How I used problem-solving theory to study cbets and villain profiles

The problem is I suck at poker. But I’m reasonably good at problem solving. George Polya’s quintessential research studied great problem-solvers and suggested this simple format:

Polya’s 4 Problem-Solving Steps

1. Understand the problem

2. Develop a plan of action

3. Implement plan

4. Confirm solution and reflect

Turns out that sucky problem-solvers spend the majority of their time on #3. Expert problem-solvers spend the LEAST amount of time on #3 and often 25% of more of their time on #4. Once they’ve solved a problem, experts check everything and then begin reflecting: How does this apply to other, similar problems? How can this be extended to harder related problems? Sucky problem-solvers also spend far too little time on #1, rarely understanding the problem’s essential complexity before trying to solve it.

After step #3, great problem-solvers and sucky ones alike often find they have not actually arrived at a solution. Great problem-solvers return to step #1 with new information and more understanding, and develop another plan of action (#2). They are flexible and creative with their plans. Their best quality is persistence. If sucky problem-solvers fail, they quit. When they do happen to try again, they usually lack creativity and flexibility, often trying the exact same thing with similar inglorious results.

Polya’s format is how I approach problems in my poker game. FTR icons can post ideas, but it’s up to us newbies to implement those ideas. Here’s how I do it. I took advice from TJ, Spoon and ISF, among others. Then I used PT, HUD + PokerStove. And I thought about villain tendencies and behavior. Nothing I’m thinking here is new or innovative. I am trying to demonstrate how I improve at poker for those who find my posts helpful (newbies and beginners, mostly), how to use software effectively, how to work through a complex problem and how to think and rethink a series of actions at the poker table.

1. Understanding the problem

I knew I was cbetting monkey:

1. I hated to check/fold the flop, so I cbet too often

2. I sucked at figuring out ranges

3. I had no idea what to do about "board texture"

4. I wasn’t considering villain(s) profile

5. I wasn’t looking at villain(s) stack sizes

Understanding – really understanding – the cbet.

I didn’t really understand the point of cbetting. What is it trying to accomplish? When will work it work? When will it fail? What villains are most vulnerable at what times? What boards are cbet vulnerable? What stack sizes make it more or less effective? So I went to work.

A cbet has equity or value in two ways: villain can fold (fold equity), or we can get called and still win (flop equity). We can still win in three ways: catch a card, get called by some complete dumbass who is still behind despite the fact we caught air, or by 2-barreling/3-barreling the turn and/or the river. By far, the two most common situations are (1) villain folds and (2) villain calls and we play whatever equity we have (not much, typically) on the turn.

In general, for a cbet to work, our fold equity plus pot equity have to be big enough. How big? If we cbet $1 into a $1 pot, we’ll make a profit if villains fold half the time (and we refuse to dump any more $$ into a lost cause). Whatever flop equity we had comes into it. Suppose we have 10% equity, then we should be able to win back another dime of the $1 cbet with solid turn/river play. It gives us some leeway.

So the biggest necessary condition for a cbet is fold equity. I generally cbet about 2/3’s pot, so fold equity of 40% + flop equity should work out. But it’s +++EV whenever villain will lay down 60%+ hands against me. There are other important factors like a tight image. TAGG’s have more fold equity in general than other images. So my plan of action includes how to ID spots where fold equity is 60%+.

Understanding – really understanding – PT/HUD stats

VP$P/PFR ratio. The second, preflop raise%, is obvious. What percentage of hands does villain open for a raise? VP$P is a bit different than you might expect. It’s not just limping, it’s all calls, both limps and calls of other’s raises preflop. It also includes checking in the BB and waking up with a hand on the flop. Spoon pointed out that a big gap between the stats like 40/5 meant fishy, in general. It took me awhile before I understood why. These are passive preflop players, and they’re limp/calling a lot of hands. They are surrendering both initiative and chips simultaneously, and way too often.

AF. This is total aggression factor postflop [ AF = (#bets + #raises + #rr’s) / #calls ]. This was a problem I had already solved through asking FTR icons questions and experience: AF ~ 2 are "honest" villains, one’s who tend to bet a good holding and fold a bad one. AF’s < 1 and AF’s > 3.5 are "dishonest" villains, stations on one end and bluffers on the other.

cbet%. This is percentage of times villain was the preflop raiser and bet again when first to act on the flop. "Honest" villains will cbet about 35% of the time because an unpaired holding will connect with the flop about 1/3 of the time. I consider anything between 25% and 50% honest.

Calls cbet%. This should be obvious. Again, if he’s calling with decent hands that hit the flop, we’re expecting about 35%.

Raises cbet%. For me, an "honest" villain is raising between 5-8% of cbets. He had a decent holding pre and hit the flop hard. I don’t like honest villains, here, I like timid ones.

Part of understanding these stats is when (in terms of # hands) they become relevant. I consider a villain’s cbet stats irrelevant with hands < 100, especially if they’re not very loose. Raises cbet% needs closer to 200 hands to be relevant. Generally, preflop stats and AF’s are relevant sooner, maybe after 50-70 hands. There’s more data points for the calculations than for cbet stats.

Understanding – really understanding – ranges

I did some work with PokerStove. You should, too, if you haven’t already. I learned something from one of Spenda’s videos today (watch them, dammit!). We can just type 20% into the Stove, hit the tab key, and it puts out a range of the Top 20% of Poker Stove equity hands. Here’s a screen shot, with 5%, 10% and 15% already evaluated, and 20% ready to be:

Hand Ranges

Top 5%: 88+,AJs+,KQs,AKo

Top 10%: 77+,A9s+,KTs+,QTs+,AJo+,KQo

Top 15%: 77+,A7s+,K9s+,QTs+,JTs,ATo+,KTo+,QJo

Top 20%: 66+,A4s+,K8s+,Q9s+,J9s+,T9s,A9o+,KTo+,QTo+,JTo

Top 25%: 66+,A2s+,K6s+,Q8s+,J8s+,T8s+,A7o+,K9o+,QTo+,JTo

Top 30%: 55+,A2s+,K5s+,Q7s+,J8s+,T8s+,98s,A7o+,A5o,K9o+,Q9o+,J9o+,T9o

This set of ranges is "flawed" for several reasons. First, the hands are ranked in terms of all-in equity against 3 specific hands (I’ve never discovered which three – I think it’s proprietary, and the 3 hands have to change for the different comparisons since it makes no sense to compare KK against itself and 2 other hands). Second, the ranges assume the villains have some idea of what good hands are and how they play. So I alter these ranges for my NL10 villains to include all the aces before most sc’s, 1-gappers and even weak broadways. Ax is the most overplayed hand at the micros, followed closely by Ax sooted. Third, sc’s are under-represented here, imo, since a lot of micro noobies have seen something about playing 76s on TV or somewhere and overrate it’s value. But they seem to play 86s like never. Go figure. Fourth, I think Kxs and Qxs are also overplayed which is terrible since flush draws are so obvious and kill the action. But the above chart is where you can start learning to put people on ranges. Use Poker Stove yourself along with your experience. Just note what crap the 40/30 villain shows down with – it’s astonishing, I assure you. Finally, remember that "calling ranges" are different than "opening ranges" and include all pp’s. Even the horrible players know that flopping a set is a good thing.

Despite it’s "flaws," the Stove is a perfect starting place. I did some work with typical flop situations against a variety of villain ranges: overs like AK or AQ against various flops, small pp’s with 3 overs, broadway cards. Which leads to…

Understanding Stack Sizes and Board Texture

I’m not writing much about these two because I am still learning hand by hand. I know this, we often have less fold equity against small stacks, since they get pot committed fast. Also, whatever equity we have in the pot erodes because we don’t have the implied odds to exploit it.

For board texture, I’ll just mention some boards I like. First, I love paired boards (TT4) because they’re half as likely to hit two unpaired cards. I love big gap boards (K73) because they’re hard for loose villains to connect solidly with. I like aces and broadway cards. This is because I have a TAGG image and work hard to keep it, trying not to show down the "bad" half of my 18/16 range too often. Even dumbass villains fear my cbets on a AJ3 board that missed them. Others like TJ and ISF have had more to say on this. I’m reading it and learning a lot.

Wow. All that work just to understand the problem. Again, while no expert in poker, I do know a bit about problem-solving. Getting all the relevant information organized and ready for analysis is vital to developing a plan that will generate a good solution.

2. Developing a plan of action

My plan was pretty simple: profile common villains who would often fold to cbets, and learn to recognize boards, stack sizes and other table conditions that make cbetting +++EV. When expert problem-solvers are done with step #1, step #2 is often blatantly obvious. This plan of action included playing 15k – 20k hands trying to implement the theory into practice and refining the theory. I also wanted to connect my cbetting to preflop selection and value-betting patterns, to optimize my earn rate. That’s still underdeveloped, but I’m working on it.

3. Working the plan

Here’s the situation we’re considering:

1. I raised preflop and got caller(s)

2. I flopped "air"

3. It’s checked to me or I’m first to act

I went to work and thought about/tested the following things.

The general profile of players is most helpful when I’m acting last and everyone else has checked. This used to be an automatic cbet for me, but I now I choose my spots with a bit of care. I’m still cbetting maybe 70 – 80% of the time, especially with 2 or fewer villains still in the pot. I have found the two most prevalent villain profiles at the micros I play are (1) loose-passive preflop + weak-tight postflop and (2) loose-passive preflop + calling station postflop. Example HUD stats might be (1) 25/5/1.5 and (2) 35/5/0.8 I love these two profiles and have worked hard to ID them early and then exploit them. The loose-passives/weak-tights are great for cbetting, stations – not so much. Another common type especially at 6max is the maniac: 50/25/4 or higher. These villains are playing "cards up" most of the time they check to us: they’re ready to fold and only need a cbet to make them – or they like to check-raise. I take a couple of shots to find which they are, note it, and profit. And, of course, when I hit my hand, they value bet it for me. The TAGG’s are rarer at 6max but more prevalent at FR, and they’re good for a cbet after they’ve checked. If they hand a hand, they’d be betting it. So I’m generally avoiding the stations (more on this later) and attacking the TAGG’s, LAGG’s, maniacs and anyone who plays weak-tight postflop.

The cbet stats are most helpful when I have to act first and cbet "blind air." But I still do it frequently, maybe 40-60% of the time depending upon the villains profiles. Board texture is more important here, and while I’m not great at spotting "good" boards except the couple mentioned above, I just check any board that leaves me thinking "that seems troublesome, given villain’s range." When in doubt about a cbet (1st to act), I default to check. Now, I classify flop play as either weak, honest or worrisome as follows: weak flop players either cbet way too much or way too little, call cbets way too often or way too little, and either never raise cbets or raise them too often (say 40%+). Honest players (AF ~2) cbet about 35-40%, call cbets about 35-40% and raise cbets %5 or less. Worrisome villains cbet a good bit without hitting the flop (say, 45-55%), are aggressive but not maniacal (AF between 2 and 3), and call a good bit (again, 45-55%). They also raise cbets routinely 15% or more. There is one other worrisome villain – the calling station, but they’re easy to spot after playing a couple of hands against them. And their spew against our value hands makes the times they call our cbets less problematic.

I color-coded my HUD stats based on a "green means go" basis. This color-coding is designed specifically to help with cbetting and value betting situations on the flop. I freely admit I suck at turn/river play, but my play pre and on the flop is strong enough they don’t kill my win rate.

HUD main display is the typical VP$P/PFR/AF/Hands. VP$P/PFR are color-coded (diff for 6max vs. FR) to turn green when the player is too loose and raises a big range (40/20 would both be green on my 6max layout, 30/20 for FR). AF is color-coded to turn green whenever AF < 1 or AF > 3.5. Hands switches from a light grey to bright blue when > 100 so that I can see at a glance if the HUD stats mean anything, yet.

My HUD’s secondary display has cbet%/calls cbet%/raises cbet%. The first two turn green at 65%. In the first case, he’s cbetting a lot when he’s the preflop raiser since typical unpaired cards hit the flop about 1/3 of the time. In the second case, this is a "flop station," someone who will call flops too often and needs to be 2-barreled or 3-barreled at times. It also turns green when villain only calls 15% or less of cbets, because they’re folding often even when they hit their hand. They’re weak-tight scared money on the flop. The last (raises cbet%) turns RED when greater than 15%. For me, this means he’s raising the cbet about half the times he connects with the flop. Of course, red means "whoa, baby!" But it doesn’t mean I’m never cbetting him. I’m just looking for very specific conditions from the board, position, etc.

To play well postflop, I needed to understand my own play preflop and how it affects villains on the flop. My UTG stats are near 8/8 which means I’m only opening for raises. I raise all pp’s and AK, AQ. I fold the rest. Now, I understand many folks suggest limping with small pp’s, say 77 or worse. I’ve found the NL10 postflop play is so horrendous that raising is more profitable. I haven’t ruled out a switch back to limp/call from EP at higher levels. This is just my current typical line. I do limp UTG, very rarely and on very specific reads (a whole different post!). On the button, my stats are more like 24/20. I will play all suited Aces, most broadways, most sc’s, most Aces and some suited Kings and Queens from the button, usually for a raise, in unraised pots with 1 or no limpers. I tend to limp after 3+ limpers. With 2 limpers, I make reads and then do what seems best.

To relate this preflop play to the villain profiles above, just know this: these players suck, and they usually respond to aggression by getting more and more passive. When they "play back," they generally have a premium hand. Aggressing against them is very +EV, and often gets them playing in a "cards face up" mode.

Here’s my thoughts on how I’m choosing to cbet. Remember, any HUD reads I make are based on 100+ hands. The flop stats are almost useless prior to that, especially for tight players.

What I’m looking for ("best" villain reads to cbet):

+ Villains with high aggression factors (3.5+)

+ Villains with low "calls cbet%" and who rarely/never raise cbets

+ Boards that miss their ranges or "hit" my TAGG range hard (scare cards)

+ General weakness postflop

+ TAGG’s (15/10/2.5 or higher on stats except VP$P) with good boards

What I’m looking to avoid ("worst" villain reads to cbet):

– Villains with high "raise cbet%

– Villains with honest "call bet%" (30 – 50% is bad, imo)

– Boards that hit their ranges, whatever they are

– Decent overall players (something like 15/10/2.5 worries me)

A. In position, checked to me. I’m cbetting here a lot, maybe 70%+.

First and foremost, I’m expecting to check behind here except when my reads tell me to cbet. So almost a third of the time, I’m just checking behind because I don’t like what I see.

As mentioned above, I think overall villain profile is most important when last to act on the flop. We know they open-called and checked the flop, so a read on their overall play is useful. I love cbetting aggressive villains who have checked. They very much tend to fold. I also like low "calls cbet%" for the obvious reason. I love firing at boards with broadway cards when villains are loose (say, 30% VP$P+ or 18% PFR+). They’re playing easily dominated hands a lot, and if they seem in any way weak postflop I want to cbet them. TAGG’s are great to cbet especially after they’ve just checked. They will rr with strength or fold weak hands. I table select pretty well, looking for many loose passives. Playing 6max, it’s rare for me to be at a table with anyone opening less than 35% of their hands. So most villains are worried about Aces and big cards on the flop. I cbet at FR a good bit less, as maybe half the villains there open less than 20% of their hands.

When I’m last to act, I look at at the cbetting profile stats last, hoping for a green lights on the "calls bet%" stat and "cbet%" stat with no red light on "raises cbet%" (and I’m looking at the numbers, too). If they cbet a lot and just checked, I’m happy. If they fold to flop aggression a lot, I’m happy. BTW, for the sake of discussion, remember I’ve just hit "air." I’m probably behind or very narrowly ahead. These cbets are intended to fold the table, or put me in position to make money when I hit the turn. The question isn’t my actual cards, it’s villains ranges, board texture and what range they’re worried about me having. The general weak-tight play postflop at NL10 means that I can often count on seeing the turn for free after a cbet, and maybe a third of the time having them check all the way to the river.

I don’t like cbetting and getting rr’d. I just hit "air." Generally, I have at best 2 overcards, a pair smaller than at least two cards on the board, MPTK with a weak ace, or an sc hand with a gut-shot. About 10% of the time I get raised, I 3bet a maniac (55/30+) with some kind of value in the hand like MP + gut-shot + runner/runner flush draw on a rainbow board. Usually, I have to fold. So I like to see that stat low (0 is good, 10% or less I’m okay with). The 3bet is designed to take down the pot right there and to let this dude know I can’t be run over. He often has barely more equity in the pot when I get called, so this isn’t -EV. But it’s high variance, so beware.

Board texture vs. cbetting is a great thread that I hope someone else writes. I’m learning this, and I need more work before I’m willing to say much. Look at posts by ISF, TJ and Spoon for some help. I have certain boards I dislike: drawy, flushy, low ones against loose-passive-stations, for example.

In multiway action, I’ve got a problem. This is why I generally raise preflop, because I don’t really want to have to face 3 or 4 or more villains postflop. Against 2 villains who’ve checked to me, I’m cbetting any time both look weak (explained above) and I have some reasonable board. When I face two villains, one of whom is unknown, I will only cbet when the other is VERY weak and the board leaves me some kind of value. Facing two or more unknown villains, I’m cbetting next to never. Facing 3 villains, I need 2 very weak one before I’ll even think about it. I cbet in a 4-way pot maybe 5-10% of the time, and never without 5-6 outs worth of value + pretty loose villains. I’m usually checking behind 3+ villains unless I hit my hand.

Honest villains deserve respect, even at the micros. My definition of "honest" is AF’s near 2.0 (say 1.5 to 2.5). Why? Well, in general, they’re betting their good hands and folding their bad ones. It’s a very broad rule of thumb, and how tight or loose they play pre affects this greatly. But it’s a decent rule of thumb. Honest cbetting is 35% or thereabouts. Honest "raises cbet%" is probably 5%, again depending on how loose they are pre.

Stations deserve no respect but need to be handled carefully. My typical cbets are 2/3’s pot to 3/4’s pot against a single villain, and I pot a cbet against 2 villains. I hardly ever cbet multiple villains if one is a station (AF ~ 0.8). By the way, imo, an AF < 0.4 is NOT a station, they’re weak tight. And a big cbet often gets them to fold, depending upon the board and their other stats. There are stations with stats like that, surely, but the majority are just noobie, tentative players. Scared money. If and when I decide to cbet a station, I fire a pot-sized raise. This does three things. First, contrary to whiny and popular opinion, a station will fold a bad hand if you bet like a man. Second, if he won’t, that helps me know how to size my value bets later. Third, he’s a station, and after calling my big preflop/flop raises, he’s likely to let me see two streets for free. And if he doesn’t, he’s probably got a good hand. That’s my line for cbetting stations, and I cool it on the turn and river if he’s still in the hand. A lot of time we’ll both check two streets and I’ll win the showdown with a pair of 7’s.

B. Out of position, when I raised first preflop and got called.

I cbet pretty often here, especially against one TAGG. Remember, I open AQ+ and pp’s, so UTG my 2/3’s of my range is 88 or better. Generally, I’m cbetting with two premium overs or a pp against 1 or 2 overcards. I have a hand and am probably ahead since I’m table selecting loose villains. I tighten up my reads on whoever’s in the pot. Against a TAGG, I’m firing a lot of cbets. I’m looking for PFR > 12% + AF > 3. Here’s why. I’ve found most villains (even TAGG’s) are willing to call a raise with most of the hands they’re willing to raise with. Jeez, that seems so idiotic now, but it’s what I did for months! Remember that for a villain with a 20/15 profile, he’s not limping 5% of his hands. He’s certainly raising 15% of his VP$P hands when he’s FIRST to act, but the other 5% is a total of his limped hands + the times he’s called someone else’s preflop raise. And "TAGG" is relative – at the micros, TAGG generally means he’s perfectly willing to raise most hands and call/limp very little in comparison, but it doesn’t often mean he’s willing to 3bet preflop (NL10 remember). I didn’t really understand the who texture of VP$P vs. PFR until I started writing this post.

I cbet the loose-passives a good bit, too, since I’m probably ahead against their ranges a good bit. For them, I’m looking for VP$P > 35 at 6max (30ish FR) and some indication they fold to cbets half the time or more. I like paired boards, big gap boards and broadway boards here. I am cbetting relentlessly against anyone with a "weak" flop profile (see above).

Multiple callers suck. I will only cbet oop with 2 villains or fewer, and BOTH have to have weak flop profiles + be loose enough + some kind of equity with my hand relative to the board. So I’m checking well over half the time, here. Against 3 callers, I need more than 2 overs (6 outs) to proceed. I need something like the nut flush draw + overs or a gut-shot + overs. But the type of gutshot is important. For example, we’re generally talking about AQ with a flop of KJ2 or something. I do NOT cbet this board without a flush draw, too. None of my overcards are certain to be outs, so I’m probably down to a 4-outer if I get called. But AK on a QJ2 flop is better. The AKT are probably all outs, so I have 10.

Now, for the experienced FTR folks who are reading this ready to flame, I realize I just crossed the line into value betting. With 10 outs, assuming they’re all solid, I have some hefty equity in the pot. A defensive raise might work here, or check/calling with implied odds. That’s a fine line, here. I never cbet total "air" against multiple callers unless we’re talking about AK with a board like J 6 2 rainbow. And they would have to all have very weak postflop profiles. Usually, I find it’s better to wait and see what I’m up against. As a rule, I am rarely cbetting total air, even from position. I’m looking to only cbet when I have some active outs.

C. Cbets against unkowns.

I don’t do this much any more. I know that within an hour, I’ll have a clear picture of how this guy plays, less if he’s a multitabler on several of my tables at once. I also have good reads on 2/3 of the villains at most tables (since I’m a multitabling reg myself). So why attack someone who’s unknown? I try to value bet them and see how they react.

4. Confirming solution and reflection

This whole post is reflection. Reflection rocks because the solution crystalizes in your mind, and other problems that can be solved jump into your head – for me, this improved my overall preflop/flop play, and gave me ways to think about turn/river play.

But just to summarize at this point, I played 10k hands and revised my color-coding, along with making different "green light" values for both 6max and FR. Then I tweaked it a bit more after 10k more. I’m continuing to keep track of what type of villain reads mean "autofold to cbet." I’m pretty good at predicting (a) if they’ll fold and if they don’t (b) a very narrow range of what they might have called with. I’m also able to pick good spots for the cbet/3bet against certain cbet raisers. These spots are rare, but I used to just have to fold here. So it’s valuable to do when a very perfect spot comes along.

The "green light" stats solution works well in general. When I see a villain with 500 hands who’s HUD numbers are a long list of green text, I attack relentlessly with great success. When half the numbers are green, I attack with a bit of care and great success, depending on which numbers are green. When I don’t have great "green light" stats, I try to consider how all the numbers come together (along with board texture, table conditions, my equity, etc) and fire away when I think I have enough fold equity to work.

Do I mistakes? Yes, but not very often any more. And the "action plan" is it’s own solution, helping to identify and correct bad play.

Finally, now that I’m beginning to understand flop play, I’m a lot better at choosing which hands to open preflop and against which villains. This in turn makes my flop play better.

If you read all this, thanks. I was just trying to layout (in great detail) how I use the tools we all have to learn to play better, to solve the various problems associated with sucking at poker.

This is in no way a "Guide to Cbetting at Micros," or some pretentious bullsit like that. Others far better than me can write that. This is more about problem-solving and analyzing. If it’s a "how to" guide, it’s about how to problem-solve in a poker setting. I hope this helps you develop procedures for improving your game.

Good luck at the tables.

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