Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The 4 basic villain types you face at small stakes games-- and how to play against them.

Today's post is a 15-minute audio on classifying--and exploiting--villain types at the low-stakes tables:

Some key takeaways and additional points not raised in the podcast:
  • Most of the opponents you face at low-stakes games will have big leaks and weaknesses.
  • Finding these weaknesses—and learning to hand read—begins with stereotyping and classifying the villains.
  • The most basic and important classification looks at two related aspects of the villain's preflop hand selection: a) how loose (or tight) the player is; and b) aggressive (or passive) the player is with their two starting cards. These are represented by "VPIP" and "PFR" statistics, respectively.
  • We can plot these two factors on a two-dimensional “PATL” grid.
  • There are four basic, broad categories of villains you'll play against at the low-stakes poker tables. They can be categorized by which quadrant of the PATL grid they land in.
  • The quadrant of the PATL chart that the villain resides in will give a big clue as to the types of mistakes (if any) they make.
  • Tight-Aggressive Villains. Good players can be found in the upper left quadrant of the chart. These players are known as tight-aggressive, TAgs, regs, and/or pros. 
    • TAgs play a tight, selective preflop style, playing only a fraction of the hands dealt to them, but doing so very aggressively. This is the recommended preflop style of play for beating most low-stakes games.
    • You can spot a TAg by the fact that on average they're playing about one in five or six hands dealt to them, and doing so with serious aggression. They're also playing a very positionally-aware style, being much tighter in EP, and looser in LP. They're often taking control of hands, and will raise draws on the flop as semi-bluffs, and will bet-fold rivers.
    • TAgs are the trickiest of players to counter. They don't make many mistakes, but it's still generally best to play straightforward against them. In general, your profit is going to come from other players--not these guys; you'll mostly just trade chips back and forth with other TAgs at the table if you're a good player, too.
    • If you can, sit to the left of these players to help minimize the damage.
  • Tight-Passive Villains. Players in the lower left corner of the chart are know as tight-passive, weak-tight, nittish, timids, or rock-like. 
    • These players play few hands, but unlike TAgs, they mostly just call when involved in a hand, with very little raising in general, even post-flop.They often make a small profit or are marginally break-even, primarily because they stay out of trouble and make few big pot mistakes. They generally value position, but they don't open up as much in LP as a TAg.
    • These players generally fold too much preflop, and give up on pots too easily after the flop is dealt unless this hit it very hard (TPTK or better). If they hit moderatly hard, they'll sometimes call a single bet, sometimes with strong draws, but then will give up on the turn if they don't improve.
    • These players can be bluffed relatively easily, both preflop (steals) and postflop with c-bets on flop and turn. On the other hand, it's hard to get a lot of value from these players, as their tendency is to fold if bet into.
    • If one of these players bets and/or raises, it's probable they have a very strong hand. Proceed cautiously and only with strong made hands that can withstand a showdown. These players rarely if ever bluff.
  • Loose-Passive Villains. Players in the lower right corner of the chart are known as loose-passive, LAps, calling stations, no fold'em hold'em players, sheriffs, fish, and/or ATMs. Almost all LAps at low-stakes tables are long-term losers.
    • These LAps play a lot of hands and call a lot-- far too much, both preflop and postflop. They're poor players in general and make a lot of "let's see a flop and make a hand" mistakes. They don't usually understand position, or if they do, they don't employ it very strongly in their preflop starting hand strategy. Often any two suited cards are good enough for them to play. A common saying you'll hear from them is, "you can't win if you don't play."
    • You should not usually try to bluff these players; they won’t fold even their weakest hands to aggression.
    • Against these players, you should bet your medium and strong value hands on all three streets to build a pot and get paid off. Value is the name of the game to beating these guys, and in fact the majority of your profit at small-stakes tables will come from LAps.
    • You will occasionally get bad-beaten by these players because they stick around with crazy stuff that a normal player would have smartly folded two streets early. When you take a bad beat by one of these guys, remind yourself that results don't matter; decisions do; and, if you don't want to play against bad players, who do you want to play against? Over time, you will make a lot more value money from these guys than you lose to them on bad beats.
  • Loose-Aggressive Villains. Players in the upper right of the PATL grid are said to be loose-aggressive, or LAgs. Some professional and semi-professional players employ this style with good results (but also with high variance); this Bug is one of them. Extreme players in this quadrant are known as maniacs. Aside from the pro's, most LAgs at small stakes are losing players.
    • These players play a lot of hands and raise most of them. Because of this, they often put too much money into the pot with their weak holdings and then have trouble getting off the hand, even when they know they're beat. They like love to bluff, often with multiple barrels on multiple streets.
    • Play tight against bad LAgs, and try to do so in position. If possible, seat change to be on their left. They usually undervalue position in their own play, and isolating them with your big hands can be very profitable.
    • Don’t over-committ against these players with weak holdings. If you do have a strong hand, however, you should be willing to play a big pot with them, often for stacks. Variance is something you'll have to get used to when playing against a LAg.
    • Be wary of the professional LAg, as they will be hand reading well and will not pay you off.
Hope this helps you focus your game. Learning to classify players is the first step in the hand-reading process, and if you make even small adjustments based on the tendencies and style of play of the villains at your table, you'll be way ahead of most of the other players competing for pots.

All-in for now...

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bug's Poker Tip #47

Bankroll Management: You Need A Lot

Let's start by pointing out that you're probably not going to like what I have to say on this subject: You need a lot more money in your bankroll than you probably think you do. You need more than most successful professional players say you need. You need more than your wife says, your poker mates advise, and the majority of the advice books, forums, and experts counsel. 

The truth is you need a big-ass bankroll if you're going to play no-limit hold'em.

A short Bug Tip like this is not the place to go into a lot of math and statistics on the subject, but suffice it to say that big downswings--even if you're playing perfectly--happen on a regular basis to everyone, even the pros. It's not uncommon for the best no-limit players to suffer 20, 30, even 40 buy-in drops in their bankroll. Variance happens, folks, even to expert players.

And guess what? You're not an expert at no-limit. You are not one of the best no-limit players in the world. You don't play perfectly 100% of the time. Your downswings can be bigger than 20-40 buy-ins. I've know very good players that have lost 50 buy-ins in long, soul-crushing stretches. I know this because I've helped them analyze their hand histories and reviewed their results after the damage is done. And it's shocking how much damage the variance monster can cause.

So let's cut to the chase. How much money should a reasonably competent low-stakes player keep in his bankroll?

Remember, I said you're not going to like the answer. Of course it all depends on a number of factors, including the mental fortitude of the player, the skill of his typical opponents, and a host of other things, but if pressed, my own personal recommendation for bankroll size of a beginning or intermediate player is that you need 100 buy-ins for the stakes you play.

Yes, 100 buy-ins!

This means if you play $0.05/$0.10 no-limit, you should have a cool $1,000 in your 'roll. Like to play the $0.50/$1.00 tables? Better have $10,000 squirreled away. And so on.

Of course you don't have to have all this money online at one specific instance in time, nor does it mean you're supposed to bring that much to Vegas with you if you want to sit and play for a weekend. But it does mean you need at least this much set aside in your walled-off poker-only fund, strictly for poker use and nothing else. The reason is to keep you from ever going broke. And, more importantly, keep you sane along the way.

Poker is chock-full of variance. And your bankroll size is the chief weapon to fight its ill effects. Make sure you have enough, or the variance monster will take your ability to play away.

(Oh, and don't even get me started on PLO variance...argh.)

All-in for now...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thought of the Day: Tilt Response

On the commute in this morning, I heard a thought-provoking statement on a non-poker podcast:

Maturity is the ability to pause between The Stimulus and The Response.

Wow. This statement sums up in 12 little words the fundamental secret to fighting tilt at the poker tables. In fact, this is my own method of countering bad beats, coolers, lost-races, and all the other "injustices" I feel when I get stacked by a clueless fish.

I pause.

I breathe.

I force myself to think through the preceding actions in the hand.

Did I do everything correctly? If the answer is Yes, then this is just a part of poker that keeps the fishes coming back. This is actually a good thing. I welcome bad beats, because by definition it means I played the hand correctly and the bad guy didn't. It means that in the long run, I'll make a lot more money in this same situation than I just lost in this hand.

If the answer is No, however, and I didn't do everything correctly, then I force myself to learn from the bad beat. For instance, did I let the villain see a free card that allowed him to make his hand? Okay, next time I'm not going to play stupid-fancy, and instead I'll charge him to see the next community board card. If he's going to chase, I'm going to give him the wrong odds to do so. If I do that over and over instead, I'll make up for this lost pot of money in this hand.

Poker is a high variance endeavor. It's going to have swings. Some of those swings are going to result in painful stimuli.  So what? You have to remember that you signed up for this rollercoaster when you sat down to play. How you respond to the dips is a measure of your growth as a player.

Said simply, how you respond to the negative stimulus of variance is a measure of your poker maturity.

All-in for now...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Boring--But Powerful--Poker Skill: Folding

Most experienced intermediate cash game players understand the importance of playing position. They get the preflop concept of tight-is-right. They employ aggression in their game because they know that pressuring the other guy to fold means they can win with effectively any two cards. They continuation bet with the right frequency. They’ve mastered bankroll management, they don’t tilt, and they know how to hand read like fortune tellers.

But there is a common leak among these same intermediate players that I see over and over—and this leak costs them money. A lot of money. These otherwise solid players don’t fold enough. I’m not talking preflop (remember, I said they get the whole tight-is-right concept?). No, I’m talking post flop, in situations when the bad guy is firing into them and, well, they don’t believe the bad guy. So these otherwise good players call down, in a sense just kind of just hoping to win. They say things like they're going to "look up" the villain. These folks play the role of sheriff, and it costs them money that it doesn’t have to. Said simply, there’s better money to be made without “hoping” you have the best hand.

Folding is one the chief ingredients to the the secret sauce of beating low and medium stakes games. It’s how you survive—and thrive--against the opposition. It’s what the pros do.

And it’s what I do. My name is Bug, and I fold a lot.

If you are unsure if you have the best hand on the flop or beyond, and the bad guy is betting into you, you probably should fold.

If you think the decision is close, you probably should fold.

If the villain is firing multiple barrels and you don’t have a very strong hand that should otherwise go to showdown, you should probably fold.

In low stakes games, you shouldn’t have to risk your stack fighting for marginal pots and battling for thin edges. And you should almost never "look up" the other guy just because you want to keep them honest or see what they have. At these small stakes tables, there is easier, lower-risk money to be had. This is true whether your opponent is a weak-tight nit, a loose-passive fish, or somewhere in between. When these players bet, they mean it. They rarely bluff. Their post flop bets are real. These may be bad players, but as the old saying goes: even the blind squirrel occasionally finds the nuts. Just accept it and move on.

You should also strongly consider folding when a tricky professional or “reg” is firing into you. Yes, it’s less likely they have the goods than when a passive bad player is betting, but you still have to ask yourself if the risk-to-reward ratio of calling down the reg is positive. Sometimes when you have position on these types you can float them, but usually only one street. If they fire a second bullet, ask yourself if you want to invest any more money into this hand, hoping you’re best, or hoping that they’ll give up on a later street. If the answer is no, then just fold and move on. It's really this simple.

Remember, folding is always zero EV. Folding costs you absolutely nothing. Any money in the pot--even if you put it there--is not yours; it’s a sunk cost and now belongs to the pot, not you.

Your main source of profit in the small stakes games comes from making hands against loose-passive players and stealing from the tight ones. At these small stakes games you shouldn’t be making many—if any—fancy plays or big “hero calls.” You should not be looking up players.

As you move up in stakes you can and should start employing more advanced tactics like 3betting light and bluffing more, but in the small stakes tables just forgetaboutit.

The downside of course is that playing this way may feel boring. It may seem unsexy. It might not cause adrenaline to course through you blood stream—but it’s a highly effective, highly profitable way to play poker.

Fold. Your bankroll will thank you.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Continuation Bet. A Lot.

Being the nerd I am, I have actively collected a lot of poker data over the years. A whole lot. In the past ten years alone, I’ve played well over a million hands combined of online Texas Hold’em, Stud, and Omaha. The majority of these hands and/or sessions were recorded either via automatic tracking software or manually in a long series of spreadsheets. I have also added other players’ hands to this database, actually going as far as purchasing blocks of data from various online re-sellers. All-in-all, I have data on over three million real poker hands that I have used to help evaluate and test theories, and prove (or disprove) specific strategies and tactics.

I’ve used this data for everything from helping put together preflop starting hand recommendations, to quantifying the power of position, to determining optimal bet sizing in different situations, and even to help me figure out the best times of the day and week to play that are the most profitable for my own specific LAggy style. As the old saw goes, you can’t improve what you can’t measure, and all this measured data I’ve collected has served to greatly improve my own game.

Lately I used these data to analyze flop continuation betting scenarios. This analysis resulted in an honest-to-goodness formula a beginning player can use to determine whether they should c-bet in any specific situation or not. The method itself is quite simple: you calculate your fold equity based on a point count system, then do the same for your pot equity, and finally just multiply the two numbers together and look at the result. Depending upon the number you get, you then either fold, c-bet, or slow-play your hand…

….ah, but all of this can really be boiled down to a much, much simpler let’s-cut-to-the-chase recommendation:

When in doubt, you should probably continuation bet

The simple fact is this: in small stakes games, if you were the preflop aggressor, you should be firing a continuation bet on the flop at a relatively high frequency. Depending on the number and type of villains in the hand and the texture of the board, this number can range from 60% to higher. Heck, against weak-tight nits on super-dry boards, you should probably be firing a flop continuation bet nearly 100% of the time.

This empirically-based conclusion of mine can be proved analytically by doing some simple algebra with a basic expected value equation. Setting EV equal to zero and ignoring any showdown equity you might have, one can easily see that Fold Equity = Bet Size / [Pot Size + Bet Size]. Here’s that relationship plotted out in X-Y fashion:

What this chart demonstrates is that you only need a villain to fold 33% of the time if you fire a half-pot-sized continuation bet on the flop. Given the fact that the villain is going to miss the flop around 35% of the time, this means a c-bet generally has a high percentage chance of working.

Now, the bad news is that actual (i.e, not required) fold equity will vary as a function of Hero's c-bet size, which is something we’ve ignored in this simple analysis. In other words, a small bet size may only need a small villain fold frequency to be break-even, but villains will fold significantly less frequently if they’re being offered good pot odds, which a small bet causes. At first blush, this argues in favor of c-betting less frequently on the flop, but the other thing we’ve left out of the analysis is that we have ignored showdown equity for all those cases when the c-bet doesn’t result in a fold. These two factors (more or less) cancel each other out, which means that roughly speaking, you should in fact be continuation betting a relatively high percentage of the time on the flop.

How high, you ask? My three million hands of empirical data suggests a continuation bet frequency around 75%. Said another way, you should be flop continuation betting as a bluff an average of three out of four times in small stakes games. Further, I suggest that your c-bet size be around 60-65% of the pot; this seems to be the optimal risk:reward sweet spot that applies enough pressure to the villain, while risking the least amount of the hero's stack if the villain calls.

Bottom line: Three million hands of data don't lie: continuation bet most of the time in small stakes games, and make your bet sizing to be around 60-65% of the pot.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

We Need a Little Help!

Le Monsieur and I are making good progress with the training material. In fact, we're closing in on completing the last few of the so-called "level-1" lessons, and now we're exploring how best to implement this powerful thing we've created. And part of that implementation is the selection of a product/domain name...

...which brings us to you, dear trusted reader. We're soliciting ideas and feedback on potential names for this beast. We not only want your input, we need it. So, with that in mind:

The quick background/story on what we've been creating is this: a series of sequential, step-by-step lessons geared toward a new player who already understand the basic mechanics of playing a poker hand, including hand rankings, etc. The lessons will take him from raw beginner to a solid winning low-stakes player. It's based around the mastery of Level-1 thinking, and focuses on the core concepts and skills needed to beat micro-to-low stakes NLHE. These of course include the fundamentals of understanding basic villain types and tendencies, knowing simple poker math/odds/outs/probabilities, using position, exercising solid preflop hand selection (with recommended starting hand charts), knowing how to steal and defend your blinds, sizing bets, simplified post-flop continuation betting, and so on.

Each lesson has multiple parts, but you can think of it as being in two primary sections: a) the lesson itself, which explains and teaches the idea; and 2) a set of quiz questions the student has to take (and pass!) before moving on to the next lesson in the series. Each lesson builds upon the previous one, and the student is required to demonstrate understanding of the previous material before moving to the next lesson in the progression. By the time he/she is finished with the L1 lessons, they should have enough knowledge to readily beat a $.10/$.25 online game or a live $1/2 game at their local casino.

After we complete the L1 lessons, the next step for us is to, well, step up a level and create similar L2 training material, introducing and teaching the whole process of REDi to the L1 graduates, etc.

So what do you think? And, just as importantly, what are your suggestions for domain and product names? Feedback, comments, and ideas are absolutely welcome.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas!

All-in for now...

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Continuation Betting for Dummies

I haven't been posting here much due to crazy work travel, work problems, and, well, work, work, and more work. That said, in the limited spare time I have every day I have been making slow and steady progress on the ABC lessons with Le Monsieur. The latest one that I just uploaded to our shared Evernote lesson notebook was a big 3000-word treatise on when to continuation bet on the flop. (There are six additional lessons that accompany this one, btw...)

I thought this when-to-cbet lesson would be a snap to write, but in the end it took me nearly 3 weeks of research, errant thought, false-starts, and general noodling around to come up with a step-by-step instructional that a newbie can follow to determine whether they should c-bet on the flop or not. It also gives guidance on how much they should bet in each case.

Writing this lesson was a really fun--and sometimes aggravating--experience, but I think the end result is really useful. I also think it's kind of ground-breaking in a way; in fact, I've never seen this type of approach to c-betting addressed before anywhere in poker books, blogs, or in training videos. This is basically cutting edge stuff, folks.

Anyway, you'll have to wait for the app to come out for the full step-by-step version, but here's the TL;DR Cliffs Notes version of cbetting:

  1. First determine your fold equity (FE) in the hand. You have to estimate what the likelihood is that the villains who saw the flop with you are going to fold if you bet. I've touched on this before in this blog, like in Bug's Poker Tip #7 and Tip #17 before, but not nearly to the extent I did this time around, nor did I quantify each effect, nor have I put in a sequential, step-by-step process. Long story short, the significant level-1 factors that influence your FE include: number of villains, board texture, type of villains, stack sizes, preflop action, position of the players, and the hero's image. I've spent hours wading through poker tracker data to actually determine the approximate weightings and importance of each of these, and I now have a solid and easy means to accurate estimate FE in a poker hand. In a nutshell, my method uses points that you assign for, say, the number of calling stations left in the hand, or who has position on whom preflop, etc.  You total the points and end up with a FE estimate. It's pretty cool stuff if I do say so myself-- oh, and dead simple to do.
  2. Second, determine if you want the villain to fold or not, which of course hinges around your own hand strength, or pot equity (PE). This seems simple on the surface, but again, when you're teaching level-1 poker to a newbie, and you're trying not to inundate them with hand reading, poker stoves, leveling, etc., it's surprisingly challenging to actually determine whether your hand is strong enough or not to want a call. Again, I spent a lot of time sorting and analyzing real poker hand data, and now have come up with another simple point count system that does a reasonably accurate (and conservative) job of determining your pot equity in a hand independent of villain's range.  Related to this is a method of determining if your hand is vulnerable or not to getting out drawn on the turn and river. And yes, once again, this is not as easy as it sounds to do, but I think we have a very innovative and simple method figured out.
Okay, so after you have the FE and PE's of a situation estimated, the third and final step is to plot them against each other on a 2-d chart. Here's a simplified version of the graph, and if you've done a reasonably good job estimating your fold and pot equities, this type of chart actually can go a long way toward helping you a) decide to if you should c-bet; and b) determine how much you should bet:

Researching and writing these lessons continues to be extremely fun and educational. I also think it's going to result in a really powerful training aid for beginning and intermediate poker players. And, oh yeah, it also helps offset all the work, work, and work that my day job insists on dumping on me lately. 

All-in for now...