on balancing an overall strategy. And the key ingredient that makes adjusting easy is borderline decisions. You always have plenty of that ingredient available and can make your recipe taste right by adding more or less.

Remember, all the tools, techniques, finesses, and ploys you’ll ever use in a poker game are the ingredients that go into a successful strategy. But just taking them to the table isn’t enough. You also need to bring a measuring cup. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

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