Doug Polk’s entire course Advanced Heads-Up Mastery is more than 20 hours long and spread over 80+ videos, so there is a lot to talk about. I’ve included a 30-minute video straight from the course at the bottom of this article. It features Doug 4-tabling against a top pro at $100/$200, so make sure you don’t miss that!
There were two major traits that really stood out and caught my attention almost immediately: completeness and universality:
By completeness, I am referring to the fact that Doug’s work is thorough and all-inclusive. That is, every possible situation that can occur in a HU game (from preflop to river check-raises) is analyzed deeply and from both perspectives.
By universality, I mean that Doug’s methodical approach and winning strategy is largely independent of the game format itself. Most of the technical nuances and adjustments are a result of the inevitably wide ranges players employ in HU and not of the logical reasoning used. The latter is rather universal and bound only by the poker variant (NL-holdem).
In other words, one could easily apply the ideas described in Polk’s work in pretty much any NL situation that involves 2 players (and perhaps even more) regardless of whether it is shorthanded, full-ring, tournament or cash game. This could explain why Doug is so successful in so many different disciplines of No Limit. Once someone learns how to deal with wide ranges and deep stacks, it only gets easier from there.
The big five
Throughout Doug Polk’s work, I was able to identify five different types of videos based on their educational value. Doug is a natural communicator so the categorization is pretty clean.
1) Conceptual: These are the videos where Polk dissects a concept theoretically and mathematically based on objective factors such as pot-size, stack-sizes and general player tendencies. Videos on sizing, texture, frequencies and range decomposition fall under this category.
2) Database Analysis: Doug supports his case through an extensive use of his own database of over 300,000 hands. He is using Poker Tracker and he is able to navigate through different filters rather quickly, something that users of different HUDs (such as Holdem Manager) may need some time getting used to.
3) Game Trees: Doug uses a private software which encapsulates both his and his opponents’ entire game tree. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a game tree breaks down every possible action in a hand with its corresponding likelihood. For example, it provides percentage dichotomies on lines such as the following: How often did the SB bet vs check on the flop? If the SB bet, how often did the BB fold vs call vs raise? And so on… This is a really nice touch as the viewer can see Doug’s entire strategy in a concise and descriptive manner.
4) Specific Spots: Every possible scenario that could happen both pre-flop and post-flop has its own special video. Examples include but they are not limited to, facing turn check-raises, triple barreling, facing a c-bet in position after a pre-flop 3bet etc.
5) Gameplay: Last but not least, Doug does some thorough commentary on a 6+ hours video series on a session he played with Ben “Sauce123” Sulsky at 100/200 HUNL.
A good beginning is half the battle
If I were to choose one segment from Polk’s course to recommend to every single player playing NL holdem (not just HUNL), it would be his very thorough work on pre-flop play. Although seemingly innocuous, players may be forfeiting a significant amount of money by taking incorrect preflop actions, like not raising enough buttons or giving up way too many pots from out of position against a min-open.
Doug combines the advanced ideas of “minimum defense frequencies” and “positional over/under-realization” to create a very potent and scientifically grounded pre-flop guide. This guide alone is enough to fix most break-even players’ major leaks.
As a matter of fact, due to the trait of universality, his ideas are applicable to other games too. For instance, I was able to modify one of the provided spreadsheets to adjust for a local game in LA with a large ante. These spreadsheets can also be adjusted to include the rake! (More on this later).
Profitability Over Optimality
Those who follow my work, know that I am quite critical of how solvers and Game-Theory-Optimal (GTO) strategies are promoted by the industry. This may sound hypocritical, since I have taught Game Theory classes myself. That being said, just because one owns a hammer, one should not necessarily perceive every problem as a nail. There is a proper time and place for everything.
A complex subject such as game-theoretical optimality (not to be confused with maximum profitability!) is no different. Even non-professionals may notice that the topic is highly overused and misapplied, leaving players with diminishing returns at best and unnecessary confusion at worst. Simply put, GTO strategies are not only too complex to master but — in the majority of cases — they are not even the most profitable choice for the player who employs them. Doug seems to understand this deeply and almost instinctively!
To remedy this, Doug does uses balancing strategies instead. Unlike GTO strategies which by definition ignore all player tendencies, proper balancing makes use of their undeniable existence and attempts to build a healthy unpredictability against them. This simpler non-robotic approach makes hero’s actions very hard to deal with, but without sacrificing intuition, a very efficient way to create a deadly skill-differential (a.k.a “edge”) based purely on reasoning and deduction, rather than unintuitive memorization.
Inevitably, Hero’s rate of mistakes drops, while the likelihood of opponents’ mistakes and Hero’s profitability rise as a result. A classic example would be a suggestion to check certain flops with one’s entire range. Although no solver would ever take such an absolute line, it is rather practical for a human to do so, especially if they properly dissect both ranges after that. This is something that Doug Polk does so masterfully. Proper range decomposition at any given moment! Incidentally, this is the theme of his entire work. Which brings us to the next point.
Range vs Range Analysis
Doug makes each decision with entire ranges in mind. His aptitude to navigate specific hands while keeping track of all the other hands he would play in a similar way is uncanny. However, because this ability is based on pure logic and sound mathematical calculations, it can be taught and trained. As a matter of fact, it is rather clear that this is the main goal of his educational style. A “user-friendly” approach that rewards those who are willing to do the work. Doug does an exceptional job guiding the audience through every step of this process.
Useful for Non-Heads-Up players
It may be tempting to assume that this work is only useful to those who play Heads-Up or at the very least to cash game players. As we saw in the introduction, this is not the case. If one ignores the wider than average HU ranges, the ideas explored in the course are applicable to any 2-way situation, whether in a heads-up table or at a full ring. I would argue that it is highly valuable to tournament players as well.
Understanding the factors that determine how one should decide “Which hand goes where in a range and why?” is one of the key questions any successful NL player should answer and what separates marginal from consistent winners.
Doug Polk improves as he goes
One of the traits I admire the most in successful individuals — regardless of their domain — is their ability to identify their own shortcomings and learn from them. (If you want to read more about my thoughts on the subject you can do so here.) This is not only a sign of integrity but it also implies authenticity and genuine mastery, as no expert is ever truly flawless.
While reviewing his own database, Doug humbly calls himself out seamlessly and repeatedly every time he thinks his stats should have been different. What makes it even more impressive is that his winrate has reportedly been one of the highest in the world. This should speak volume about his character, work ethic and expertise. I am a firm believer that the relationship between an educator and a student is not that of an omniscient and an ignorant being, but rather a mutually supported journey towards knowledge and truth.
The only thing that distinguishes a “master” from their “apprentice” is experience. Doug takes this idea to the next level (and other reviewers agree).
Another important characteristic about Doug’s work is his constant comparison with his own opponents. Taking a simultaneous look at both Hero’s and Villains’ stats side by side is of paramount importance as it reveals the areas in which Polk historically performed better than his competition, thus making it clear where his edge is coming from.
This is what poker mental game expert Tommy Angelo would call “reciprocality”, the notion that if we were to reverse the cards of Hero and Villain, one would have performed better than the other (all else being equal). In a vacuum, the one who would perform better over time has the edge.
All in all, Doug Polk does an exceptional job organizing and summarizing the techniques he used throughout his successful career to beat not only HU games but also all other NL-based formats.
Although games are constantly evolving and player tendencies will inevitably change with them, Doug’s deduction principles would always be relevant, for as long as the game remains unsolved. His thinking process is his most valuable asset and it is now openly available to those who want to incorporate it into their own games.
I’ll leave you with a free video from the course:
If you liked this video, you can get the whole course for $150 off by using the coupon code MATH150 at checkout. Learn more now!