Meaningful and Meaningless Errors


You are heads up on the button, 30 big blinds deep, and you raise with AA. Your opponent calls, and you see a K63 flop, no flush draw possible. You continuation bet and get called. The turn is a 9 – still no potential flush draw. Again, your opponent check/calls. The river is a queen, and to your surprise, your opponent moves all-in. Suddenly, a pair of aces shrinks up in your head. There are only a couple of possible missed draws, and your opponent could easily have been trapping with two pair or a set. Could he have somehow called the flop with JT? Could he ever take this line with just a pair of kings? You hit the timebank, thinking about other aspects of the hand – just how often you need to be good given the size of the bet, and everything you’ve seen from your opponent so far. Finally, you decide to click the call button. Your opponent shows up with Q9, and instantly declines the rematch.

Memories of hands like this will keep a poker player up at night. Were you supposed to find a fold? It will of course depend on the aforementioned (unmentioned) details, but in general, this situation seems pretty close to me. There are few coherent hands for our opponent to take this line with, either for value or for bluff. You will see some traps, some missed straight draws, and some hands that are played completely nonsensically (some of those you beat, some of those you don’t). But it is a rather rare situation – you will not see it come up very often. It is also a fairly tough question – it is difficult to get at a very precise approximation of what your opponent’s range is, and our best guess makes calling and folding fairly close in expectation.

To some people, this makes for a very important and meaningful poker question to ask for help about. The decision was agonizing. It turns out that our opponent had a better hand. We had no idea what to do, and the situation seems novel and interesting. From this perspective, it might seem like a good idea to invest a lot of time into thinking about whether or not calling was an error.

However, the fact that this situation was rare, and the decision was close, actually means the exact opposite: What we decide about this spot will have close to no impact on our winnings going forward. Getting an answer about whether most of your good friends think it is “close, but probably a call” or “close, but probably a fold” may help you close the computer and get to sleep, won’t actually help you make more money in the future.

One of the most influential pieces of poker strategy I picked up in my career was written by Ed Miller, and was actually about full ring limit hold ‘em. In a thread on the twoplustwo forums, he pointed out that how meaningful your mistakes are is a function of the frequency of how often you get into that situation, and the magnitude of how much reduced your expectation is when making a suboptimal play. Multiplied together, those tell you how significant your mistake was. Therefore, the more rare the situation and the closer the decision, the less you should careabout the answer of what action you should have taken.

Of course, this does oversimplify things a bit. From talking about this hand, we do learn more about generic bluffcatching decisions. We can learn that folding here if a flush draw were present on the flop is much more often going to be a significant error, and talk about what that implies about the importance of board texture in all sorts of different situations. Plus, it is often simply more fun to talk about decisions that are rare, and being able to enjoy talking about poker theory is valuable, too. However, people very often get caught up needing to know “the answer”, and the answer here is essentially meaningless. Dwelling on it is an example of what we talked about in the last article: Studying that feels good, but won’t actually have any impact on your winrate.

More meaningful errors often come from less interesting situations. Folding to a minraise with 97o without any significant reads that your opponent is opening a tight range will only lose you a fraction of a big blind in expectation every time you do it. However, because that situation happens over and over again, especially considering all of the similar hands that we may also be erroneously folding, it makes for a very meaningful mistake. In fact, a later article will talk about my recommended out of position playing range, and show data that suggests a more conservative (but not crazily so) range would have cost me around $60,000 over my poker career. Because these decisions happen so frequently, they add up dramatically over time.

Despite this, these decisions are also the ones that people often want to talk about the least. It may be because talking about these fundamentals of opening and calling ranges, whether or not to continuation bet, and the extent of which you should adapt various basic frequencies to your opponent’s tendencies are generally not the sort of choices that people feel cool about spending time thinking about. Sometimes it is also because people are comfortable having some aspects of their play criticized, like the unusual, complex decisions, and find it very uncomfortable when told that they are getting a much simpler decision incorrect. Often this is accompanied with some rationale about “style” – how they just prefer to check back some hands and use a small-ball approach, or not get into too many marginal spots out of position. These statements tend to boil down to the position of “even if I am wrong and some other play has better expectation, I am still right because I play a different style and I win with it”. This type of argument is almost always unconvincing, especially because it is a way of saying “either I’m right, or I’m right”. Instead of going this route, you should embrace the chance to discover changes that can lead you to make significantly more money.

Because of this reality, we will talk a lot about basic decisions in this ebook – the fundamental frequencies and adjustments to be making day in and day out in common situations against different opponents. These articles will also showcase the true complexity of these types of choices, and demonstrate how advanced analysis can be a significant help in making better decisions, not just in theoretical exercises. As we go, think about the questions we have talked about so far – what are you learning that is going to change the way you approach actual situations in-game? How significant are your errors, in terms of the frequency and the magnitude that they occur? Keeping your attention on these questions will lead to the most meaningful gains.

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