The terms attack and defense in poker are almost always used in an effort to describe the idea of initiative. We have this idea of aggression in poker as being represented by the actions that put more unmatched money into the pot like betting and raising, and then we have the actions that we tend to think of as passive like checking, calling and folding. This seems fairly intuitive. However, there is a very strong argument for the case that initiative does not inherently exist in poker, and this can lead us to search for the meaning of aggression in poker in other areas.
No Initiative in Poker
Generally speaking, initiative is some magical property that people have decided belongs to the player who last put unmatched money into the pot. That is, the last person to put in a bet or raise. Suppose it folds to the button pre-flop who raises, the small blind folds and the big blind folds in a no-limit hold’em game. The flop would then be dealt, and at this point in the hand, it could be said that the button has the initiative and has been the most aggressive so far in the hand. If we wanted to decide how the big blind should play on some given flop, then we would look at what the ranges consist of for the big blind and button along with how our opponent plays and try to make the best decision that we can.
Now compare this to a different situation. Suppose instead that the big blind 3-bets instead of calling, and the button calls. We come to the flop, and now we would say that the big blind has the initiative instead. When analyzing what the big blind should do, we would look at the big blind’s range, the button’s range, how each player plays and go from there.
What you’ll notice is that the initiative isn’t necessary to consider on its own as some kind of advantage or disadvantage in either of these cases. Instead, you simply realize that each player has a range and a way of playing, and you make the best decision that you’re capable of making from that information. The only time that initiative would come up in your decision-making process is if your opponent plays in specific ways depending on whether or not he had the lead on the previous street, but this doesn’t make initiative an inherent part of poker that gives one side or the other an advantage.
You can compare initiative to position to see what I mean by this. Position is inherent in the game, and it can be mathematically proven that the player in position has an advantage in the vast majority of poker situation. Initiative, for the purposes of analysis, does not exist.
Another Viewpoint on Aggression
Let’s look at another situation and think about what aggression really means. Suppose again that it folds to the button who opens to three times the big blind, and the small blind folds. The big blind 3-bets to 10 times the big blind. At this point in the hand, you would see the big blind’s play as being aggressive.
But what if the big blind’s range is only the top two percent of hands?
In that case, you see that the big blind’s not being all that aggressive. What you can start to see from this example is that it’s not the betting actions (eg: bet, raise, fold, call, check) that necessarily determine aggression but how the entire range is being played instead. With this new perspective on aggression that’s centered around ranges, you can start to think of attack and defense in much different ways as well.
True Attack and Defense in Poker
The real effects of attack and defense in poker are felt when you look at what happens when two ranges meet each other. Attack relates to exploitation, and defense relates to balance. You can’t be successfully attacked unless you have a weakness, and those weaknesses are given off in poker based on how unbalanced your ranges are. This creates a situation where exploiting your opponents opens yourself up for a counter-attack since it makes you unbalanced.
If you want to figure out when to attack, then you have to look for indicators of weaknesses that you can focus on. One of the easiest weaknesses to look for is a high fold frequency, and this is where the alpha value comes into play as a sort of indicator.
Suppose we have a classic example where you’re heads-up on the river with a pot of $18 and $12 behind. Your opponent checks to you, you have the nut low, and you have the option to either bluff or check. If you check, then you will always lose at showdown.
In this situation, you would need to know if you can profitably bluff or not. You decide on this by finding the alpha value which comes out to 40 percent here. If your opponent is folding more than 40 percent of the time, then that is a weakness that you can attack by making an adjustment of bluffing more often.
The Larger Picture
This framework for attack and defense is a good way of thinking about poker on a higher level. When you start thinking about how ranges interact, then you can think of poker on a larger scale than a hand against a hand or a hand against a range. It also allows you to more easily understand concepts like applications of game theory in poker and how to exploit your opponents, a topic that every low stakes player should focus on. When you move up and face stiffer competition, you can also use it to figure out when you should play more defensively with a more balanced approach to how you handle your ranges.