Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2008) in Poker Player newspaper.
Hi, there. This is the Mad Genius of Poker and I’ve come here to speak to you.
You’re about to read a stand-alone member of a series of columns in which I get to ask my own questions and then answer them. By “stand-alone,” I mean that you don’t need to have seen any of the previous columns to understand this one, although the questions are numbered in sequence, continuing where we left off last time.
Today’s word is “random,” and it’s more important to your poker success than you probably suspect. We’re going to learn something about random as a concept. And we’re going to talk about when to, and when not to, use random methods in making poker decisions.
The last question was number 77. Let’s continue…
Question 78: What does it mean to randomize your poker decisions?
In the truest sense, randomizing a poker decision means that your choice is truly unpredictable. You might not even know what decision you’re going to make until you check, bet, fold, call, or raise. Why does that make sense?
Well, in some cases, random decisions don’t make sense. If you’re playing heads-up hold ’em against an opponent who has moved all-in before the flop and you hold a pair of aces, you never want to randomize. You just want to call.
In that case, there’s no credible decision to be made. You could decide that you’re going to call 99 out of 100 times before the flop, but why? That would mean that once in 100 times you’d be folding and throwing away your expectation of profit. You should only randomize when two or more choices are reasonable — and only because you’re trying to be less predictable to your opponents.
Question 79: Should you randomize your bluffing?
If opponents can determine that you always bluff or bluff too often (or never bluff or don’t bluff often enough), they can gain an advantage. Even if you bluff by predictable pattern, opponents may tune in to your behavior and beat you.
The answer is to randomize your bluffing. By the way, this doesn’t mean you should randomize if other information leads you to a better decision. If you know an opponent is likely to call, you should seldom — if ever — risk a bluff. And if an opponent is especially unlikely to call right now, that’s a good time to bluff.
The trick is to forget about randomizing whenever other clues point to one clear choice that is obviously the most profitable. Randomize only when mixing up your strategy is a necessity, because you need to bewilder opponents by seeming less predictable. Never randomize your choices just for the thrill of doing it.
Question 80: Is there really a correct percentage of times that you should bluff?
For every situation, there’s a precise percentage of the time you should attempt a bluff. The exact percentage depends on the strength of your hand, the likely strength of your opponent’s hand, your knowledge of your opponent’s traits, the size of the pot, the relative size of the bet, and much more.
Just to prove this point, suppose you never bluffed and only bet your very best hands. After a while, astute opponents might realize this and never call without monster hands of their own.
In this situation, continuing to never bluff is clearly wrong. You would obviously be able to bluff profitably at least once — because that bluff would be unexpected and would succeed, unless you were unlucky enough to face a huge opposing hand. And you can stretch that to two, three, or more bluffs out of, say, 100 tries.
Just keep stretching your bluff attempts until you hit a point where you’re almost (but not quite) bluffing too many times. If you bluff more or less than that, the tactic is theoretically unprofitable.
I said “theoretically.” That means that in a world with two players competing with equal skills, the object is to deny each other an advantage. It means that bluffing should be a break-even proposition, and it should never matter from an opponent’s perspective whether he calls or not. This is seldom a good real-world solution, though.
That’s because no opponents play perfectly. So, you can usually tailor your decisions toward bluffing if an opponent is unlikely to call often enough at the moment and never bluff if that same opponent is likely to call too often.
Question 81: Should you always randomize your decisions?
You shouldn’t randomize your poker decision if other factors point to a clear choice.
Question 82: Are deals truly random in online poker?
Most online poker sites use a shuffling algorithm in their software that simulates the distribution of random cards. The cards chosen are based on a random number generator (RNG) that uses a mathematical formula to create a sequence of numbers that is unpredictable to humans.
Actually, if the formula isn’t strong enough, it may be possible to predict the numbers (and cards) that will be chosen next. But, in practice, most credible sites use very sophisticated algorithms and may even modify them in accordance with other events (such as the number of hands being dealt on all tables throughout the site), making it even harder still to predict outcomes.
Even more-random methods (some say perfectly random) methods can be used to simulate shuffling and dealing of cards online. You can generate numbers by sampling nuclear decay, rather than taking the next number in a mathematical sequence. I don’t like methods based on non-mathematical methods like that, because it leaves the site unable to prove to experts later that the cards were generated fairly according to a predetermined, but practically unpredictable-in-advance, sequence.
In general, online shuffles are much closer to random than those performed by dealers in real-world casinos. But, at least, you get to watch the human dealer — and that’s reassuring.
Questions 83: If I try hard enough, can I make my decisions truly random?
You’ll have to do the best you can to be unpredictable. David Sklansky has suggested acting in accordance with the position of the second hand on your watch. You can also use the ranks and suits of cards to determine which action you’ll take. For instance, if the last flop I saw began with a club, I’ll do this; if it was a heart, I’ll do that.
Question 84: How does randomness affect my life at poker and beyond?
In poker and in real life, things aren’t always as random as they seem. It’s our inability to decode the sequence and follow the path that gives us the illusion that stuff just happens for no reason.
The trick is to decide that you’ll treat life’s adventures as if they come from a freshly shuffled deck, making decisions about the cards you see and not worrying about how they got there. Sometimes you need to randomize your choices to be unpredictable; sometimes you don’t. That’s poker; that’s life. — MC