Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2004) in Poker Player newspaper.
“You gave them the ass whooping they rightfully deserved!” That was the sentiment of one player who cornered me at Foxwoods yesterday. He was responding to my last column. But, wait! I wasn’t trying to “whoop” those poker authorities who argue that limit poker is more complex and requires more skill than no-limit. I was respectfully pointing out the tenuousness of their arguments.
“They’re truly idiots,” the player continued.
“I don’t think they’re idiots,” I said. “They’re just misguided in this one instance.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Mike,” he said. “They’re not misguided. They’re just looking to make names for themselves at your expense. If you say something’s gold, they’ll say it’s blue and come up with the weirdest arguments why gold is blue. Since you don’t make mistakes, they’ve got to invent a false universe in which what you tell us isn’t so.”
“But, I do make mistakes,” I corrected.
And believe it or not, in one of the most surrealistic and comic exits I’ve ever seen, the man’s smile washed away and he tapped me semi-affectionately on the shoulder before muttering, “OK, I didn’t know that.” And he simply walked away.
I was alone, but it caused me to break out in one of those uncontrolled bouts of laughter that occasionally overcome us. I don’t know whether the whole thing was a put-on or if he was genuinely disillusioned, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
Example of a mistake I made
But, I probably left him with the wrong impression. I don’t make many mistakes; I was just trying to seem modest and endearing. It’s a hard thing to pull off when you’re an egomaniac who has a 30 year record for conveying accurate odds and concepts. But, there’s another side of me, too – a more fallible side. Once I was quickly adding a list of numbers in my head and was off by 10. There were no witnesses, and you have only my word that this mistake actually happened, but it really did. And I’ll try never to repeat that 1979 error.
Where was I? Oh, yeah, the guy had praised me for what I said last column. And what I said was that experts who argue that limit poker is more complicated and requires more skill than no-limit poker are wrong. Very wrong. They’re basing their conclusion partly on the notion that when you have an advantage, you can just move all-in, simplifying the decisions about how much to wager.
But that makes no sense. Here’s the secret.
Knowing how much to bet
When you have the advantage, the correct no-limit bet isn’t about the simplicity of moving all-in. It’s about choosing a wager that’s the most profitable. Let’s make this simple, so the concept is easy to understand. In real-life poker, it won’t work quite like this, because your advantage will usually be guesswork involving what you hold in relation to what your opponent might hold. But, for today, let’s assume that you and your opponent each have $100,000 in play. Additionally, there’s a pot that is $12,000 large. You know that you have 4-to-1 advantage and your opponent isn’t quite sure what his disadvantage is. This means your ability to convince an opponent to think his hand is better than it actually is can be converted into pure profit.
Here’s how. First we have to understand what the theoretically “fair” wager would be. That wager would give your opponent an exactly fair price for his call. If we could come up with the size of that wager, then it wouldn’t matter whether your opponent called or not. He’d be getting zero value by calling. But, he’d also be getting zero value by folding. We wouldn’t care if he called or not; and he wouldn’t care, either. Since the price would be exactly appropriate, it would be impossible for your opponent to make a mistake, as long as he confined his decision to calling or folding.
So, how much? Well, since you have a 4-to-1 advantage, you need to make the pot offer your opponent exactly four times as much as the price of his call. If you do that, then if you played out the same pot over and over, he could afford to lose four times for every time he won and would break even. It would be perfectly fair.
Now, think with me. There’s $12,000 already in the pot. If you bet $2,000, will this offer your opponent exactly 4 to 1? Heck, no! Your wager would grow the pot to $14,000 and it would cost your opponent $2,000 to call. That’s 7 to 1 and your offer would be too generous, meaning your opponent would get a very good deal by calling.
What if you bet a quarter the size of the pot? Would that give your opponent the targeted fair price of 4 to 1 on his call? Nope! If you bet a quarter of the current $12,000 pot size, that’s $3,000 and the pot swells to $15,000. Your opponent must now call $3,000 to win $15,000 and is getting 5 to 1 odds. Since the odds are only 4 to 1 against him winning, you’ve given him better than a fair price. Playing the hand over and over, on average he’d lose $3,000 four times for a total of $12,000 and win once for a gain of $15,000. His profit would be $3,000 in five tries, or $600 per call.
A simple solution
The secret in this case turns out to be a bet that’s one-third the size of the pot. In fact, you can always simply reduce by one the odds-to-one against your opponent winning, and you’ll know the fair price to bet. For instance, if the pot is $1,000 and your opponent is a 5-to-1 underdog, the fair (break-even) bet is one where the pot lays you 4 to 1. Just divide the pot by four and bet that amount to be fair. It’s $250. Instead, we’re talking about – in this case – your opponent being a 4-to-1 underdog. To be fair, you need to bet so that the current pot lays you 3 to 1, so it’s a third the pot size. Since the pot is $12,000, a third of that is $4,000.
But now the perfect key to success. Ideally, you don’t want to give an opponent just the fair price. If you had a retail store, you could price your products at break-even, but then you wouldn’t make any money. And you could price them so high that you’d only get one sale now and then, if ever – sort of like moving all-in. And you could price them so low that your customers always got great deals and you lost money.
But the actual best price for you is one that will generate the most long-range profit. You want to make your products as appealing as you can so you can sell them for as much above break-even price as possible and still get enough sales to maximize your earnings. Same in no-limit poker. When you have an advantage, price your hands as much above the break even “fair” price as you can to maximize profit. That’s all there is to it. Your ability to sell a hand and your assessment of your opponent are important factors in deciding on this price. So, if you’re guessing psychology isn’t important in no-limit poker, guess again. It’s most of what factors into how to play the game profitably against real opponents, complete with their emotions, flaws, preferences, and vulnerabilities.
Don’t protect the hand – sell it!
Most players will think you’re crazy betting just $5,000 into a $10,000 pot with a 4 to 1 edge with one card to come. But if you do that, you’ve earned profit. If you move all-in – unless your opponent is likely enough to call – you’ve overpriced your hand and haven’t earned what you should.
In tournaments, where the prize money is structured in accordance to how high you finish and first place needs to win all the chips, but suffers the penalty of only getting a small percentage of the prize money, your perspective changes. In those tournaments, profit sometimes can be maximized by going all-in more often – making sure an opponent won’t call. That’s because survival is often more important in those tournaments than gaining small edges.
And one more thing. Whenever you have an advantage and either you or your opponent doesn’t have enough chips to cover a fair-price bet, then moving all-in is appropriate. That’s because, even though your opponent is getting a good price on the call, he’s at least paying something to draw out. By moving all-in in these circumstances, you’re giving your opponent the best of it, but not as much the best of it as if you bet less or didn’t bet at all. If you don’t bet at all with an advantage, your opponent may end up with infinitely good odds – he’ll get a chance to draw out for free.
In everyday poker, the secret is clear: Find the fair price and bet as much above it as will generate the most profit in the long run. When you have the best hand, you have something to sell. If you set a price below what it’s worth, you won’t win. But if you make it too expensive, you won’t get enough sales to generate top profit.
You’ve heard that you should often move all-in to protect a hand. I’m telling you that you should never move all-in to protect a hand. Sometimes you should move all-in, but not for that reason. You should only move all-in with the best hand if that’s the most profitable selling price. — MC