Toward Your Own Poker Strategy

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One of the most confusing concepts the aspiring poker player will encounter is the notion of an overall Strategy. Perhaps surprisingly, it is counter-intuitive to many that a relational game of information can have a strategy that is not merely reactionary and essentially reciprocal. For instance, even very smart people balk at the concept, as evidenced in this thread, where a poster posits there can only be one strategy for poker – a position which is at least novel, plays to the fears of many, and useful for our discussion, however wrong it is.

Nevertheless, even though this poster is stuck on the much abused term of GTO, he’s not really proposing anything vastly different from what your garden variety equity pusher, or all those who have looked at some hot and cold values for the cards they are dealt, or even those who wander into complex EV equations, do.

After all, we are all dealing with the same tangibles, and no matter how complex they become or ingenious we are in dealing with them, we cannot escape certain limitations of an unlimited game.

The question, then, is about a kind of nuance, because in this respect, the poster is right – we all have the same goal.

So how can our philosophies really be different?

We’ll get to that. First we have to clear the underbrush.

For instance, our work to understand the concept of Strategy is complicated by the fact that many concepts and words overlap. For example, we may have a strategy for a certain situation, and that is reasonable to say, because plotting that situation will involve more than just a sum of tactics. Consider those moments when a poker instructor starts talking about “the strategy here…”

Further, we will often execute or see tactics that are so strong they may seem like Strategy, such as an opponent with an overbetting frequency who is not adjusting to our revised calling range. His abuse of one tactic is not a long term, workable, revisable plan.

In fact, it is dauntingly accurate to say everyone has a strategy of some sort, but that because it is often completely incoherent, it is not worth the name.

Most critically, poker is a relational game. This means that whatever we are doing it simply can’t be in a pure vacuum outside of the most heady, overwhelmingly calculated situations, such as in the Solver’s computations, at work in the current Libratus Vs. Brains Challenge, or conversely, in the most simple toy games, where we find anti-auto profit frequencies that provide shape to our thinking. The vast, real, breathing world of poker relies on memes and concepts that create a climate of a shifting baseline strategy, a kind of zeitgeist that we either flail against, embrace, or conquer. Most of poker play takes place in a trackless cloud of diminishing and flourishing tactics that no hole card camera or HUD can ever quite permanently capture for our most careful observation.

Yikes. Confusing, hard to deal with, and no wonder everyone just gives up or starts screaming GTO! GTO! (And hoping some program will solve their problems, or as many do, begin to think you need to take some sort of “side” in the poker community.)

It is also worth noting that Strategy as an overriding concept is not often discussed or essentially assumed. For instance, if I look at even some of the most important (and unburnable) poker books out there, such as The Theory of Poker, Professional No Limit Hold’em, Vol. I, and Applications of NLHE, we find scant discussion of creating an underlying strategy beyond the reciprocal goal of capturing maximum expected value. We do get an ingenious amount of engineering toward this feat, as if the contractors killed and buried the annoying architect and got busy on their own.

Poker, in other words, is a game full of technical actions and technical reactions – but outside of the somewhat secretive high stakes and more accessible yet still obtuse game theory, it’s not a culture particularly full of high concept strategy.

Strange, with so much community money on the line.

There are at least two reasons for this state of affairs. One, adjustments to one’s technical game are usually enough to produce noticeable returns for the vast majority of players. Two, as in the case of Applications, these technical aspects support a theorized perfect strategy, one which in concept trumps all to the point where there is no answer. While highly informative and worth pursuing, this theorized strategy cannot be replicated to extreme precision at the tables beyond a few situations.

This last point is key to us, however, as it suggests there is room for attacking any and all games and styles for the foreseeable future.

Let’s continue with terms, though. Merriam Webster defines strategy as “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” This is excellent for our purpose, but we can go a little deeper and find if it is helpful.

From Wikipedia, “A strategy describes how the ends (goals) will be achieved by the means (resources).”

And further, it is enlightening to consider:

Henry Mintzberg from McGill University defined strategy as “a pattern in a stream of decisions” to contrast with a view of strategy as planning,[4] while Max McKeown (2011) argues that “strategy is about shaping the future” and is the human attempt to get to “desirable ends with available means”. Dr. Vladimir Kvint defines strategy as “a system of finding, formulating, and developing a doctrine that will ensure long-term success if followed faithfully.”[5]

The rubric is becoming clear: we are concerned with an End. The objection most poker players have to this line of thinking is, “But I know my goal! Ima try a make MONEY.”

The problem is this:

That’s everyone’s hope.

In other words, this basic and common thought is completely reciprocal and isn’t going to lead to much of a plan.

The natural strategy of equity pushing is limited by its universality.

So, as the obvious adjustment, they take the next step: Excellence in Equity Pushing.

I maximize good hands and few semibluffs. We push toward high expected value. We take a pot here, and surrender one here, and hope at the end, we’ve guessed well enough to be ahead. This is the plan of all low and midstakes stakes instructional courses and microstakes online manuals, and in fact permeates deep into the thought of the some very hard online games as well, where players are obsessed with small nuances of their graphs and bbs/position, fearful of any leak like the proverbial miser quintuple counting his stacks of gold.

Now, this reciprocal wish-fulfillment is obviously a form of strategy, as I described above. You can take it far. In introducing the idea of “crispness,” high stakes pro and instructor Matt Berkey, in various recorded conversations, elucidates this simple plan of most players and the basic tenet of most poker education sites: should you make ever more perfect decisions, i.e. “crisp” decisions, it is possible that your reciprocal spots will lower themselves to a more and more profitable unequal exchange where you take more than villain and give him less. (Should sound familiar to the GTO screamers and those they admire, who are smart enough to sweat very fine points and carve out edges with them.)

That’s worth pursuing. The atmosphere, speed, and low information bounds of online play most encourage this “crispness.” It’s what many branches of poker thought converge upon – even strategies that do more than push equity.

However, the mistake in being completely given to the idea of ever more precise equity pushing is twofold. 1) It is obvious that it suffers from a high amount of reciprocity, and 2) that there are alternatives in fighting this war.

For instance, what if I decided to think beyond receiving equity in the same way my opponents do? What if I want, in other words, to counter the current community strategy?

This is where one’s own plans begin to form. I can suddenly envision an End.

In this scenario, we are fighting for winning more and more pots that don’t belong to us and less concerned with seeing showdowns, even if they would be in our favor. This is part of the ultimately exploitative strategy I practice and teach where I begin by correlating holdings to stacks as optimally as possible – my own “crispness” – and then end up with too many bluffs and overbets.

Or what if our goal is to undo our opponent’s game with confusing aggression and induce massive errors?

Now our aim is to see those showdowns but against a range our opponents didn’t intend to bring to the table.

This is where error-inducing tactics such as extremely heavy-handed isolation and using the illusion of range advantage come into play. We can fight both sophisticated game theory influenced strategies, the TAG Poker Education Industry, and basic nitty equity pushers by upending the table of their premises. Your hands will do x so I will do y. Wait what?

We are now fighting against the current meme of strategy and composing our own, as opposed to refining the mutual, contemporaneous one.

However, all your work is still ahead of you, should you focus on a goal like this. You need the Means to your End. This requires tactics, adjustments, and intentionality that work with the fundamental nature of the game, not just your opponent’s strategy.

Why is this hard to do? Why don’t I instantly have a Means if I have End in mind?

The reason is, most players have skipped something: a profound understanding of their game.

The reasons why everything happens.

Why is there money in the pot? What is going on? What is a bet, essentially?

The truth is, most players can’t even answer this simple question:

What is a raise? Or better, What is the purpose of a raise?

How do we create a thorough raising range without this understanding?

You can’t have a coherent strategy unless you have the answer to these questions.  You are still dealing with the same limitations everyone is. You’ll never find your Means when you skip this step.

In other words, you can’t build the car unless you know how the vehicle functions. And the road, for that matter.

So that’s a head scratcher for most, and here’s what they end up doing instead: They go to the junk yard or the dealer and buys something that seems to be working.

They drive it right out of the yard, throwing smoke, or right off the dealer’s lot, gleaming.

But when it doesn’t work, some find a new one. The cleverer tinker with it. The well off pay to have someone “tweak” something.

Or maybe they go to their favorite Car Driving site and look for “Five Tips on Driving Faster,” “Acceleration from the Blinds.” “Three Betting Around Corners.”


It’s everywhere… and it’s fine. Tweak away at your technical game. However, you’ll still be confounded as to how to create a new car, because you’ll never understood what comprised any of the choices they made for you.

Consider a classic poker example: All the people who are confused as to when their cbets don’t work.

They think cbetting is just a fixed fact of poker… a gas pedal you step on. Gogogo, as they say, glglgl. They think every board favors them and launch ace high into four opponents.

They can’t make it work. Even more telling, now take away all their cbets. Forbid them.

They’re completely lost. 

It’s because they suddenly have to come to grips with the fact that their strategy is premised on a tactic.

You see, there are no fixed strategical elements to a long-term winning plan, just elements that are either coherent or non-coherent. They either reflect the basic facts of poker… or they don’t.

Let’s take another example nearly as troublesome as the continuation bet conundrum: the three bet. For the equity pushers, a polarized range skews to value and is balanced by axs blocker hands provides reasonable cover for a raise.

However, none of this has anything to do with anything. The stacks either allow isolation and possibly continuance versus a fourbet, or they don’t. This will dictate what you can do with jacks, it will explain if you can barrel kqs or if you alternatively can burn up kqo on a three bet fold. The idea of raise folding kqs or jacks should be anathema to anyone trying to coordinate their equity with position and depth- just as much as the idea of ending up taking A5 to the felt because it is too weak to call.

Now, I’m not going to just hand out my own strategy. A big part of it is explained in my coaching document. Much of it reflects the essential nature of NL, and that is what makes it work, for all its flaws.

Speaking of flaws, is my strategy the best strategy? The truth is… probably not!

Actually it really can’t be.

Crazy, huh? Why would I badmouth my own strategy or even admit its weakness?

For instance, it is not as robust as Christian Soto’s, the Red Chip/S4Y crossover.

Nevermind his mentor Berkey’s.

But here’s the thing: a modest strategy is far better than none at all.

The painful truth for the average grinder is, if you are just pushing equity and trying a million different tactics… at heart, you are likely just clicking buttons.

It’s brutal. Yep, all those books, all those videos, all those forum arguments… and still you are there, punching yourself in the face and wondering why your nose is always opened.

You’re exploiting yourself and you don’t even know it… which is amusing.

(Maybe not to you.)

You don’t have much of a plan, and even more damning, most of what you do have is someone else’s.

And that, at root, is why you flounder in poker and grind the minors, year after year.

It’s also why you worry so much about mental game, because you think poker is an endless repetition of beats and exhaustive self-discipline, and that “fish” – people who don’t play like you and enjoy the favors of the goddess Variance– are holding you back.

Or as one of my favorite saying goes, a phrase that recalls a now fond period of my life, in the land of the blind, one-eye is king.

So, to conclude: yes, maybe we’re all down in the mines, as Mr. Berkey says.

(A tad arrogant, perhaps, this guy.)

Well, arrogance must be earned, as Dr. House once said. Unfortunately, it’s theirs to enjoy: we really are blinded and trapped when we play without a philosophy of the game and knowledge of why everything happens. The mechanics of our pick axes alone will find neither gold nor sunlight.

So, to my fellow miners who are looking to escape the darkness of mediocrity: study the game and the current tactics that comprise the set of its most common strategies. Find an overall goal that counters these strategies and accomplishes what you want at the table. Then, and only then, engineer your technical game, using all the actions that are at your fingertips as an experienced player.

This will take you toward a new, far more coherent, more individual, effective, and most of all, sunnier, strategy.

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