Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.
In every science there are lingering questions that remain unresolved. All intelligent forms of life that we know about have something in common – consciousness. But what is it? What makes a person conscious, and where does that go when we die? The universe is vast, but how vast, and how many “universes” are there?
Poker is a science, too. I’ve tried to do my part to resolve many curious things about poker strategy through tedious analysis and computer simulation. But there are things nobody knows yet. This self-interview covers some of the aspects of poker that are unresolved.
Question 1: Should you adjust your strategy to fit an opponent’s traits?
That’s an important question.
Theoretically, there’s a perfect strategy. When you use it, every hand and every decision is made in accordance with a predetermined percentage of times you should fold, check, call, or raise.
Every situation has its very own correct percentage for each choice. It might be 100 percent or zero. Usually, it’s in the middle somewhere.
Some decisions have three-way implementation. For instance, you might fold 20.03 percent of the time, call 54.82 percent of the time, and raise 25.15 percent of the time.
That sounds silly, but there’s actually a precise guideline for every situation. If you know what it is, you can then proceed to put it to profitable use by randomizing. You can’t rotate your decisions in sequence or they’re subject to being predicted by perfect opponents. That describes game theory simplified.
But, don’t despair. Nobody really knows the exact percentages for which you should make most poker decisions. There are too many extra factors that need to be considered. So formulas for almost all poker situations remain unresolved.
But, let’s answer the big question: Should you adjust a perfect strategy to fit an opponent? Well, it’s dangerous to do that.
If it turns out to be two opponents playing exactly correctly, then if you adjust because recent history suggests that the foe bluffs too often, you’ve made a mistake. You should, instead, call at the predetermined random percentage. Deciding to make an exception would be a mistake based on an illusion.
The point is that if you’re playing correctly against a previously presumed perfect opponent, any modification carries risk. You might be increasing your profit by taking advantage of opposing mistakes. But those mistakes might be illusory. If they are – and what you perceive as mistakes are short-term flukes – you’ve been maneuvered away from correct strategy and are playing poorly.
So, whether to adjust and how much to adjust are questions resolved by considering many factors about your opponent’s true nature that may be invisible. The issue is always unresolved.
Question 2: What stakes are right for your bankroll?
This depends on how suddenly you want to succeed and how much risk you’re willing to take. The higher you play, the greater the chance that your bankroll quickly will increase dramatically and, also, the greater the chance that you’ll suddenly go broke.
Equations intended to maximize profit potential (such as the “Kelly Criterion”) don’t translate well to poker, because losing a small bankroll isn’t the end of the world. You can usually replace it from real-life activity. But the larger your bankroll grows, the more you should seek to defend it by choosing less-risky limits.
You should usually play larger as your bankroll increases, but not proportionally larger. Your chosen limits shouldn’t rise at the same pace as your bankroll.
You also need to evaluate the skills of opponents at various limits. There might be limits above which you won’t show any profit whatsoever. There is really no right answer, so I can’t advise you on what stakes you should play. Mark this one unresolved.
Question 3: Should you play a poker tournament to win first place?
You should generally choose your best everyday strategy in winner-take-all tournaments, satellite tournaments in which only one winner is paid, heads-up tournaments, rare stop-and-cash-out-at-a-given-time events, and shootouts where table winners advance. In those, play to win first place.
In traditional proportional-payout tournaments, there’s more profit in not playing for first place. That’s because you’re rewarded for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places (and so on) by receiving a share of the prize pool, even though you lost all your chips.
If you can lose your chips and still get paid, maximum profit is made by avoiding first place. You should hope to stumble into it, but you shouldn’t directly pursue it. That’s the sad truth about most poker tournaments.
However, what if first place means something special to you beyond money? Then you’ll have to make a decision about how much potential profit you’re willing to sacrifice in pursuit of the glory. It’s not an easy choice, and the answer is unresolved.
Question 4: Does it bother you that some poker questions can’t be resolved?
Long ago, I crafted a plot for a short story that I haven’t yet written. It’s about two children from an advanced alien civilization visiting earth from far away in the universe. Our best scholars try to show these intellectually superior kids some of our greatest human achievements. They demonstrate chess. One alien kid makes a move and the other immediately resigns.
To us, chess is a complex challenge that can lead to many situations. But to the alien kids, it just a simple puzzle that can be instantly resolved. Answers can take the fun out of exploration.
Fortunately, life itself remains unresolved. If we knew where we were heading, it would spoil the adventure.— MC