Should you favor a theoretically sound strategy or play exploitative poker? This question has been a hot debate in the poker world for the past several years.
Some are fierce supporters of theory (sometimes to their stack’s detriment), while others insist that theoretically sound poker has no value and should be disregarded (an absurd proposition).
As with everything in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. A balanced approach will ensure a smooth transition as you move through the stakes, and making smart, exploitative adjustments will help you maximize your winnings.
With this in mind, today we’ll discuss 3 spots where you should deviate from a balanced strategy in order to exploit the general tendencies of the world player pool. Spoiler: you’re gonna have to make some tough folds.
1. Bluff-catching against river raises
The first spot to deviate from a balanced strategy is when facing a river raise. Here’s why.
Many players have never intentionally bluff-raised a river. Not once. And those who look for river spots to bluff-raise do so only occasionally.
Moreover, this trend, of under-bluffing when raising on the river, has been observed across all stakes, from the micros to the nosebleeds.
For example, suppose you’ve raised first in on the Button and the Big Blind called. Suppose you then triple barrel with 6♦ 5♦ on 9♠ 8♠ 7♦ 3♥ 2♥, and you get raised on the river.
Even if you find the nerve to fold, doing so would mean that you’d be folding around 80–90% of your range. This will make theory purists scream in agony. After all, your opponent should not have J-T here, because he should have raised on the flop or the turn, right?
Against most players’ river raises, you need to discount what they should have done on previous streets. It’s just a fact that, currently, most players will almost always have the goods when they put in a raise on the river.
If you suspect or know your opponent is capable of big bluffs like this, you should, of course, call. But these players are few and far between, even at high stakes. Andres “educa-p0ker” Artinano makes this clear in the “River Overbetting with Doug Polk” video of his Elite Cash Game Mastery course:
In 6-max, most people moved up in stakes by folding [on the river] because most people under-bluff…at some points you need to be bluffing much much more because people learned that folding was the right way. And I’m also, like, “a folder”– everyone is a folder in 6-max.
If Andres, TrueTeller, OtB_RedBaron and other high stakes cash game players reached the top by making big folds, you should probably make some big folds too.
It’s not the sexiest play in poker, but it’s usually the correct one: just look at your opponent, smile, and muck your hand.
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2. Bluff-catching against turn raises
The second spot to deviate from a balanced strategy is when an opponent raises on the turn. This is a spot where every seasoned pro will tell you they’ve laid down strong hands.
Now, this is not as clear a spot as facing a raise on the river, since players have different ideas about what hands are strong enough to raise for value. With this in mind, a good rule of thumb is to call when your hand beats the bottom of your opponent’s value range (which represents north of 70% of his raising range).
Editor’s note: You may have heard similar advice before in the form of “The Baluga Theorem”. Andrew “BalugaWhale” Seidman posited this theorem on TwoPlusTwo back in 2006. It states “You should strongly re-evaluate the strength of one-pair hands in the face of a raise on the turn.”
For example, let’s say you raise first in from Middle Position and the Big Blind calls. You hold AKo, and double-barrel on A♦ 7♠ 4♥ T♥. The Big Blind then check-raises to 3x your bet.
Here, even though your hand is definitely part of the theoretically proper defending range, you should consider folding unless you have strong reads that your opponent is attempting to play a balanced strategy. The only type of weak hands that you could continue here would be ones with clean outs to improve: A♥ X♥ or combo draws like 9♥ 8♥, Q♥ J♥, K♥ J♥ etc. Like the river raise, a check-raise in a spot like this is too rarely a bluff.
3. Bluff-catching against multiway raises
Playing well in multiway pots is crucial for your success. However, multiway situations are difficult to model because of the number of players (ranges) involved, and solving them becomes exponentially more difficult.
It’s therefore difficult to say exactly what a correct c-betting or betting range looks like in multiway pots. We have learned from the PokerSnowie solver (which is imperfect, but still helpful) that the correct strategy seems to be a very tight one: keep your betting range snug and strong, and avoid bluffing.
Having said that, suppose that you hold AA in a multiway pot. You bet, and get raised on a board of T♥ 7♠ 4♦.
This is a spot to step back and look closer at what’s going on. Once you get called in two or three or four spots preflop, you ought to no longer be thrilled with your hand. With several calls, AA’s equity decreases significantly. Take a look at this heads-up vs. multiway equity comparison:
Consider now how bad your hand looks when you bet and face a raise — there are 3 ranges that contain all the sets, and at least one of them has most of the possible two pairs.
Your opponents are not likely to attack your bet with gut shots, open-enders, or weaker value hands. You are almost certainly being raised by a made hand, and are in no position to bluff-catch. You can, therefore, make an easy ‘tough’ fold with AA, here.
Side note: one could easily argue that AA should check on this flop in a four-way pot, though the vast majority of players would probably bet it.
Ultimately, you should endeavor to switch between a theory-based strategy and an exploitative one based on the situation at hand. The three spots we discussed today are just a few fairly obvious times to deviate from a balanced strategy. Others are not so easy to recognize and analyze.
Remember to keep an open mind, and that there is value in considering alternative ways of playing some spot or another.
If you want to learn more about this topic, check out Doug Polk’s article GTO vs Exploitative Play: Which is the Better Strategy?
As always, if you have questions or comments use the comment section below.
And good luck, grinders!
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