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The True Essence of Poker

The Fundamentals

Poker players have a really bad habit of getting seduced by what appear to be fancy tactics like over-the-top bluffs, laying down big hands and making huge calls with weak hands. In an effort to emulate the professionals who they see making these big plays, a lot of players will try to pull these plays off in bad situations because they don’t understand what’s making them work. We’re going to get back to the fundamentals this week and take a hard look at the true essence of poker.

Two Situations

The majority of poker boils down to really, truly understanding two situations. The first situation to understand is when you’re facing a bet with a hand you could reasonably either fold or call. The second situation to understand is when you have the option to value bet or bluff and have to set your bluffing frequency.

If you study these scenarios a lot in general, and if you study hands where these situations come up, then you can gain a fairly strong understanding of poker as a whole in a fairly short amount of time.

Our goal here is to put you in a position where you can accomplish this by giving you the information that you need to start off in the right direction.

Related Reading: Making Our Strategies More Robust and Avoiding Auto-Pilot

Facing a Bet

When you’re facing a bet, and you have the option to either call or fold, you have to make a very specific type of evaluation of the situation. This evaluation comes down to a comparison between two figures:

  1. Your chances of winning if you call.
  2. The relationship between the size of your call and the existing pot.

In short, it’s a simple estimation of risk and reward, and it requires that you care about your opponent’s range. This type of situation is the easiest to study of the two, and it’s exceptionally important that you understand this scenario on a very high level if you plan on making any money in poker.

How to Study This

Sort through your database for every single hand where you faced a bet or raise and a call would end the action. This could mean that you were facing the bet or raise on the river or that the bet or raise you’re facing would put you or your opponent all-in.

What you want to do is go through each hand and put your opponent on a range at each point that he or she made a decision in the hand. Once you get to the final calling decision, check your equity against that range with the hand you have and see how that matches up to the risk and reward aspect of the size of the call and the current size of the pot. To round out the exercise, figure out what the worst hands are that you could call with in those scenarios.

If you make a lot of profitable calls along these lines, then it’s a very strong adjustment that can bring you a lot of money over the long run.

Read Next: The Anatomy of an Adjustment

Setting a Bluffing Frequency

Bluffing frequencies are a little more difficult to learn about because there are more moving parts. It’s not enough to know when a bluff is going to be profitable. Instead, we want to figure out just how often we should be bluffing in the first place so that we can learn to form our ranges in a way that will approximate that percentage.

It’s very difficult to learn to do this because it takes time, study, practice and effort. However, it will also make you an obscene amount of money.

Four pieces of information are needed to make an evaluation of your bluffing frequency:

  1. The number of hand combinations that you’re value betting.
  2. The number of hand combinations that you’re bluffing.*
  3. The size of your bet relative to the size of the pot.
  4. How frequently your opponent will be calling.

* Note: #2 and #3 here are things that are under your control. For the most part, #1 and #4 are not. We’re going to focus primarily on #2 here with the assumption that we’ll keep a reasonable bet size while trying to determine the right number of hand combinations to bluff with and which combinations those are.

Fold Percentages

The perfectly-balanced call percentage for our opponent is typically close to the size of the call divided by what size the pot will be after the call. For example, if we bet $6 into a pot of $8, our opponent will need to call $6, and the pot will be $20 after the call. This means his perfectly-balanced call percentage will be about 30 percent.

Knowing this percentage is important because it tells us how to exploit our opponent.

So here’s how this works. If he’s folding a lot more than 30 percent, then we have a lot of room to exploit him by increasing the number of bluffs in our range. Along similar lines, if he’s folding a lot less than 30 percent, then we have room to exploit him by decreasing the number of bluffs in our range. The only time we can’t exploit him so easily is when his fold percentage is right around 30 percent in which case we should just play with some reasonable proportion of bluffs and value bets.

More on This Idea: An Easy Guide to Exploiting Your Opponents

Also Read: How to Make Actual Adjustments While Playing

How to Study Bluffing Frequencies

When you study hands that have to do with bluffing frequencies, you have to look at both your own range and the range of your opponent. You need to know your own range so that you can figure out just how often you’re value betting AND how often you’re bluffing so that you can tell what percentage of your bets are bluffs. Bluffing 20 combinations means one thing when you’re value betting 10 combinations and something entirely different when you’re value betting 30 of them.

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