Long read: Poker’s one thing

In this long read, poker author and educator Duncan Palamourdas expands on something familiar to other fields, but not yet poker… the single sentence that encapsulates poker’s “one thing.” 

Duncan is the Author of Why Alex beats Bobbie at Poker: Developing a Fundamentally Sound Approach to Poker where he explores concepts like the one below, responsible for profit flowing from amateurs to professionals. For more details of that, and of Duncan’s other work, read on below. 

Good news is we live in a world where information is vast and fast. Bad news is we live in a world where information is vast and fast.

We love the access, but we hate being overwhelmed by it. This is why we put such a high premium on concepts akin to “prioritization”, “efficiency” and “concentration”.

It’s only natural to want to extract the pure essence or the “big picture” of the chaos that is the world around us.

Fortunately, this is not a fool’s errand. Even the most complicated structures are built with very simple building blocks.

The idea of the idea

This concept is not new. It goes all the way back to Plato who was the first to coin the term “idea” to describe the common essence of a subject matter.

Plato revolutionized the way we think, and understand thinking, and transfer information between individuals.

What makes this remarkable is that coming up with the concept of the “idea” is an idea in itself.

It’s all about brief but big ideas

Digging deeper, we start to realize that simplifying an otherwise complicated subject is a necessary condition of success.

Plato’s big idea was the invention of the idea itself, but he was not alone.

His teacher Socrates based his philosophy on “innate ignorance” which allowed him to probe deeper and deeper to expose gaps in our knowledge.

Plato’s student Aristotle, on the other hand, was keen on identifying patterns by sampling the environment around him, an approach that earned him the title of the grandfather of the scientific method.

The point is that the lifetime achievements of these great men can be summarized in one sentence.

The same applies to Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and even Pablo Picasso. That’s before you get to some of the world’s most successful CEOs.

Then we get to poker.

Bottom line

So, we’ve established the idea that behind complex structures and lifetime achievements one can always uncover SIMPLE nugget-like ideas.

They are important, because they require very little mental bandwidth when we need to recall, consult, and refer to them to steer us in the right direction.

Since poker qualifies as a complex structure, it’s natural to look for poker’s one deep core idea.

Poker’s ONE idea: Control the hand!

What is then poker’s big main idea?

We need a bifurcating concept that would separate ourselves from the rest of the field, allowing for a skill differential to emerge and profitability.

This “differentiator” is the act of being in control of the hand.

If a player like Alex controls the hand (whatever that means at this point), then her opponents do not, which is the bifurcation we were looking for.

What is left, is to understand what this means and why it can lead to profitability. Once we do, we will have a clear road map to the elusive how we can employ this strategy.

Poker’s fundamental asymmetry: Bet > Call

What does it mean to control the hand?

Simply put, it means to be the one responsible for when and how much money goes in the middle.

For example, electing to build a larger pot with the best holding, or keeping the pot small if not.

It might also mean taking calculated risks with bluffs, and so on.

If this sounds a bit too good to be true, it is because we haven’t yet explored the most important asymmetry of the game.

I am talking about the innate difference and superiority of the action of betting versus that of calling.

All things being equal, Alex wants to be the one who bets versus the one who calls.

It comes down to two properties.

There are two ways Alex can win by betting against Bobbie: either by making him fold and win the pot outright, or by getting called and end up having the best hand in showdown anyway.

On the other hand, there is only one way Bobbie can win by calling and this is by making the best hand. In other words, a call cannot generate any fold equity.

The second difference is that a bet dilutes an opponent’s range faster and thus making hand reading easier.

The idea is that when Alex is choosing between checking and betting, her holdings are divided into two buckets (the checking bucket and the calling bucket).

In contrast when Bobbie is facing a bet, he now has three choices, to fold, call or raise. His holdings are now distributed into more buckets, reducing the number of hands per bucket.

In other words, Bobbie’s range can be narrowed down that way. These subtle differences between a bet and a call are what I refer to as: Poker’s Fundamental Asymmetry.

Poker players articulate this dichotomy by calling ‘bets’ aggressive actions, while they reserve the term passive for ‘calls’.

For now, we should point out that controlling the hand means more than just prioritizing betting over calling. It means being the player who dictates the action at the table. Aggression (prioritizing betting over calling) is just a first step in that direction.

Typical Controlling Actions

What are some ways one can control the hand?

Choose betting/raising over calling
Use the Trifecta preflop (Position, Initiative and Card Advantage)
Be the first to go all-in
Check to get a free card in Position

Let’s look a bit closer.

We already examined the first option.

The second approach refers to the idea of using Position (acting Last) and Card Selection (patience) to place ourselves more favorably against the opponent.

It also suggests using Initiative which means to be the last aggressor before the flop. Alex loves that idea because it means that opponents will check to her on the flop and even on later streets. This is the epitome of what it means to be in control of the hand!

Going down the list we see that in all-in situations. Being the first to go all-in generates control. The pusher can win the hand in two different ways (generating folds or in showdown) while the caller is forced to get lucky at showdown.

Lastly, it may be sometimes prudent for Alex to check and get a free card in position. This may seem like she’s waving the white flag but by the time she does most of the damage has been done.

Go big or go home

Why is controlling the hand even possible?

To answer the question, we need to look at several layers of abstraction.

On the one side we have someone like Alex who likes to prioritize controlling actions and the seizing of control.

On the other side, we have players like Bobbie who are largely indifferent towards them, electing to have a more passive/responsive role.

This dichotomy gets further stretched by the fact that players like Alex have the tendency to get out of the way early in those pots where they realize they are not going to have control over.

This is what I like to call the go big or go home mentality.

Alex either maintains control all the way by applying (controlled) pressure or she gets out of the way early when this is no longer possible. There are some exceptions, but they are exactly that, exceptions.

The Gordian Knot conundrum: Bet or Guess!

To understand the power of controlling the hand, we can ask what would Alex do if not in control of the betting?

She should have to play the guessing game. This is because she would no longer be able to generate folds so she would need to assess how often she can win the hand instead.

This is best illustrated via the following simplified example.

Say the pot is $100 and the bet is $50. Since the Bettor is risking 1 unit to win 2 units they would break even if the Caller calls at a 2-1 ratio.

The Bettor would break even the moment the Caller folds 33% of the time or more.

In most cases, this is a very low and achievable frequency. In all likelihood the Bettor will make money on Caller’s folds alone (on Fold Equity) and then free-roll their competition when called.

This is a luxury the Caller does not share!

From the Caller’s perspective all they see is that they would be risking 1 unit ($50) to win 3 units ($100+$50) and they will have to make an assessment whether they think they can at least win 25% of the time to break even.

This is harder than it sounds, especially if the Caller is sitting with an unpaired hand.

Imagine we are the Caller with a hand like KQ on an A52 board facing a bet.

Unless our opponent has an Ace, we have a decent chance of winning the hand (and that includes the cases where they have a low pair, which would mean that our 6 outs give us a borderline breakeven equity of ~25%).

So, do they have the Ace or do they not? Who knows? The point is that this is not a question the Bettor has to worry about, since they get most of their profit from Caller’s folds anyway.

We can conclude that, as the Bettor, Alex was indifferent to how Bobbie reacts, because unless Bobbie raises her (something the Bobbies of the world do not do very often) she can still win the hand whether he calls or not.

As the Caller however, things are much more complex because now she must decide whether she wants to fight back or not.

This is like the Gordian Knot problem, where Alexander the Great elected to cut the very intricate Knot of Gordian, instead of untying it. The moral of the story is that without a sword/boldness on his side, Alexander would be forced to untie the Knot the hard way.

Without betting on her side, Alex would have to solve the riddle of the hand by guessing correctly.

Maniacs: When controlling the hand goes too far!

What happens when someone tries to take the betting control away from Alex?

The answer would depend on how they intend to do it.

The easy (but wrong) way would be for Bobbie to abuse aggression and employ a suboptimal high frequency of bets and raises. What poker players affectionately call, a “maniac”.

This means that Bobbie is in control of the betting and thus the hand.

However, by doing so he sacrificed something very sacred to poker players: unpredictability.

Using our previous metaphor, by betting too often Bobbie made the Knot too easy to untie.

This means that although Alex has no longer control over the hand and although this would mean that she must play the guessing game, the truth is there’s not much guessing necessary.

If Bobbie bets indiscriminately with good and bad hands, Alex would be a favorite to call him down until showdown with a good hand, as the likelihood of Bob making a very strong hand is low.

Making a hand in poker is rare, so someone who bets ALL the time is bound to NOT have a hand most of the time.

Fighting back for control the right way

What happens if Bobbie tries to take the control of the hand from Alex the right way?

That is by employing a loose aggressive strategy with a good balance of bluffs, value-bets, and everything in between.

Unfortunately, there is not much Alex could do in that situation other than doing it better than Bob, or decide to change tables if she cannot.

The success or failure of controlling the hand depends on what the opponents will do. In other words, an opponent can elect to deem our strategy moot by refusing to comply.

Poker rules are fair, which means if all players were to play perfectly there would be no edge to be had.

We cannot control how other opponents play, we can only control how we do and hopefully we do so in a way that maximizes the chances of their mistakes, while minimizing the chances of ours.

Poker success is relative and depends on the skill differential between Alex and Bobbie.

Without a skill differential there is no profit to be made. This is why any professional would make a very strong case for game selection. It may not be important for Alex to be one of the best players in the world to be profitable, but it is paramount to be one of the best players at her table.

This is still very much possible since not everyone elects to prioritize profitability over having fun.

As most players play the game to have a good time before anything else, which means that they will have to make “sacrifices” on the profitability end of things.

Exploitative versus Optimal Strategies

To sum up, a few words about poker’s eternal debate: exploitative versus optimal play.

This comparison is irrelevant here, as both approaches will “fight” for the same result, control of the hand.

The main difference is that an exploitative approach will go for maximal control at the risk of losing that control if the opponents can re-adjust and counter-exploit, while an optimal approach will play it “safe” and settle/hedge for a lesser piece of the “control pie” while ensuring that this piece is not at any risk, irrespective of how the opponents react.

Another difference is that a solver will handle the tough spots (the “guessing spots”) much better than a regular human would. Besides that, both approaches have the same goal, to be as close to dictating the action as possible.

In other words, the concept of controlling the hand is universal among all strategies. This is exactly why it is poker’s most fundamental concept.

You can follow Duncan on twitter @AskTheMathDr

You can order the book directly from the publisher here or directly from amazon.

If you enjoyed the article, you can find similar articles like this by the same author on PokerStars, Upswingpoker, PokerNews, and Card Player.


Author: Tina Shaw