Monday, February 18, 2013
All Plus EVs Aren't Created Equally
I’ve recently been re-reading Jim McManus’ Positively Fifth Street on my Kindle. For those of you not familiar, this excellent book documents the author’s journey to the 2000 WSOP, where he entered as a reporter/journalist, almost on a lark, but ended up final tabling the event and cashing for over a quarter million bucks. This is actually my third time reading the book, and this time around it’s been educational. Let me explain.
The first time I read this book was back around 2003, and I was a newbie to serious poker. The book to me at that time was really just an exciting recount of big tournament play, and it planted the seed in me that I wanted some day to play in the WSOP. I didn't really learn anything about poker in that read, but it sure was fun.
The second time I read the book was 4 years or so ago, and I did so through the eyes of a cash game player wondering a little about this whole MTT thing. Much of the tournament nuances and subtleties were lost on me at the time, and while I again read it as entertainment, I also picked some basic notions of gambling in a tournament environment, the impact of blind structure and table sizes on starting hand ranges, and so on. It also reaffirmed my desire to play in a WSOP event sometime in the future.
This third time around, I’m reading the book through the eyes of an aspiring MTT player. Specific hands and plays that the author makes (or observes other players make) are questioned by me continuously as I’m reading the book. I find myself focusing on reads (what was he thinking the other guy had?), stack sizes (how desperate is that other player?), player types (boy, he seems agro), 3- and 4-betting (boy, they seem very agro), hand ranges (why isn’t he talking more about ranges?), good plays (fold!), bad plays (call!), questionable plays (3betting light!), etc…
…which brings me to the topic du jour. Mention was made in the book a number of times of players getting it in with the best of it. “You got your money in ahead, so that’s all you can do,” one player says to another after the latter’s AQ gets sucked out by A4. Everyone nods their heads sagely, and they console the poor suckee who lost….
…ah, but what they gloss over in this hand (and many others like it) is that the guy with AQ probably never should have been in the hand in the first place. In other words, he played badly, not goodly. He called an early position raise preflop with a classic trouble hand. Yes, if he could have seen the actual villain’s hand, it’s a trivial call with AQ… but in this particular example, the villain’s opening range is actually pretty strong. Said another way, the hero probably should have folded his AQ given the preflop range of the villain. It doesn’t matter that when you turn over your cards you’re ahead (and then get sucked out on). What matters is the range you put your opponent on preflop, and whether you should have called in the first place or not.
Another example is when a player called an EP opener’s raise holding 98s, and then got the money in on a 9-8-X flop. It’s implied that the player got his money in good, and that the play was therefore +EV, regardless of outcome. Again, I disagree. Calling an EP raiser with 98s was probably not +EV, given the typical EP opening range of the villain and the relatively shallow stack size of the hero. Getting the money in on a lucky flop feels like justification for, well, bad preflop play.
I see this same issue whenever I’m looking through my HM2 hand history data. The software gladly tells me how far ahead I was (or wasn’t) when the money goes in and the hands are turned over. But this is misleading; it can make one believe they made a good play and simply got unlucky, when in fact they probably never should have called in the first place given the range of the opponent. In other words, we as poker players often say, “I was ahead (equity wise) of the hand he turned over, and I got unlucky when sucked out,” when in fact we should be saying, “I was ahead of his range when the specific hand got turned over, that hand was in fact in his range, so I did my job. I just got unlucky.”
This is a subtle but very, very important point, and it’s fundamental to the difference between winning and losing poker. We can almost never put our opponent on a single, specific hand, but we can put him or her on a range of hands. We have to make our decisions on what that range is—and we have to do our post-mortems using that range, too. Simply saying that our hand was ahead of our opponents specific hand is dangerous thinking after the hands are turned over, and it can justify (and/or reinforce) truly bad poker.
All-in for now…