Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2010) in Poker Player newspaper.
Let me ask you something. What if you were so disciplined in poker that you stuck to your primary strategy, no matter what? What if you just played your same sensible game hour after hour, day after day, never losing your resolve? You don’t have to answer. I’ll tell you what would happen: You’d leave a lot of profit on the table.
In poker, having discipline is great, but being stubborn is bad. You should adjust your tactics at poker often, and today’s self-interview is about those times.
Question 1: Is there a perfect poker strategy that is so powerful that it will win no matter what your opponents do?
Well, sort of.
There’s a theoretically perfect strategy. Nobody knows what it is, because poker is far too complex to precisely define the right decisions for every situation. In order to calculate the right decisions, we’d need to deal with “game theory,” and devise a set of standards to dictate how often to bet, raise, call, check, and fold for every conceivable situation.
Notice that I didn’t say that we’d need to find a single answer about what decision to make in every situation; I said “how often.” That’s important.
For most situations, the answer isn’t to do a single thing every time. You should do the main thing a certain percentage of the time, completely at random, and something else a smaller percentage of the time. There might even be a third thing you’ll do a still-smaller percentage of the time.
You’re probably asking, “If there’s a best tactic, why wouldn’t you always use it?” It’s because a perfect strategy must guard against predictability. If you always did the same thing, opponents would have less doubt about your present hand and act in ways that cut into your profit.
Anyway, the question was whether a perfect strategy can guarantee profit. I said, “sort of,” because that perfect strategy used against itself, when opponents are also employing it, would only break even if played forever. Worse, you would lose money in real-world games that charge seat rental or rake pots. Everyone would.
In practice, we don’t worry about opponents using a perfect strategy, because nobody knows one. But the key concept here is that the farther opponents stray from perfect strategy – whatever it is – the more profit we’ll make. The object, therefore, is to play closer to a perfect strategy than our opponents. That’s where the profit lies.
Question 2: Okay, so there’s a solution, and if you know it, you should always use that strategy, right?
No. We’ve already acknowledged that our opponents won’t be playing perfectly. Suppose we knew the ultimate game-theory strategy and always used it. In that case, we’d be able to hold our ground against anyone. You simply can’t beat a perfect strategy; you can only tie it.
But our “perfect strategy” has been devised to compete against others who are likewise playing perfectly. If that isn’t the case – and it never will be – then we can do even better by adjusting to take advantage of opponents’ mistakes. Put simply, we need to update our perfect strategy, devising a new one, for every poker environment encountered.
Question 3: I see that adjusting to the game will be more profitable. Are there any risks in adjusting?
Yes. I encountered this risk in the early 1980s when I developed Orac (Caro spelled backwards) – the first major artificially intelligent poker player. In programming Orac, I tried to get as close to a perfect strategy for no-limit heads-up hold ’em as possible. If I never adjusted it, I would have an advantage against opponents who sometimes (hopefully often) made mistakes.
But, if I knew what their mistakes were, I could fine-tune Orac’s strategy to take advantage. So, I programmed the ability to let Orac monitor opponents’ traits and make adjustments during the game.
So, what was the risk? The risk was that maybe the tendencies of opponents measured weren’t real. What if it looked as if an opponent bluffed more often than he should, based on several successful calls, but the measurement was just a fluke? What if that opponent actually seldom bluffed and Orac had called an unusual flurry of weak bets. Now, Orac would start calling more often, when actually it should be calling less often.
That’s the risk you take when you adjust your strategy. It’s usually worthwhile, but your observations might be invalid, and then you’ll be doing the wrong thing.
Question 4: What are the main adjustments you should make relative to the size of your bankroll?
Whenever you’re playing in a game large enough that your bankroll can suffer significant damage, you should abandon many of your daring value bets. You should call less with medium-strong hands that have tiny edges.
This is one reason why you shouldn’t usually play in games larger than your bankroll can comfortably accommodate. If you do, you need to sacrifice some of your best plays in order to reduce risk.
Question 5: What are the main adjustments you should make relative to the personalities of opponents?
To maximize profit at poker, you need to be friendly and manipulate opponents in non-threatening ways. Sarcasm, anger, and ridicule are never appropriate, because they motivate opponents to play better against you.
Try to identify players who are serious about the game, especially if they have quiet personalities. These are often good targets for bluffing. Enter into lively and even frivolous conversations with the loosest players. Bet many medium-strong hands against them, because they’ll call more often, rewarding you with extra money.
Whenever you’re thinking about making bets, raises, calls, checks, or folds, consider the style of play that your opponents’ personalities suggest. Just doing this simple thing before acting can enhance your bankroll monumentally.
Question 6: What are the main adjustments you should make relative to whether the game is loose or tight?
Simple. In a tight game, play fewer medium-strong hands, but bluff more. In a loose game, bet more medium-strong hands, but bluff less.
In both cases – whether the game is too loose or too tight – you’ll profit from bets you normally wouldn’t have made. But, against tight players, you’re betting in order to steal pots, and against loose players, you’re betting in order to make extra money from marginally strong hands.
Additionally, you’ll obviously call more in a loose game and fold more in a tight game. If you don’t adjust at all, you’ll still make money against flawed opponents, but not as much as you should.
Question 7: Should novice poker players adjust as much as experienced ones?
Despite everything we just talked about, beginning poker players should seldom adjust their games. Their poker perspectives aren’t honed enough to risk making strategic changes.
They’re more likely to lose than gain by straying from the basics. The more your poker skills grow, the more likely you are to earn extra money by adjusting your strategy.
In short, for experienced poker players, making strategy adjustments is essential to winning as much money as possible. One of the first things you should do when you enter a game is look around the table and ask yourself: “What adjustments should I make this time?” — MC