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Dynamic Strategy - Part 2
Poker Strategy
by Lou Krieger

Part one of this three-part series discussed the need to apply strategic concepts in order to play optimally. Here are some specific examples and their consequences.

The way in which problems are defined has a great deal to do with the solutions that are eventually chosen. This is known as bounding a problem, and bounding issues come up all the time at the Poker table. It’s easy to see that the way you define or bound a problem points you strongly in the direction of one—or another—strategic choice. Consider this. When you play, are you attempting to win the most pots or the most money? If you’re after the most pots, your strategy will be very different than if your goal is winning the most money. After all, if you want to win every pot, you should play every hand but you’ll probably go broke in the process. Winning the most money requires being selective and playing aggressively when you have the best of it. While selective play means you won’t win some pots you might have, you’re certain to do a lot better in the long run than someone who plays every pot to the bitter end.

Even world-class professionals make the mistake of bounding the problem incorrectly. Three players remained at the final table of a major Poker tournament. Michael had almost twice the number of chips as his two opponents, who were approximately equal in chip position. The payoffs were as follows: $230,000 to first place, $115,000 for second, and $55,200 for third. In a heads-up situation against Michael, Harold went all in on the flop when two diamonds fell, giving him a flush draw. It was all or nothing for him. Either the flush would come giving Harold the win, doubling his stack, and solidly ensconcing him in second place, or else he would be out of the tournament. With two cards to come he had a 35 percent chance of making his hand and a 65 percent chance of busting out. He was a 1.9:1 underdog in a situation where overcoming the odds and winning the hand was no guarantee of a higher payoff in the tournament. As it happened, Harold’s flush never came. But the big winner was Tom—and he wasn’t even in the hand! He went from a virtual tie for second/third place to a guarantee of second place money, a difference of $59,800. Tom would have been a winner regardless of the result. If Harold won the hand, Tom would have still been in third place, but Michael would no longer have had the substantial chip lead enabling him to hammer the shorter stacks with relentless bets and raises. In the end, however, Tom made a remarkable comeback by defeating Michael.

But why would a top tournament player like Harold make the strategic decision to contest that pot as an underdog, when the risk clearly outweighed the reward? Possibly a deal could already have been cut between the three of them. If an agreement had been made, they were only playing for the glory with the payout having already been decided. But if not, it’s quite likely that Harold was so focused on the play that he was unable to dissociate from the immediacy of the situation, perhaps simply not aware that Tom, who held no cards, also had a major stake in the outcome of that hand. That momentary lack of awareness, entirely natural considering the intense concentration required to survive as one of the final three in a $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em tournament, could easily lead to a mistake in bounding a problem. As a result, the wrong strategy was selected. In the latter stages of a tournament, anytime someone is knocked out, you stand to improve your own payoff position. Clearly Tom was contained within the boundaries of this problem, even though he was not in contention for the pot. Moreover, he was assured of being either a small winner, or a big winner, at absolutely no risk to himself. He went on to win the tournament, and that hand—which he had no active role in—might have been the decisive one.

We’ll talk more about dynamic strategy next time, but for now just realize that no one, not even world class professionals, are immune from the implications of incorrect strategic selections.

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