Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Bluffs and cheats

With the sad recent demise of Bluff Europe magazine for whom I was a strategy columnist, I need a new home for the sort of strategy aimed at keen recreationals I used to write for them, so I'm going to start putting some of it here for now. If there are enough people reading and enjoying it, I'll continue: if not, it's back to just trip reports and opinions pieces I scuttle, my tail between my legs.

So let's talk about bluffing...

You hear a lot of talk these days about balance. In a nutshell, this means that every time you bet, you should be betting for value with a hand some of the time, and bluffing the rest of the time. If you are perfectly balanced, your opponent can't exploit you in the long term. To be perfectly balanced, you should be bluffing often enough that no matter how often your opponent calls with his bluff catchers (hands that only beat a bluff), he can't win long term if he always calls, or always folds. For example, if you bet pot, your bluffs will make a profit if your opponent calls you less than half the time, and your value bets will wipe out your bluffing losses if he calls you more than half. So to be balanced themselves, your opponent must call you down exactly half the time. The smaller you bet the more often they have to call.

So when striving for a balanced bluffing strategy, your sizing determines your frequency (how often you should be bluffing). When it comes to choosing which hands to bluff with, you should choose hands that add something to your overall strategy rather than just choosing at random.

For example, preflop it's good to choose hands that are not strong enough to call with but contain cards that either block cards you don't want your opponent to have, can flop an occasional monster, or contain cards that are not otherwise in your range. For example, a hand like a3s could be a good light three bet in a spot where your value hands would normally contain only high cards, because:
(1) having an ace is useful as it makes it a little less likely that your opponent have a strong Ax hand and a lot less likely they have aces
(2) you can flop the nut flush, the nut flush draw, or a straight
(3) if you have no other hands with a three in your range, then having no threes at all is a problem as you can't have a very strong hand on, for example, flops like 433 and opponents can exploit you by playing these flops aggressively. This is a concept known as board coverage: ideally you want all your ranges to contain enough different types of hands and cards that there is no flop where you can't have a very strong hand.

On the flop when it comes to picking bluffs, you are again looking for hands that aren't quite strong enough to call but can occasionally make very strong hands by the river. As such, semi bluffs are better than pure bluffs: a3s is a much better bluff on a 256 flop with one of your suit than ace ten off, as in addition to winning when your opponents fold, you can also improve to a better hand if you hit your gutshot or backdoor flush. Backdoor draws are particularly good as they are rarely strong enough to just call with and when they come in its easier to get paid off on the river than when a more obvious draw gets there.

On the turn, you are looking for hands that are not strong enough to call but could potentially improve to a winning hand that you can value bet on the river. For example, QT is a much better turn bluff if the board reads j875 than 23o because you can definitely value bet a 9 river, be reasonably confident you have the best hand on a queen, and sometimes be good on a ten. Whereas with 23o you're probably dead if called: even rivering a pair is unlikely to help matters. Additionally having a queen and a ten blocks some of the stronger hands that can call you don't want your opponent to have like QJ, JT, T9 and T8.

River bluffs are the trickiest. With no more cards to come, you can't semi bluff any more. You want to bluff with hands that have little or no showdown (so can only win by bluffing), block some of your opponents strong hands that can call, and don't block his weak hands (such as busted draws) that will fold. On a final board of 5A4dd8xJx, a hand like 63 with no diamonds is a much better bluff than KQdd because
(A) It has less showdown (KQdd could win at showdown versus worse busted draws: 63o has no hope)
(B) 63o blocks some straights like 23, 67 whereas KQ doesn't block anything as useful
(C) Having no diamond is good because one of the hands we really want our opponent to have is a busted flush draw. When we have KQdd ourselves it's less likely our opponent has a busted flush draw. In general, busted flush draws do not make good river bluffs

The trickiest spot of all to pick bluffs is the river check raise bluff. This is a spot where we want a hand with some showdown so that if the opponent checks behind we have the best hand (we can't depend on our opponent to bet for us so if we have a hand with no showdown but good bluffing possibilities it's better to bet it ourselves on the river rather than go for a check raise bluff), but if he bets we can be reasonably sure we don't have the best hand any more and have to raise as a bluff to win. This is where blockers come into effect.

I saw two examples of good river bluffs. The first was on an episode of Poker After Dark on PokerGo with Doug Polk, Jason Koon, Jungleman, Matt Berkey, Ike Haxton and Brian Rast. As you'd expect with such a line up the level of play was world class, and one hand in particular caught my eye. Ike and Rast have got to the river with QT and AJ respectively, on a JT529 runout. Ike checks and Brian tanked considering whether or not he should value bet. I was watching it with two of my friends, Jason Tompkins and David Lappin, both poker pros themselves, and as Rast tanked, I remarked that if he did value bet, Ike might check raise as a bluff. This is exactly what happened. The reasons why both I and Ike recognised this as a good spot to bluff are:
(1) once Rast bets, Ike knows he is only beating a bluff. Rast won't value bet any worse hand so his hand is unlikely to be good whereas had Rast checked behind he usually would be good
(2) he has a great bluffing candidate as having a queen blocks the nuts (KQ) and the ten is also a useful blocker to some other strong hands Rast might value bet (JT, T9, TT) that beat us

Blocking the nuts is particularly useful. Another hand that illustrates this came when the final event of the Poker Masters was down to the last three. On a board of AKQxx where nobody had shown much strength on flop or turn, Christner bet out with KQ (for value, clearly believing he had the best hand), and Sontheimer called with QJo (a reasonable call as given how the hand played out he would have the best hand enough of the time), leaving Fedor Holz to decide what I do with his pocket tens. Had the river been checked to him, he might very well have checked behind figuring he had the best hand but couldn't get called by anything worse, but facing a bet and a call he knows his tens are no good. But he also reasoned that since JT is the nuts, having two blockers to that hand makes his hand a good bluffing candidate, so he raised. Players of all levels are capable of bluffing rivers with a weak hand that has no hope at showdown, but the truly top class players are the ones who can recognise when their strong hand isn't strong enough to be good, but is a good candidate to turn into a bluff.

Some thoughts on cheats, thieves and other vagabonds

When I was a runner, one of the things that made me sad was that the thing that first popped into non-runners minds on hearing that I was a runner was "drug cheats". I actually believe athletics is one of the cleanest sports in this regard. It's certainly the one that tests for, chases and catches cheats the most vigorously. When a whole country is found to be cheating endemically, as Russia was, they're not afraid to blanket ban them all until it's sorted. Yes, many athletes at the upper levels cheat. Most of them are caught, eventually, but drug developers are always a few steps ahead in the drugs race, meaning most aren't caught until after they retire, or at least are well past their peak before their cheat drug of choice is identified and can be properly tested for. That means they can be stripped retrospectively of medals and records, but get to keep ill gotten financial gains from sponsorships. The other sad thing is that every time a cheat is caught and exposed, the message most people take isn't "good for athletics, chasing and catching cheats" but rather "they're all juicing".

Poker has an equivalent problem. Its history is blotted if not littered with cheats who were caught. Potripper ripped a good $16 to $18 million from the online player economy, and never paid a cent back. Perhaps even more damage was caused by the fuel it added to the "online poker is rigged" branch of the neo Luddites. Every so often another cheating scandal erupts, and unless you live under a rock you probably have been following the latest to blow up poker Twitter: the Mike Postle case. I saw no real reason to wade into the debate, as I can't really claim any special knowledge. That hasn't stopped most people, and a big part of what has fuelled it all is the fact that there is so much footage out there for people to comb through looking for clues and smoking guns in the er of Making A Murderer whodunnit docutainments. 

I guess my biggest feeling is that as great as it is that the community can come together and self police in this way (and it is great: special kudos to Veronica and Joey), it's unfortunate that these are the stories that most easily attract mainstream media attention. It would be sad if in the same way as the first thing most people outside athletics think when they hear about athletics is "drugs", poker's first out word association with the general public was "cheats".

It also seems to me that the poker world tends to overreact in the short term to incidents of impropriety, with maximum levels of outrage and hubris, but then conversely under-react in the long term, with minimal levels of punishments and deterrents. I can certainly think of no other sport, industry or sector where proven cheats are allowed to continue and even prosper. There's the danger of the particularly bad double whammy where we expose all our dirty laundry to the world, and then parade it around proudly as if there was nothing wrong with being seen in public in dirty clothes.



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