Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lather, Rinse, Repeat: The Flow(chart) of a Poker Hand

Son: "How long does it take to learn poker?"
Dad: "All your life, son. All your life."

Too many players seem to go into a poker hand without a systematic means of evaluating where they're at or what they're trying to accomplish. Said another way, a large majority of players don't really consider a plan when they enter a pot. Instead, it's almost as if they think "Hey, I like these two Broadway cards. They're shiny and pretty. Let's limp in... oh, I got raised. Hmmm. Guess I'll call and hope to hit.... oh, I didn't hit... maybe I'll peel the turn and see where I'm at there....okay, I hit my Jack. Sweet. I'm gonna donk.... oh crap, I got re-raised. WTF? It's only a few bucks more to call.... hmmmm. Guess I'm gonna ship it in and see the river.... damn it! Why does the other guy always have a better hand than me? I hate poker..... Ooh, look! I've been dealt two shiny Broadway cards again. Sweet!"

If you're one of these people, don't fret. We've all been there. The goal is to move out of this (non) way of thinking and progress into actual logical, systematic thought. Most pros have graduated from being a "monkey pounding on a keyboard" to a more logical, systematic type of poker. Said another way, the pros who make a living at poker approach every hand of poker with an actual plan and process.

But what is this plan? How does one go about systematically working through a hand and deciding on a course of logical action? What is the process to follow?

Lately, I've been thinking about this whole hand "process" in my (highly limited) spare time. Specifically, I'm trying to formulate a simple "flow chart" of actions that a poker player should step through when playing.  My goal is to create a framework that a beginning poker player can follow that will (1) help them get up to speed and playing well quickly; and (2) serve as a foundation upon which they can build as their skills grow and they progress into more advanced play. In other words, I'm trying to figure out the fundamental steps that a winning player--whether they are Level 1, 2, or 3--should go through in their mind during the play of a hand. I'm also trying to expand this beyond just the play of a hand; i.e., what is the process one goes through during an entire game or session playing poker? And what what should be the process as you step back further and look at a year (or entire career) spent playing poker.

Yes, this is a tall, tall order. But it's instructive to think about, and I believe it can actually be a useful tool when I'm finished. Now, I'm not finished by any matter, but here is what I've got thus far for the process a professional player goes through when he plays a hand of poker:
I'm going to try to find time to expand on each of the process steps in later blog posts. For now, here's the Cliffs Notes version:
  1. Make Reads. The name of the game here is to read the current game and hand situation. What does this mean? Well, a lot, actually. For L1 players, Making Reads means reading the basic board texture and then evaluating your hand against/with it. You can also begin applying concepts such as "that guy is a maniac. I need to tighten up and play a smaller range of hands against him." As you progress to L2 poker and beyond, this Make Reads step means evaluating the upstream action in a hand, reading probable downstream actions, looking at board and game texture, etc, and then assigning a hand range to your opponents. When you get to L3 poker, you add in things like how your opponent sees you as a player and how they see the other players at the table. The goal here again is to put your opponents on a logical range of hands, and then narrow it down as the hand progresses. 
  2. Estimate Odds, Equity, and Commitment. Once you have put your opponent on a range of hands, the next step is to evaluate your own hand and situation against that range. Are you getting sufficient pot odds to continue? What is your hand strength/equity against the opps' range(s)? What is your fold equity against the opp? Are you pot committed? Do you want to be pot committed?
  3. Decide on a Line. Once you've decided how your hand fairs against the opponents range of hands, the next step is to decide what you want to achieve with the hand. Mr. Multi calls this step "deciding what story you're going to tell." I think of it as choosing a line. I believe that there are really only five basic lines you can take: Value, Show-Down-Value (SDV), Bluff, Draw, and Fold. (Yes, astute readers will realize that there are other "lines" you can take. For example "semi-bluff" or "isolate," but these are really just subcategories of, or shades of gray between the five aforementioned basic lines.
  4. Implement Line. Once you've decided on a line to take, the last step in the process is to implement it in such a way that it maximizes your expected value. Again, there are really only five different ways to implement your chosen line: check, call, bet, raise, or fold. If you decide to bet or raise, this step also includes determining how much to bet. The goal during this step is to implement the chosen line in such a way as it maximizes your EV.
Once you've gone through these four steps preflop, the next step is to repeat them on the flop, the turn, and the river. In each step of the process on subsequent streets, the goal is not to make big changes to your plan, but rather to tweak and adjust. For instance, preflop you may have put your opponent on a wide range of hands, but on the flop the goal isn't to put him on a different range. Instead, the goal is to narrow the original range down to a subset of the preflop range. Similarly, once you've chose a line to take, the goal is to make tweaks to the existing line, and not (usually) abandon the original line altogether. As Mr. Multi likes to say, you have to keep the story line consistent. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as turning a made hand into a bluff on the river, but generally speaking, once you've settled on a "story" you need to keep telling it unless/until something drastic makes you change your thinking.

Okay, so that's how you play a single hand of poker. If we step back then and look at how you play an entire game or session of poker, professionals tend to exercise the following process:
Again, the Cliffs Notes version is:

  • Play Hand. This is just the Make Reads, Calculate Odds/Equity/Commitment, Choose Line, Implement Line process we talked about above.
  • Adjust. This is where we do things like balance our ranges and adjust our play based on how the opp is playing and adjusting to us, meta-game effects, seat changes, table size changes, people going on/off tilt, etc.

And finally, if we step back even further and look at an entire year (or even lifetime) playing poker, the professional player's "poker life" process looks something like this:
And the Cliffs Notes version of this process:

  1. PreGame Prep. This represents us doing such things as exercising proper game selection, seat selection, sizing up games, bankroll management, and preparing ahead of the game to be ready to play.
  2. Game/Session. This just represents the Play Hand and Adjust Game/Session process shown above.
  3. PostGame Review. Here we do things like post-mortems, hand reviews, keep records of our play, and try to find our leaks and figure out how to plug them for next time.
  4. Off-Table Work. This is all the off-table stuff that increases your skills, knowledge, and ability to play. I include things like studying, blogging, reading poker books, watching videos, setting up and mastering HUD and stats collection software, physical exercise, working on anti-tilt measures, etc. Poker strategy discussion groups also fall into this category, as do reading forums (and posting), and just plain talking poker with other enthusiasts. The purpose of this step is really just to ensure we're thinking about--and improving--our fundamentals when we're away from the table and have time to do it right.

Unfortunately, I'm out of time for now, but I'll be back. Again, and again, in a loop.

All-in for now...

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