Friday, July 13, 2012
Should poker players embrace new forms of poker?
This post, possibly the last in my series of posts addressing non-adversarial concerns of poker players, was quite difficult for me to put together because I changed my mind about the answer. I used to think that embracing new forms of poker was a good thing, but after considering it more carefully I now think most players are justified in their reluctance to spend time on a new game.
As I was gearing up to write this article, I convinced myself that my affinity for new games came mostly from the fact that my advantage comes from my superior fundamentals and creativity. After all, playing a new game requires players to draw on fundamental, general principles of poker as opposed to the knowledge of the peculiarities of a particular game. I concocted an analogy between a poker player who plays the same form of poker each day and a golfer who plays the same course each day. Sure, such a golfer could probably establish a profitable advantage over other players on that one course, but if you were truly a good golfer, you would embrace the challenge of playing a new course. You would need to draw on your creativity and your ability to see parallels with courses you've played before, and having good fundamentals would help carry you through the challenge.
In reality, I doubt any professional golfer would tee off for a tournament without ever having practiced the course, and poker players who insist on practicing a new form of poker before anteing up are being similarly prudent. The truth is, I, too, am hesitant to jump into new games for substantial stakes. Instead, I try the game at low stakes first, which is similar to practicing a golf course before a tournament. I think I was fooling myself in thinking that I was willing to put my fundamentals and creativity to the test to the same extent that I have been willing to put to the test my time-tested skills in games like No Limit Hold'em. In NLHE, I have hundreds of hours of results and statistics to support my decision to play at substantial stakes.
That said, I do think there is substantial value in occasionally playing poker variants for low stakes. For one thing, it can act as practice for the games you play regularly. It forces you to focus on different aspects of poker and might help you to see new strategic parallels. In unfamiliar games, the mistakes of your opponents tend to be far more pronounced, and so you might notice some tendencies that are too subtle to have noticed in NLHE but would still be exploitable. Also, exercising your creativity really is fun, and this can reenergize your poker game in general.
You could also choose to do your homework and become truly superior player at a new game. Spend a few days studying the odds for drawing various hands. Work out the correct amounts to bet, call, or raise in several representative scenarios. Play heads-up with a friend and see what situations call for further study. Then play for a day at the lowest stakes offered and make note of what types of mistakes your opponents make. Go back home and calculate how best to exploit them. Then take a stab at some more substantial stakes. At this point, you are probably going to be one of the best players, because very few people will have gone to all this trouble. They will mostly be like me, having fun venturing into unfamiliar waters with only their wits about them. You will have both your wits and a flashlight to help you see where you are going. Still, take care to observe your opponents' mistakes. If you can't find any and you aren't winning, move back down in stakes. This is probably the only prudent and professional way to play a new game for substantial stakes. Your advantage will probably diminish after a few weeks.
Playing a new game can be fun and even profitable, but, like anything, it carries with it an opportunity cost. If you enjoy doing your own research, you can calculate the odds and exploit the unexperienced players for a while, and this might temporarily give you a higher EV than your opponents. On the other hand, it might not, and you are forgoing the value of playing in your standard game (or doing something else entirely).
One thing I've been trying to do with this series is to consider what effect each proposal would have on the poker community as a whole. So, would embracing new games help the community? It's hard to say, but I can see some potential benefits. It could attract interest from new players. Having the option to play a new game also provides a fun alternative for players like me, who might want a break from NLHE every once in a while. Perhaps most significantly, a new and better game always has a chance to catch on and revolutionize poker. After all, Texas Hold'em and was a new game not so very long ago.