Sunday, August 23, 2009

Analyzing NLHE:TAP Concept 4

The third installment of my analysis of the Concepts in Sklansky and Miller's No Limit Hold 'em: Theory and Practice.

Concept No. 4: Sometimes you should bluff to stop a bluff.

This is a really interesting idea, but after giving it a lot of consideration, I'm confident that it is generally wrong.

There are, of course, plenty of situations where your hand has some showdown value but you'll fold if your opponent bets. Obviously, your opponent will gain a lot if he bluffs in these situations. What this concept says is that sometimes it's worth bluffing with these mediocre holdings yourself in order to avoid being put in a difficult situation. This is almost true in some extreme examples, but it's kind of a stupid way to think about it because the reason you bet isn't really that you want to stop a bluff. I remember a similar piece of advice, I think it is from Mike Caro, that is much more insightful: If your opponent bluffs either way too much or way too little, be more willing to check to him. This gives you a chance to exploit his extreme bluffing frequency. Call if he bluffs too much, fold if he never bluffs. Let me explain how Caro's advice is similar and superior to S+M's.

Against most opponents, it's not a bad idea to assume they play about as well after you bet as they do after you check. If you've noticed that a certain player does not fit this description, you can try to exploit it. As Caro points out, if they play terribly after you check (by not bluffing a reasonable amount), you should tend to check very often. This is especially true if your opponent plays reasonably well after you bet. On the the hand, if your opponent plays terribly after you bet (eg by folding way too much), you should tend to bet very often. This is especially true if your opponent plays reasonably well after you check.

In the example Sklansky and Miller use to illustrate their point, they describe an opponent who folds to a bet of 30% of the pot 50% of the time. This is way too much. (In this example, he should call/raise with over 75% of his hands.) Bluffing such an opponent is extremely lucrative, and should be done as often as possible. To make this point even stronger in the book's example, your opponent bluffs reasonably often if you check.

The thing is, Sklansky and Miller do not acknowledge that this opponent is folding way too much, which is the real lesson of their example. Instead, they frame the example around the fact that you are holding a hand that is difficult to play against a bluff. Thus, the reader is given the impression that players with mediocre hands should usually consider bluffing. This is only true against opponents who play terribly when facing a bet! Even in these cases, you are not really betting to avoid a bluff, as Sklansky and Miller put it; rather, you are betting to exploit a weakness in your opponent's play (ie, he folds way too much). Against most opponents, betting mediocre holdings is a big mistake! Note also that against the opponent in this example, you should be bluffing not only with mediocre holdings, but also with all weaker hands. The weaker the hand, the more profitable it is to bluff. This is a basic lesson from game theory. Assuming Sklansky and Miller know this, they obscure this point so badly that they make it seem like it is actually better to bluff with mediocre hands than with weaker ones.

Although I think this Concept's claim is sort of correct, it's very misleading and seems based on bad reasoning. I think that if readers were to take this concept's advice to heart, it would make them play worse! Instead, take Mike Caro's advice and try to exploit your opponents' weaknesses by putting them into situations where they don't play as well.

So far Sklansky and Miller are a surprisingly bad 1 for 4 in their Concept advice. Of course, you may think they are correct and I am the one who is a surprisingly bad 1 for 4 in my analysis! Anyway, I'm quite surprised to see how little I agree with them after only four concepts. When I started this project, I knew there were a few points I disagreed with, but I thought I was mostly going to be integrating their advice into my poker consciousness. I had no intention to be quite so contrarian. I am hoping things are less contentious from here on out, but I guess disagreement probably makes for more interesting blogging!

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