Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2011) in Poker Player newspaper.
At poker seminars, I sometimes talk about the concept of equity in poker. It doesn’t mean what you’re probably thinking. It has nothing to do with money – at least not directly. But it has everything to do with correct tactics that indirectly earn money.
Equity is the topic of today’s self-interview.
Question 1: You seem to be babbling. Exactly what are you talking about, Mad Genius?
I already told you. I’m talking about equity in poker.
If your poker opponents make decisions perfectly and randomize their tactics in accordance with game theory, while ignoring your individual traits, you shouldn’t adjust your play. Theoretically, two perfect opponents will use identical strategy, randomizing many tactics for unpredictability, in accordance with mathematically precise formulas.
The randomization will be such that no matter what opponents “guess,” they cannot gain an advantage.
Fine. But in real life, opponents perceive that you’re raising too often in certain circumstances or folding too often. Your mission is to gauge what their faulty perceptions are and take advantage. Your opponents’ perceptions about you dictate the amount of built-up equity you have to make particular plays profitably.
Question 2: So you build equity in poker, based on how opponents perceive your trends?
That’s right. You are so sharp!
To make it simple, we’ll focus on heads-up play, which often becomes a war of equity. But you can use this discussion to apply the same forces to nine-handed games, and such.
Heads-up, you’re supposed to play most of the pots. If you fold more than, say, about a third of the time, alert opponents will pounce, and no matter how perfectly you play the minority of hands that you select as playable, you’ll probably still lose.
You just can’t surrender blinds without a fight most of the time, and make up the difference on rarer high-quality hands. Heads-up is a game of pace.
But you probably will correctly decide to fold your weakest hands, like offsuit 3-2, 4-2, 4-3, 5-2, 5-3, 5-4, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4, 6-5, 7-2, 7-3, 7-4, 7-5, 8-2, 8-3, 8-4, 8-5, 9-2, 9-3, 9-4, 9-5, 10-2, 10-3, 10-4, 10-5, J-2, J-3, J-4, and J-5.
I’ve listed those, because if you don’t see your offsuit hand in the previous sentence, then it’s probably a marginally playable one heads-up – one that can be folded, called with, or raised with, depending on what the state of your equity is.
Same goes for most small suited cards. Assuming you sometimes fold some of those, too, you’re already pushing your percentages and getting too close to being run over by an aggressive heads-up opponent. You could quibble about the list. I made it easy to remember, with all non-suited, non-paired hands having a six as a high card being folded and all hands having a seven through jack as a high card being folded if the kicker is a five or lower.
Here’s the deal. Those “automatic fold” groups account for 27 percent of possible pre-flop hands. When you add in the worst suited hands like 5-2, 7-2, 9-4, and many more, you’re beginning to make yourself a target.
You simply can’t win heads-up by folding too many hands. Of course, it depends on the size of the raise when you’re in the big blind, if it’s no-limit. A standard raise is double the big blind or a bit more. If your opponent typically triples the big blind, you should fold more often.
You’ll occasionally play a few from that worst-hand list, just for show. And sometimes you’ll fold hands a bit larger than those listed, even from the small blind, if circumstances dictate.
Anyway, this is getting beyond the scope of today’s lesson.
Question 3: Well, can we return to something that is within “the scope of today’s lesson,” as you put it?
Sure. About six years ago, I did a promotional video for Doyle’s Room with Doyle Brunson. We played heads up online. Actually, we were in adjacent rooms at his house, where the filming took place. We played the best two out of three no-limit hold ’em freeze outs.
The first match I played, I got one of the longest runs of tiny cards in Mike Caro history. So, I kept folding. You can see me commenting to the camera as I play, saying something like, “When this happens, you know your opponent thinks you’re playing very tight. But as you can see, we’re really just getting unusually weak cards.”
And Doyle proved I was correct, as I later learned, by commenting about how snug I was playing. When that happens, you have equity. You can raise with hands you normally wouldn’t and expect opponents to fold hands larger than they normally would. That’s equity.
Equity to buy pots
At that moment, I had equity to buy pots. But I couldn’t bet anything semi-strong for value after the flop, because it was unlikely Doyle would make any loose calls. I had no equity for getting called.
For the record, I lost that match, but won the next two. In short exhibitions like that, winning proves nothing. Anybody can beat anybody in the short run. I was lucky on the final two matches, unlucky on the first.
But you see what I’m saying, right? You build equity for lots of things in poker.
Question 4: Would you give more examples, please?
Okay. If I’m on a rush of cards, but haven’t been able to prove quality hands at the showdown, it looks to my opponent like I’m very lively. It that case, I have no bluff equity. So, I won’t bluff. But I will value bet a lot, knowing that it’s likely that I’ll enjoy extra calls from semi-weak hands.
If I’ve been either folding or just calling for 20 hands or so when the small blind raises, I have equity to raise as a bluff or on a medium speculative hand, like 8-7 suited. My opponent hasn’t seen me make that raise for a long time, so it’s more convincing. I have equity.
The same is true of continuation bets, when I take a speculative stab on the flop and then miss. If I’ve done that a number of times, but not followed through with a bet on the following turn card, my opponent is more likely to respect a continuation bet this time.
The trick is to try to envision where you have equity. Although I’ve never used online player tracking software, many opponents do. So, I try to imagine what that software might be telling an opponent about me. Whatever it is, I have accumulated equity to act the opposite.
Against weak players who call too often, you might want to keep that perception alive by always seeming loose. But against talented opponents, it’s different. In the real world or online, you should always try to look at yourself from your astute opponent’s vantage point. Whatever he sees, act in ways that defeat that perception.
It’s all in the equity. — MC