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The Science of Winning Poker

Bluffing still matters, but the best players now depend on math theory


July 26, 2013 6:56 p.m. ET

The World Series of Poker, 2010. Associated Press

More than 6,300 players, each paying an entry fee of $10,000, gathered in Las Vegas early this month for the championship event of the 44th annual World Series of Poker. The tournament ran for 10 days, and just nine players now remain. They will reunite in November for a two-day live telecast to determine who wins the first prize: $8.3 million.

Poker didn’t get this big overnight. In 2003, a then-record 839 players entered the championship for a shot at $2.5 million. The winner was an amateur with the improbable name of Chris Moneymaker. After ESPN devoted seven prime-time hours to his triumph, online poker took off and tournament participation ballooned, as did prize pools. The U.S. government’s ban on the major online poker sites in 2011 reined in enthusiasm, but the game has continued to grow in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

This growth over the past decade has been accompanied by a profound change in how the game is played. Concepts from the branch of mathematics known as game theory have inspired new ideas in poker strategy and new advice for ordinary players. Poker is still a game of reading people, but grasping the significance of their tics and twitches isn’t nearly as important as being able to profile their playing styles and understand what their bets mean.

In no-limit hold’em poker, the game used for the World Series championship, each player is dealt two private cards and attempts to make the best five-card hand that he can by combining his own cards with five cards that are shown faceup and shared by all players. Those cards are revealed in stages: The first three are the “flop,” the fourth is the “turn,” and the fifth is the “river.” Players can bet any amount they like at each stage.

Suppose you hold a pair of sevens, and before the flop is dealt you go all-in (bet all of your chips). One player calls your bet, and everyone else folds their hands. You both turn your cards face up, and you are happy to see your opponent show a pair of sixes. You are in great shape, since you have the better hand. But when the flop arrives, it contains a six, giving your opponent three sixes, and your own hand doesn’t improve, so you lose. Was your all-in play correct?

In terms of results, it wasn’t, because you lost all your chips. But according to the math of hold’em, a pair of sevens is favored to beat a pair of sixes 81% of the time. So if you can go all-in with sevens and get your bet called by players holding sixes over and over again, luck should even out, and eventually you will be a big winner.

Poker theorist David Sklansky once wrote that you should consider yourself a winner as long as you had the higher probability of winning the hand when all the money went into the pot. This attitude is consistent with the underlying mathematical reality of poker, and it can smooth out your emotional reactions to losses and wins. What matters is the quality of your decisions, not the results that come from them.

A few years ago, a young pro named Phil Galfond published a crucial refinement to Mr. Sklansky’s point. He showed that the right way to analyze a poker decision is to consider your opponent’s “range”—that is, the full set of different hands that he could plausibly have, given all the actions that he has thus far taken.

So if, for example, you believed that your opponent would only call your bet if he held sixes or a better pair, then at the moment he calls—before he turns up his cards—you should be unhappy. You want to see the sixes and be an 81% favorite, but you are much more likely to see a hand like eights, nines or higher, and against any of these your likelihood of winning is only about 19%. In fact, against this range of pairs from sixes up to aces, your “equity”—your winning chances averaged over all of those possible hands—would be just 27%.

Of course, in poker, you rarely know your opponent’s range precisely, nor does he know yours. In our example, if your opponent thinks you would never go all-in without at least a pair of tens, he probably won’t call you with anything worse than that. So his calling range depends on what he thinks your range could be.

In practice, this means that you should not make a particular play (such as an all-in bet) only when you have a superstrong hand, because this makes it easy for an observant opponent to deduce your range and fold with all but his own superstrong hands. If you sometimes make a strong play with weak hands—the ancient practice of bluffing—your opponent has a harder time narrowing your range down. This concept, known as “balancing” one’s range, supplements an expert’s intuition about when to bluff with logical explanations of why and how often it is the right play.

Calculating equities for ranges is too complicated to do while you are playing. Today’s top tournament players advise up-and-comers not to memorize formulas but to improve their feeling for ranges by playing with poker calculation apps that rapidly estimate odds by simulating thousands of hands.

Why this sudden leap forward in the strategy of a game that has existed for over a century? Computer analysis has contributed, just as it has wrought changes in backgammon and chess theory. But the real cause of the advances that have accompanied the poker boom has been the boom itself.

With 10 times more people seriously playing the game, the collective creativity and thinking power of the poker world has grown by at least an order of magnitude. The growth of poker theory is a perfect example of how innovation accelerates in interacting communities. Today’s poker players are in a world-wide arms race to discover new ideas and refine their playing styles, led by the younger generation of more mathematically minded pros. And collective progress comes from the application of collective intelligence: Putting more minds to work on a problem makes the discovery of new and better solutions much more likely.

Jason Lee

1. Each player is dealt two private cards. The goal: to make the best five-card hand using the five faceup cards shared by all players.

2. Player A gets two sevens; Player B gets two sixes. Neither player knows what the other has yet, but a pair of sevens is favored to beatapair of sixes 81% of the time.

3. After the shared cards are dealt and the players reveal their hands, Player B wins with three sixes, beating the odds.

—Mr. Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College, the co-author of “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us” and a chess master. He played in his first World Series of Poker this year.


Phil Galfond reveals all on Reddit

It’s not often that you see Phil Galfond emerge from whatever four walls he is housed in whilst winning millions of dollars in the sickest games online. He sticks his head above the parapet at the World Series of Poker (WSOP), but other than that sightings are about as rare as Dodo poop.

So for Phil Galfond fans around the world it was like Christmas, your birthday, a tooth fairy visit, Easter and winning the lottery all rolled into one fantastic 24-hours, when the great man turned up on Reddit to answer questions by the barrel load.

In total, there were 368 comments and Galfond answered pretty much everything (there was a lot of repetition), but I have decided to give you some feedback on the most interest points, with a smattering of Galfond humor thrown in for good measure.

When asked if players who had stopped playing online poker after Black Friday had fallen behind the times he concurred, but was strong in his stance that there was always time to learn and to improve your game.

He is a great advocate of study tools, as you would expect with his work at RunItOnce, and says that the younger players who come up using them will have an advantage over the older ones that don’t. He included himself in the older bracket despite being just 29-years of age.

“People have figured things out that I don’t understand, because I came up when study tools were a lot weaker.” Said Galfond.

One of the recurring themes throughout the session was Galfond’s insistence that people should concentrate on life first and poker second.

“Your life is much more than your poker career and if it’s not then you’re making a mistake.” Said Galfond.

When asked about his latest learning experiences in the game, he said that in the past few years his greatest realization was the importance of thinking about how the turn and river combinations affect an opponent’s range when considering what action to take on the flop.

On prop bets Galfond didn’t have anything too extravagant to tell. His current biggest prop bet being a $7.5k bet on this season of The Voice. When asked about the rogues from Full Tilt Poker (FTP) Galfond only commented on Chris Ferguson.

“I hung out with Chris a couple of times before Black Friday. He was extremely kind and interesting. I still would like to believe he had no ill intent, and maybe even little to any knowledge of what went on. I haven’t seen him since, but if I did, I would greet him with respect and give him the benefit of the doubt until hearing him out.”

When asked about the biggest winners in the live games in Macau Galfond mentioned the names of Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonious, David Oppenheim, John Hennigan and Huck Seed. He also said that the stakes are the equivalent of $2k/4k so “it would be pretty easy to win or lose $5m. I’d expect that there are a handful of $10m+ winners from those games.”

When it came to the most common mistakes that he sees players making at the mid stakes level he cited auto piloting as the ‘most serious and most prevalent form of tilt,’ which he believes is due to players learning ‘rules’ when they first learn to play such as pre flop charts, standard c-bet sizing’s, etc. He called these ‘crutches’ and said that although they may help you to play competently faster, they limit your potential for growth.

When it comes to improving your game Galfond said it was imperative to take the time to get reads on your weaker opponent’s, and that talking about poker to his poker friends has been the single most important key to his growth as a poker player.

When questioned about coaching he said that the, ‘biggest and most expensive mistakes as a poker player are the ones that you don’t know you’re making…so how can you ask your coach about them?”

He instead suggests you record your play on video and send it to your coach to watch instead of trying to tell your coach what you need help with.

When asked about meeting Tom Dwan he said that David Benefield introduced the pair 7-8 years ago when Dwan was playing 50/100nl and Galfond was playing 5/10nl.

“He was extremely generous, letting me watch him play NL (and later PLO) even after not knowing me very long. To say Tom had an impact on my early growth as a player would be an understatement.” Said Galfond.

He confirmed that at no time in the early days did him, or any of the other high stakes pro know the identity of Isildur1.

“As far as Isildur- me and the high stakes guys that I talk to didn’t know who he was for a long time. I initially just assumed he was some hyper aggro small stakes guy who ran it up. Eventually we knew he was a big winner on Euro sites, but even then that wasn’t much information.”

When asked about which player he respects the most Galfond said it was Ben Tollerene.

“His work ethic and his mindset are incredible. Not to mention he’s just a great guy. Ben’s one of the only people harder on himself than I am. It’s not a fun quality to have, but it’s one that can make you great.”

When questioned about FTP Galfond said that he has around $500,000 tied up on the site and that he prefers the FTP software to that of PokerStars, and in a live context he cites the Aria card room as his favorite.

In terms of cheating and online poker room scandals he said people underestimate how crazy randomness can get, and during the UltimateBet scandal he received $100,000 in refunds and had never even suspected that he had been cheated.

He said that Ivey was definitely the most intimidating player he has ever faced both live and online, his longest online session was around 25 hours and live was closer to 36hrs.

“They’ve never been a good idea.” Said Galfond.

As well as being uber smart, Galfond is also very funny. When asked what his prized possession was in his famous slide filled apartment, Galfond said:

“I bought a wall safe and got it installed. Then I commissioned a painting of that wall safe and hung the painting over it. I lost the combination within a week and never used the safe.”

If you are unfamiliar with Galfond then the man sums up exactly what he is about when he created this stock answer to the myriad of questions he was being peppered with about how to improve someone’s game.

“I see a lot of questions asking me for one tip or trick to improve your game or get results. How many simple “tips” and “tricks” for getting in shape do you see out in the world each day? And what % of the population is in great shape?

If it were as simple as a quick tip to change your game, everyone would do it.

To get results (in anything), it takes work and dedication, along with some natural ability. Most importantly, it takes time.

You need to accept that you can’t become drastically better at anything overnight. Start yourself on a path of improvement, and be patient.

Fitness is a great analogy for this because it’s very clear to see what helps and what doesn’t…

At the end of each day, ask yourself if you took a step towards your goal (ate well, exercised) or a step away from it (ate terribly, sat on a couch all day). As long as most days are steps forward, don’t focus so much on seeing results right away. Time will take care of them.

If you want to improve at poker: play, read, watch videos, run numbers, etc.

You won’t be dominant tomorrow, or next week, or next month… but you’re on your way.

Enjoy the other parts of your life while including some steps in the right direction each day (but don’t focus or obsess on the goal beyond that). Before you know it, it’ll be six months later and you’ll have made amazing improvements.”

It was one of the best Q&A sessions in the business and it can be found at Reddit here.

Phil Galfond Quote

“…a lot of people have a problem with limp-calling (Heads Up) they’re just afraid of it because they think if im gonna limp call I might as well raise myself to have the initiative and things like that, I dont really agree with that at all, first of all im limping becasue I want to strengthen my open raising range and still profitably limp some hands like 76o… the thing about initiative it’s that while it does affect play it’s kind of just mmh it just doesn’t matter, it’s just like a manmade like mmh im struggling for a word here because i dopped out of college but it’s just kind of this thing that we put too much meaning on and really doesn’t affect anything except who it’s gonna be betting the flop, a lot of players are conditioned to think that having the intitiative it’s much better because they realize that when they have the initiative they’re more likely to win the pot, because it’s true, when you’re the one cbetting more often than not they’re gonna win the pot but what they dont realize it’s that you’re puting a bet almost blindly, and generally winning smaller pots than those you lose when you get raised, bluffed, etc. so you’re not necessarily making much more money against a good opponent who it’s gonna be bluff raising and floating with good frequencies…”

This it’s from a Bluefire video… LOL at the part that he can’t find the word because he dropped out of college xD (obviously one of the smartest persons in the world)

Poker After Dark will feature Pot Limit Omaha in 2011

Poker After Dark is trying its hand at pot-limit Omaha, according to Brian Hastings’s blog on CardRunners (via PokerJunkie). From the sound of it, imho, could be another great step in the evolution of poker on TV …

We’ve previously contended that just because mixed games don’t play well on TV,there should be an exception for PLO. It’s easy-enough for any Texas Hold’em player to follow … same winning hands (essentially) … with enough crazy beats, dramatic suck-and resuck, and occasional nut-folding to make things exciting … while opening a new realm of poker thinking that should keep viewers coming back, especially if they play the game, too.

Supposedly this rare televised high-stakes PLO cash game, played a couple days ago in Ivey’s Room @AriaPoker and airing some time next year, was 300/600 with a $100k minimum buy-in. Pretty sexy line-up, too:

Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan, Brian Hastings, Phil Galfond,
Patrik Antonius, Sam Farha, Brandon Adams

While at least five of those names have inherent high-stakes appeal, and one of them is Durrrr, I particularly wanna tune in to see Farha. We always hear how Omaha is his game … but I dunno that I’ve ever seen him play PLO before with hole-card cams — and should be interesting to watch his old-school style match-up with the online generation in a game that isn’t Texas Hold’em.

Could be wrong, but If this episode plays well — which I think it will, relatively — don’t be surprised to see a little more PLO factor into other poker franchises’ TV decisions.

source: pokerati

Solo falta Isildur xD