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A Simple Hand Question – Part 2
Using the systematic RED-X framework...
“Knowing [what to do] starts with ranging the villain and ends with executing a positive EV line against that range.” —Phil Laak
In the first part of this hand example, we found ourselves on the button holding a medium suited connector against an elderly, early position (EP) player who seems to be a tight, passive, level-1 ABC player. He opened-raised to 3bb preflop, the action folded to us, and we asked what should we do next?
If you answered with something like “call,” I’ll give you partial credit because the question itself was a bit of a trick one. Specifically, I asked, “what should we do next? Yes, skipping ahead, the correct decision to take in the hand is, in fact, to call, but the point of this “simple” hand example was to emphasize the importance of systematically working through a hand before arriving at that decision. In all my years of coaching, writing, and teaching this game, one of the most prevalent problems that I see struggling players make (beginning and intermediates alike) is to jump to answers without taking the time to logically and systematically think through the situation. Said more simply: most players act before thinking.
A few posts ago, I introduced the concept of a systematic approach to winning at poker. Element 1 of that process centered on logical hand analysis and decision-making, which is shown in simplified fashion in the image:
Systematic hand analysis is all about taking the time to logically and, well, systematically, work through the details of a hand to arrive at a logically deduced action to take. There’s a lot baked into this process, but at its core are four basic steps you should always work through:
Read. The first step in the 4-part RED-X analysis and decision-making process is to Read. This means paying attention and mentally reviewing the game and hand situation. It means noting the traits and tendencies of an opponent. And ultimately, it means using both explicit and implicit clues like bet sizing, known cards, and “tells,” to put that player on a logical and accurate collection of probable cards they hold. We call this collection of cards their “range”. And besides the range, we also try to determine what an opponent is attempting to do with those cards; we call this their “line.” For example, in our OMC hand example, we have a player who, up to now, has been very passive, limping and calling down even hands as strong as Jacks. He’s now open-raised for the first time, in early position no less, and has exhibited some classic tells that would indicate a strong hand. I won’t go into the entire hand reading process here, but to make a long story short, we can confidently put this player on a tight, strong range that includes Queens, Kings, Aces, and maybe AK and AKs. We’ll also assume his line is one of cautious value; i.e., he probably doesn’t want more than one caller and would likely be happy to just take down the pot now.
Evaluate. The second step in the RED-X process is to mathematically evaluate the risks and rewards of different actions we might take in a hand, such as checking, calling, raising, or folding. If the potential reward is greater than the risk, it’s a profitable action to take. The problem is that poker is a probabilistic game; e.g., Aces (which are the best possible starting hand in Texas Hold’em) will still lose around 15% of the time against a random hand heads-up. Therefore, we need to evaluate risk and reward in a statistical, or “averaged long-run” manner. We do this via an Expected Value, or EV calculation, in which we estimate how much, on average, we will win if we make a certain play, and subtract how much we’ll lose on average with that play. If the result is positive, we say the play is profitable. If it’s negative, we shouldn’t make that play. The more positive an EV of a play is relative to another, the more we should consider making that play. Now, exactly how we do this EV calculation is the topic for another blog post, but the bottom line is that we require a means of determining our “equity” in the hand. In fact, there are two equities we have to calculate: (a) our pot equity, which essentially is how often our hand will win against the opponent’s range if we, say, call and go to a showdown; and (b) our fold equity, which is a measure of how often the opponent will fold if we bet or raise. Now, there are several shortcuts we can apply to simplify calculating these equities and, ultimately, the EV of the situation. For example, counting so-called “outs” when on a draw can help us estimate our pot equity. Similarly, being able to calculate odds and things like stack-to-pot ratios will also help short-circuit and simplify the EV calculation. These types of things are lumped into the general topic of “poker math,” which is essentially what we’re doing in this Evaluate step. For our simple OMC example, in which we’ve established that our opponent has the strong range of AA-QQ & AK+, we can safely assume that our fold equity is near zero; i.e., if we raise, we can expect the opponent to either call or re-raise, not fold. This leaves our options to folding or calling. Mathematically, the EV of folding in poker is always zero. The EV of calling depends on our equity, which is 31.8% in this situation (again, we’ll cover this in a later post).
Decide. The third step in the RED-X process is to use the results of the mathematical evaluation we just did to work through our options and help us decide on the most profitable line to take in the hand. In poker, the aim is to make so-called “plus EV” decisions over and over. If we can do this repeatedly, we can and will ultimately ride out the up-and-down variance of poker and crush the game, making consistent money with time. This is how casino owners get rich; they set the odds in their slots and table games to ensure they are in the plus EV catbird seat. Sure, they can lose in individual situations (and in fact, this is good advertising for them) but eventually, slot machine players go broke and the casino wins. In the OMC example, we saw that raising was a bad idea and folding was neutral, or zero EV. That leaves calling to consider. Now, strictly speaking, the nominal EV of calling is actually slightly negative, but there are other factors that mitigate the situation. For example, there are “implied odds” benefiting us; i.e., the effective stack size is large enough to make gambling worthwhile. This is amplified because we have pegged our opponent as somewhat blind to board texture and will call down in an obvious losing situation; i.e., he’s ripe to pay us off if we hit. Further, we will have the added advantage of position in the hand and can play nearly perfectly against the OMC, depending on the flop. So, in this situation, our best option is to call and try to pick up two pairs, a straight or a flush draw.
Execute. Finally, now that we know what our chosen line is, we need to execute that choice in a way that gives little information away about the strength of our hand or what our line is. At higher stakes, this execution step can include things like giving off so-called “reverse tells,” raising draws and semi-bluffing, slow-playing strong hands, and so on. In low stakes games, however, and especially against weak, inexperienced, or otherwise exploitable players like the OMC, the most optimal execution lines are often the most straightforward. We bet aggressively when we have a strong hand, and we play more passively when we’re weak or on a draw. In this example, before we act, we look left to ensure the one player remaining to act after us (i.e., the small blind) isn’t behaving as if they will raise us if we call. If we’re satisfied that we won’t get “squeezed” out of the pot, then we simply call the OMC’s bet and see the flop. Similarly, if we had decided that raising was more profitable than calling, we would have determined the most optimal raise size to make and then execute that raise.
All long-term winning players—whether or not they consciously realize it—follow some variant of these four RED-X steps in essentially every hand they play. Sure, some situations are so familiar, obvious, or “rote” that the player can quickly fast-forward to the correct action to take in the hand. But for essentially everything else, the best players always slow down and “R-E-D-X” the situation before acting. Taking the time to read, evaluate, decide, and execute correctly during play is one of the most important elements that separates the winners from the losers.
And so, with that in mind, the correct answer of “What should we do next?” in the hand is not to call. Yes, that’s what we eventually should do in this situation, but first we have to Read our opponent's hand range and line. In fact, if you look at the readers’ comments posted in the original hand post, you’ll notice that each correct answer also started-with/contained an estimate of the range of hands that the opponent likely holds. Folks, this is good poker: Reading your opponent before anything else. And then Evaluating, Deciding, and eXecuting, too…