This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
A couple minutes ago I sat down and started typing, and these weird words appeared on my computer screen. Normally, I edit this stuff away, because my deepest thoughts are occasionally too scary to share, but I kind of like these words, so here they are, unedited.
Fewer than a dozen notable researchers from big-name universities have ever bothered to analyze my poker hands play by play. That’s too bad. If more researchers would simply examine my style of poker, they’d see a powerful, artistic balance of bluffing, value betting, calling, folding, and raising.
Before you conclude that I’m an egomaniac, you should realize that I don’t go around proclaiming that I’m the best at everything for nothing. I have my reasons. So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me say that I want you to win at poker. That has been almost the only thing I’ve cared about since I was 5 years old — helping others to win at poker. It’s my calling.
So, when I share with you how I play poker, I’m trying to give you the insights that will help you win. There’s a central theme to my poker play that dedicated university researchers should use their grants to examine more fully.
Letting Them Hang Themselves
In thinking back over all the poker I’ve played in the past 20 years, there is one single signature trait to my game plan that stands out clearly. And, you know what? I didn’t even realize it until now. The trait is that, possibly more than any other poker expert or author, I choose tactics that give select opponents a chance to hang themselves.
Sure, sometimes I do a lot of betting with marginal hands and even with silly, hopeless hands while I’m trying to impress opponents by building my “wild image.” My ambition is to be called more frequently when I have strong hands later, because I believe that most opponents’ main weakness is that they call too often. I want to help them exaggerate this weakness and call even more often against me specifically, so that I’ll win even more money than I would otherwise. I do this by choosing a friendly, frivolous, wild image that makes them suspicious of me.
Fine. But I reserve most of my daring bets and most of my showboat plays for opponents who call too often when they have weak hands, but are unlikely to maximize their edge by raising when they have slightly superior hands. That category of “timid caller” should be attacked with a barrage of bets whenever you hold medium-strong or better hands. This keeps you in control of the game, and you win extra money from their weak calls. You should also bet silly hands into these players once in a while — just for show. It conditions them to keep calling.
Aggressive, Unpredictable Opponents
But what should you do about opponents who are less easily manipulated, who show pride, who are aggressive, who are less predictable, and who raise unexpectedly and bet with weak hands in an attempt to control the game? These are the opponents I let hang themselves.
How? Whether I have medium-strong hands or very strong hands, I will let them do the betting. If they’re pushing a weak hand or bluffing, I don’t want to chase away my profit with a raise. If I’m first to act, I will check and give them an opportunity to bet. Sometimes I’ll check to them betting round after betting round. Even if they don’t bite the first time, I’ll give them another chance.
And I ask myself a single question before I employ this let-him-hang-himself strategy. Is this opponent a liberal caller who is predictable? If the answer is yes, I will usually bet my semistrong hands, because my biggest profit will come from weak calls, plus I don’t fear unexpected value raises from hands that might be slightly better than my own. But if the answer is no — this player isn’t a liberal caller who is predictable — I’m going to give this player some rope.
He can tie his own noose. I check, he bets, I just call. I check, he bets, I just call. Over and over, it’s a musical rhythm. It works, it keeps working, over and over. Sometimes it’s a bluff that he bets, sometimes a weak hand, and sometimes a value bet when I just call with a stronger hand. Over and over, it’s the same rhythm. I check, he bets, I just call. It works, again and again, it works.
And that’s the signature of my style of poker. Whenever I can, I let opponents hang themselves. It’s a powerful weapon in no-limit games, too.
I will use this tactic repeatedly against a no-limit opponent who has too much spirit. Let’s say my opponent has $4,000 in chips left. The pot is $3,000. I hold an unbeatable hand. This is the final round of betting and my opponent checks to me. What should I do? Clearly, I must make some bet, because I can’t lose, but it’s no-limit, so how much?
If it’s a liberal caller who’s predictable, I will often bet $4,000 — all that my opponent has in front of him. I will then use body language and sometimes chatter to try to ensure that I get the call. Sometimes I will bet less, but I’m happiest when I can justify betting the whole $4,000.
There’s a mathematical concept at play here. My opponent needs to be at least twice as likely to call $2,000 as $4,000, or else I should bet the maximum $4,000 — or some other sum. Remember, I have the best hand. I cannot be beat. So now it’s just a matter of how much I can earn.
If I replay this same hand forever and get called 25 percent of the time when I bet $4,000, each bet is worth $1,000. That’s because 75 percent of the time I do not get called. One in four times I win $4,000 (excluding the possibility of a tie). Three in four times I win nothing. My net gain is $4,000 for four tries, which is $1,000 a try. In order to average $1,000 a try by betting $2,000, I need to be called twice as often — 50 percent of the time.
If a $2,000 bet will get called 60 percent of the time and a $4,000 bet will get called 25 percent of the time, I’m losing $200 by betting the whole $4,000 that my opponent has in front of him. You can use a simple formula. Just multiply the size of the bet by the chance of a call. So, $4,000 at a 25 percent chance of a call is $4,000 x .25 or $1,000. And $2,000 at a 60 percent chance of a call is $2,000 x .6 or $1,200. What if you bet $1,800 and estimated that you would be called 75 percent of the time? That’s $1,800 x .75 or $1,350, which is superior to either the $4,000 or the $2,000 bet.
Gauging the Bet Size
That’s what you need to gauge in no-limit poker. How likely is your opponent to call bets of various sizes? And that’s one of the reasons that the game is much more complex than limit poker, in which the size of each bet is predetermined by the rules. You can simplify no-limit by just moving all in whenever you have a significant advantage, but in doing so, you’re really sacrificing profit. That’s because although an all-in bet is the easiest bet to make, it may not be the best bet mathematically.
The same goes for the conventional practice of routinely betting the size of the pot. The most profitable size for a bet is usually more or less than the size of the pot and depends on your opponents. I believe that the ideal bet size for most hands against most opponents averages less than the size of the pot, despite the common wisdom that the pot should be the most normal bet size.
Anyway, back to the point. It’s no-limit, I hold an unbeatable hand, and my opponent has $4,000 and has checked to me on the final betting round. He’s an unpredictable fellow who has a lot of life to him. How much should I bet?
Frequently, I’m going to bet about $1,000. Why? It’s because I think there’s a good chance that this player has a fairly weak hand and isn’t an extremely loose caller. He’s unpredictable and aggressive. I need to give him some rope to hang himself. A $1,000 bet might do just that. Now, forget what I previously said about the size of the bet needing to relate mathematically to the likelihood of a call. That would mean a $1,000 bet would need to be called four times as often as a $4,000 bet. Against this type of player, it doesn’t.
How it Works — the Hanging
While this list could be longer, some of the important things that can happen now are:
1. My opponent might have a weak hand and will call, hoping that I’m bluffing.
2. My opponent might have a weak hand and will fold.
3. My opponent might have a strong or semistrong hand that he sandbagged and will raise.
4. My opponent might have a semistrong hand that he sandbagged and will decide to just call at the last second, meaning I probably could have made more money by betting more.
5. My opponent may have a hopeless hand and decide that he has a good chance of bluffing by using his remaining $3,000 that I didn’t bet.
No. 1 and No. 5 clearly work in my favor. If I know that my opponent has a strong or even a semistrong hand, I should probably bet the maximum $4,000 and not risk making less, but I don’t know that. So, I’m giving my opponent a chance to make a small call — hoping that I’m bluffing — with a weak hand with which he might not have called a larger bet.
Additionally, I’m giving him a chance to hang himself with some semistrong hands with which he might not have called $4,000. And — most importantly — I’m giving him a chance to hang himself with a desperate raise of his last $3,000 with a garbage hand with which he wouldn’t even have called $1,000. That last possibility — the biggest of all hangings — is the one that makes this $1,000 underbet profitable.
Once you understand how this tactic works, you’ll be able to use it again and again for pure poker profit.