Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2008) in Poker Player newspaper.
A preceding, companion entry focuses on “Edge,” while this follow-up covers “Edges.”
You should read both. Here’s a link to Mike Caro poker word is Edge. It has a link at the bottom, so you can easily return here. — Mike Caro
The previous entry, called “Mike Caro poker word is Edge,” rambled about Gardena, California, “The Poker Capital of the World” of yesteryear. It was my intention to use the word “edge” as a basis for another in this series of question and answer columns — where I get to ask my own questions and supply my own answers. Unfortunately, by the time waves of memories ceased flooding my mind and I stopped reminiscing about old Gardena and my early days as a poker pro and set the stage for a discussion of edges, there was no more space for the questions.
Naturally, I became quite distressed over this failing, and for the past 14 days and nights I visited the forest surrounding my hermitage in the Ozarks, sitting on boulders while trying to figure out a solution. I thunk and I thunk, as we occasionally do here in the Ozarks. And eventually it came to me. I’ll just add an “s” to today’s word and move along.
Question 29: What do you mean when you talk about small edges?
In poker most decision aren’t obvious. There are only a few hands that “play themselves,” putting it in common poker terminology. All others require your evaluation. And most of your choices to raise, call, check, or fold are so close that considering clues beyond the precise cards and betting sequence will benefit you.
Suppose I begin with Q-Q in hold ’em and the flop is K-7-Q of mixed suits. I’m in a commanding position, but I want to make the most money possible, assuming this same hand were played a million times.
If I see an opponent staring away from the action, I recognize that as a tell informing me that the player is interested in the pot and likely to bet. This is a small edge that weighs toward checking and allowing that player to do the wagering for me. If most of my active opponents have shown a tendency to call liberally, but seldom act aggressively, that’s a small edge that makes me more likely to bet.
If I’m on the button after everyone else has folded, holding J-9, and I recognize that both players in the blinds surrender half the time, then I will usually raise, even though I might otherwise fold. The fact that I’m going to win the blinds without a struggle a quarter of the time (50 percent times 50 percent) is enough for the small edge, provided by my knowledge of these opponents’ tightness, to become the deciding factor.
There are even smaller edges. Suppose I’m holding K♦ Q♥ in a limit hold ’em game and the final board is A♦ Q♦ 9♣ 7♣ 2♦.
On the river, I value bet and am raised. I’ve seen this raiser bluff-raise sometimes, but not often. One small edge weighs in favor of this player being more likely to be bluffing this time. Can you see what it is?
It’s the fact that I hold the K♦. This makes it impossible for him to have an unbeatable hand. Since the probability of a bluff is slightly greater now than usual for this player, I might use that small edge to make a long-term profitable call.
Sure, I’m going to usually lose and end up showing down against a small flush, aces-up, three sevens, or some other superior hand, but since the decision was close otherwise, the K♦ made the call worth it when you consider the size of the pot. It’s a small edge, yes, but not one that should pass by unnoticed.
Question 30: Are small edges worth pursuing?
Absolutely. Small edges aren’t worth much by themselves, but if you can add a few dollars or a few cents to the quality of your decisions, eventually the sum of those choices adds up and overwhelms even the profit that you make from your rare big hands.
Question 31: What is the great danger of analyzing small edges?
I’ve found that the main problem with teaching students to look for small edges is that some players tend to use them as an excuse to play recklessly and call too often.
Question 32: How should small edges be used?
You should examine small edges almost always as tie-breakers. Evaluate them when a decision is fairly close. Otherwise, they’re not strong enough clues to negate the obvious decision.
Question 33: But how do you decide when a decision is fairly close?
One method I teach is to envision me standing over your shoulder, watching you play. Imagine my reaction to your decision.
If you do something completely unprofitable, you’ll see me frown. If you do something obviously right, you’ll see me smile. Otherwise, I’ll be expressionless and won’t react as the action unfolds.
For instance, if you fold a commanding flush draw when the pot is laying you 10-to-1 against your call, I’ll frown. You should have called, because the price was right. If you barge into the pot in a full-handed hold ’em game in the third seat holding Q♦ J♣, you’ll see me frown, because that’s clearly unprofitable.
But suppose you hold 8-8 two seats before the button. You might call or you might raise. Either choice will seem reasonable sometimes. In this mental exercise, anytime you can make different decisions without triggering my smile or my frown, your decision is fairly close and you should look for small edges to break the tie.
Question 34: In the previous entry, you talked briefly about “anti-edges.” What are they?
You shouldn’t just look for edges that work in your favor. You need to also be aware of edges that work against you. I call these anti-edges, a term I first used in my old Gardena days when I began to itemize factors that worked for and against making a bet.
The trick is to mentally add and subtract. When a decision is close, look for both edges and anti-edges and break the tie by judging which category is stronger.
So, there you have it. Poker is a game of edges and anti-edges — big ones, medium ones, and tiny ones. Today, we’ve talked mostly about small edges.
At first glance, a small edge doesn’t matter much. It’s kind of like your vote for President. By itself, it’s overwhelmed by millions of other votes.
But put all those small votes together and you get Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy. The world changes. Votes matter when bundled, so each one matters.
Your success or failure at poker will be largely dictated by how well you recognize and evaluate small edges and small anti-edges. Each one will seem insignificant, but bundled they will make you or break you. — MC