Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2011) in Bluff magazine under the title Building Poker Equity.
Some people preach that there’s a right way to play a specific poker hand in an exact situation. Sometimes that’s true, but not often. Usually, two or even more ways are correct. You make money by varying your decisions intelligently. You make mistakes by choosing one way too often. The secret to making the right choice is understanding poker equity.
Unlike some other authorities, I won’t tell you how to play any hand, unless the decision is obvious. Instead, I give you tools to choose what’s most profitable at the moment And you probably shouldn’t use the same choice every time.
Once you grasp that powerful concept, you’ll be able to thoroughly manipulate your poker opponents. Let’s find out how it works.
Choose the tactic with the most equity
Let’s imagine a world in which poker is much simpler. In this other world, poker is so simple, in fact, that – just like tic-tac-toe – you can devise a simple strategy that can never lose. In that case, there is little reason to vary your decisions. If you follow your predetermined strategy, you’ll eventually win if opponents vary from that same strategy. You’ll win if they make mistakes. If they don’t, you’ll break even.
The same thing would happen if two super-intelligent forces played poker, seeing everything and calculating all odds perfectly. Nobody would win; nobody would lose if the game were played through eternity. Eternity is defined in the dictionary as long enough for luck in poker to break even. Check it out.
So, against a perfect opponent, you wouldn’t gain anything by varying your decisions. But, you and I both know that opponents aren’t perfect. That’s why we can beat poker. Astute opponents are always trying to guess what your traits are. Weaker opponents are probably also influenced by what they think your traits are, but they come to their conclusions emotionally, rather than through observation.
In either case, it’s up to you to decide what they think you’re most likely to do and choose a contrary tactic. That contrary tactic has equity!
Short-handed play is a war of equity
You build equity that makes certain poker decisions more profitable than others. Against observant opponents, you gain it whenever you haven’t used a tactic recently. Against unobservant opponents, you gain it whenever they perceive that you’re unlikely to use that tactic. Put simply, you have equity to use a profitable tool from your poker arsenal whenever opponents perceive that you’re not using it often.
Let’s talk about the very soul of making profit at poker. That’s getting extra calls from inferior hands. Typical opponents have a huge hole in their strategies. It’s that they call too often or too much. They have what I term a “calling reflex.” That means they have a bias toward calling and are reluctant to fold. They didn’t drive all the way to the poker room hoping to throw hands away. They came hoping to be in action, hoping to call, hoping to play hands. So, instead of making their decisions rationally and folding willingly, they go out of their way to seek reasons to call and to play hands.
Most of your profit in poker comes from exploiting that very mistake! So, when your opponents believe you bet recklessly, they’ll call more. That gives you equity to bet marginally strong hands and still hold an advantage. By appearing loose – hopefully as a result of advertising and not many actual bad plays – you’ve gained equity to bet more of your medium-strength hands. You’ll now be called by even weaker hands than usual, and you’ll win most of the confrontations.
That happens mostly in full-handed ring games, where getting extra calls is paramount. But what about short-handed play? Let’s take short-handed to the extreme and talk about heads-up. In heads-up, patience isn’t as big of an issue and winning extra calls isn’t quite as important. The game is about flow. About equity.
The essence of equity
Against many opponents, you have to compete for attention in order to establish the right image. But heads-up, your opponent can only focus on one other player – you! If he’s observant, he’ll have a good notion – based on what’s recently happened – how you’re currently playing hands. If you’ve been making a lot of re-raises, then he’s apt to be growing suspicious and ready to call. In a no-limit game, you can then re-raise bigger amounts than normal with the same prospects of being called. That means you’ve gained equity for betting bigger with superior hands.
If you’ve called often on the flop, but seldom bet out on the turn, you have equity to try a surprise bet as a bluff or on a speculative hand. Your opponent hasn’t seen that recently and is more likely to respect it as genuine strength. Any play, whether it’s an opportunity to bet or to bluff, has extra value whenever an opponent observes that it hasn’t been done recently.
You can bluff more successfully if you haven’t bluffed recently. And you can bet for value more successfully if you seem to be betting too many hands. It’s all about equity. The important thing is realizing that your opponent has formed an impression. And you should figure out what’s being perceived. Whatever it is, you have equity to make decisions that are contrary to the perception.
Mistakes and method
But don’t make mistakes with equity.
• Seldom squander your equity on a small pot. If, for instance, you think an opponent perceives that you seldom check-raise, use that sandbag equity against a big bet.
• Don’t try to bluff an undisciplined, loose opponent, even if the perception is that you seldom bluff. In poker, equity only goes so far. Against a loose opponent, seeming tight might make it more likely that you can bluff successfully, but often not likely enough to tip the scales in favor of that decision.
• Don’t go to the well too often. The old expression that admonishes against going to the well too often applies to poker equity. Once you’ve established equity, usually use it to your advantage one time only and then wait to rebuild your equity. Assume you got away with a big bluff or were caught bluffing. Either way, your next big bet will be more suspicious, so you’ll need to wait to rebuild bluff equity.
The method for profiting from equity is simple. Always try to envision what your opponent thinks of your play at the moment. Whatever your opponents perception, you have equity to act in a contrary manner. Exploit it. — MC