What’s he got?
It was suggested by a forum member that I post my articles here. I thought, good idea. Here is the second in a series of three that I am very proud of. I will post this series and, in future I will post all of my new articles here as soon as they are published in the forum that paid for first right of distribution.
Please discuss and criticize and say anything that comes to mind. I know a lot about poker, but for everything that I know, there is more that I do not know. Einstein said, “As the circle of light grows larger so does the circumference of darkness around it.”
Poker Made Simple: Part II – What’s He Got?
by Dave Scharf
This is the second of three columns that I have audaciously titled “Poker Made Simple.” In truth, I think that this series demonstrates that poker is simple on the surface and, underneath the still waters, very complex. The basic question is always simple: “Should I raise, call, bet, or fold?” The questions you might consider to answer this simple question are very numerous and difficult.
What are the Variables?
In the first installment in this series I explained a simple truth about poker: math defines the most profitable play you can make in a given situation if you know all the variables. So, forgetting about math for a moment, what are the variables? What questions could you consider when deciding to answer the simple basic question: “Should I raise, call, bet, or fold?” Off the top of my head I came up with a short list of twenty, the answers to which might affect the outcome of a poker hand:
– How many opponents am I facing?
– What are my cards?
– What is the best possible hand?
– How likely am I to have the best hand?
– Has the player in seat three been drinking?
– Have I been drinking?
– How long has the player in seat seven been playing?
– How long have I been playing?
– Is the player in seat six playing a higher limit than she is accustomed to?
– Who won the last pot?
– How many cups of coffee has the player in seat nine had?
– What does the tattoo on the forearm of the player in seat ten mean?
– What cards are on the flop?
– Does the player in seat four have more money in his wallet or is it all on the table?
– What does my opponent think I have?
– Are the players in seats one and two married to each other?
– Did the dealer flash a card?
– Does the player in seat four think “kings are running?”
– Is the player in seat five angry at the player in seat nine?
– How much will my hotel room cost me tonight?
You might think that some of these questions could not possibly affect the outcome of a poker hand. Obviously, some are more important than others, but any one of them could be important. How much will my room cost me tonight? If I have my last $200 on the table and my room costs $150 then I better not lose more than another $50 before I quit. If that is the case then it may well affect what cards I choose to play. If I am scared of losing then I will probably play tighter than I otherwise would. Is the player in seat three drunk? Generally, when a player is drunk he plays looser than usual. Herein lays the clue as to why these questions could be important. How does anything – position, number of opponents, sobriety, anything – affect what cards your opponent will play and how he will play them. All of the questions that could affect the outcome of a hand of poker do so because they may alter the cards that you will play or that your opponents will play. Also, they may alter how you and your opponents will play them.
What’s He Got and What Will He Do With It?
Back to the original hypothesis for a moment: math defines the most profitable play you can make in a given situation if you know all the variables. Since you know what your cards are and you know what the board cards are, the only variables you are interested in are:
What are my opponent’s cards?
How will he play them?
What’s he got and what will he do with it? If you have multiple opponents then you are asking yourself what each of them has and how each of them will play?
Poker really is simple. What do I have, what does he have, and what will he do with it?
The basic way in which you put your opponent on a hand (what’s he got?) is to estimate the range of hands that he will start with and then narrow the range based on the betting as the hand progresses. I describe it as “putting your opponent in a box.” As the hand progresses you make the box smaller and smaller until you know within a very small range what your opponent is holding – you have him in a very small box. This skill takes a certain natural aptitude and a great deal of practice. You must learn to trust yourself. The easiest and cheapest way to practice is to predict what cards your opponents are holding after you have folded. You are sitting at the table anyway; make use of the time and practice figuring out “what’s he got?” Observe the hand, shrink the box, and check your results at the showdown.
Along with figuring out what your opponents have, you must figure out how they play. Some players, for instance, will always bet a flush draw while others will always check-and-call with a four-flush. Some players will never fold top pair in hold’em; others will routinely fold top pair if confronted with a lot of aggression. Some players will raise once with top pair; other players will three-bet or cap the betting with top pair. It is impossible to separate “what’s he got” from “what will he do with it.” It is you knowledge of his starting hand range, coupled with his betting pattern that allows you to “shrink the box.”The Difference Between World Class Players and the Rest of Us
Not long ago a local player asked me: “What do those guys know that we don’t know.” The “those guys” he was referring to are the players that he is regularly seeing on TV: Howard Lederer, Paul Phillips, Gus Hansen, Phil Ivey, TJ Cloutier, Chris Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth, Erik Seidel, Johnny Chan, etc. Once again, go back to the original hypothesis: math defines the most profitable play you can make in a given situation if you know all the variables. What “those guys” do better than your average middle-limit Vegas pro or low-limit local fish is accurately define the variables. What “those guys” do is accurately put their opponents into very small boxes and then apply the right tools (raise, call, bet, or fold) to crush the box in question.
Simple. To improve your results all you have to do is to improve your ability to answer this question: “What’s he got and what will he do with it?” Then having learned to accurately define the variables, you must improve your understanding of the situation in which you find yourself. I frequently overhear conversations in which little-skilled low-limit players criticize what appears to them as poor play on the part of the world-class World Poker Tour players. In almost every case, the criticism is wrong. It is mistaken because the little-skilled low-limit player in question does not understand the situation in which the world class player finds himself. What looks to him to be a bad play is, in fact, the correct tool being applied to a very small box.
In the third and final installment I will explain what I mean by “math defines the most profitable play.” In any event, if you are looking to improve your results you can work on the accuracy with which you define the variables.