One of the key ways that we'll use mathematical advantage in poker is to study the betting patters of our opponents. We've discussed this in other lessons, and now we'll look into this in a little more detail.
In poker, we want to not only base our decisions on the relative strength of our hand, but also put this in context of the play of our opponents. The strength of our hand is ultimately only relative, and it's relative to not only what others have, but how they play what they have.
People tend to play their cards in specific, definable patterns. By paying close attention to their play, we can pick up on these patterns, and use it to our advantage against them. And we also need to pay attention to their picking up OUR patterns, and to the extent that this is the case, we can adjust to throw them off.
In the softer games we seek though, opponents usually aren't paying a whole lot of attention to our patterns of play. Even the better players, who have at least a decent understanding of reading patterns of opponents, are often playing more than one table at once, spreading their attention way too thin to get a good read on anyone's patterns.
Keep in mind that reading patterns is different from just reading a players' playing style. We may characterize a player as passive or aggressive, loose or tight, and so on. However, picking up on his patterns is a much more detailed matter. We want to know when he's aggressive, when he's passive, and by how much. We want to know when he's loose, when he's tight, and by how much. We want to know his tendencies in any given situation, so we can take advantage of it mathematically.
To keep things simple for now, let's look at a heads up situation. We're up against a single opponent at a table. For each situation, we want to know the percentage of times he folds, checks, calls, bets, and raises. You can calculate this as an overall percentage, or better, you could go for each particular situation.
Let's take the example of playing on the flop, so we can get a feel for the type of thinking this is going to involve. Let's say he bets it out on the flop when acting first 80% of the time. What sort of hands are we looking to call with? If he was betting every hand out, then the bet means nothing and we can just look at our own cards. However, he's checking some of these, so he's being selective. The bottom 20% of his hands aren't being bet.
So we take this and assess it in terms of our own cards. Let's say we have bottom pair. For him to have a better hand, he'd have to hit one of the other top cards on the flop. There are 3 cards for each out of 47, and he's got two cards of course. This gives him 12 chances out of 47, or roughly 25%. He's betting 80% of the time though so more often than not he's betting without a hand this strong. So our bottom pair will be ahead most of the time, so we'll call.
This might seem complicated, but what's important is to set out the thinking here, and as you gain experience, these decisions will become more and more second nature. The rule of thumb is that he's got a 12% chance to have any given card on the flop paired, and you just apply this to his betting rate. This isn't exact, but it's close enough to give us an idea of what to do.
You want this to be less than half his betting rate here, since this would represent an advantage for us, insofar as when he's betting this rate, it represents a chance to have a certain hand or other, and we want to have him have less of a chance to beat us than not based upon his betting rate. If he only bet one time in 3, for instance, we'd want to fold our bottom pair, since chances are he'd have us beat. Or if all we had is a high card and no pair, and he bet half the time, we'd want to fold (3 x 12% is 36%, so he'd have to be betting it out 72% of the time or more for us to be able to call).
Our information often isn't this precise on a player, where we're called into action with much less at times. However, this again shows the importance of having as much information about an opponent as we can get, so we can use it against him. Using a spreadsheet is a very valuable tool here, and we'll discuss the importance of spreadsheets more in later lessons. For now, what's important is that you get the gist of what we're after here.
Now, let's look at the same situation on the flop, and assess the opponent's actions when we bet into him. What we want here is his fold percentage in this situation. So, let's say he calls 60% of the time and folds 40%. We need to first decide what sort of hand we should be betting here. Of course, this is prior to his acting, so we'll be putting him on a random hand and betting anytime we have the advantage over a random hand. However, there may be other times we'd want to bet as well, to take advantage of his fold rate. In this case though, since he's only folding 40% of the time, we'll assume he's folding his weaker 40% and just bet when we have the advantage.
If his fold rate is 60%, however, he's folding some hands which are better than random, and we want to take advantage of this by betting more hands. We could actually bet out every hand in such a situation, but we don't want to, even though this would give us a mathematical advantage. We just don't want a mathematical advantage, we want the best advantage we can get.
Let's look at why betting every flop wouldn't be the ideal thing. Let's say we have garbage, and the only way we will win the hand is by him folding. But he folds 60% right? So we're going to win 60% of the times we bet. It's a little more complicated than this though. If we bet every hand, we're going to tip him off for sure, unless he's completely brain dead. Then his fold rate is probably going to go below 50%, which we don't want, since we'd end up losing the advantage we had in this respect. So we want to be more selective in our betting, and while we'll bet more often than not, we'll check our real junk so that he doesn't pick up on what we're doing anywhere near as easily.
These determinations apply to every particular situation. The main thing here of course is figuring out what the percentages are for each player, or at least a rough idea if that's all we can come up with, then we can use this valuable information to help decide what the best way to proceed will be. We've covered some of the basics of this, and we'll go into more specific situations in more detail later. For now though, track your opponents as best you can, as this will help you greatly, even if it's just in giving you a better sense of what to do.