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Manipulating Uncertainty in Poker Hands
Poker is about making decisions while in a state of uncertainty. Players have to act without knowing each other's cards.
By manipulating your opponents' uncertainty concerning your hand, you can get them to call your strong hands and fold to your bluffs.
Putting an Opponent on a Hand Range
When you're up against an opponent in a poker hand, you try to judge what cards he or she is holding.
Most of the time you can't tell the exact two cards, so you put the opponent on a range of probable hands and then try to compare that range to your own hand - while taking account of pot odds and implied odds and so on.
For example, in a poker tournament, if a player raises in early position, maybe you put him on something like AA-9-9 plus A-K/A-Q, keeping in mind there's a chance he's just trying to steal the blinds.
If the raise comes from the button, the range of probable hands will usually be much wider, including suited connectors, low aces, etc., and the chance that he's on a steal might also be much bigger.
Your evaluation depends on all kinds of factors that are available to you, such as previous hands, the stakes you're playing at, trends in the poker community, anything you know about the individual player, and of course the bets that are being made in the hand.
While weak players may make a very specific guess about your hand ("I put him on A-K") and go with that guess, your skilled opponents will be reasoning about probable hand ranges when trying to figure you out.
Depending on how the betting goes, they will try to narrow down your hand range as the hand goes along.
Preserve Uncertainty to Keep Them Guessing
And this is where you get the chance to manipulate your fellow players. It's important in poker to bet in a way that doesn't let your opponent define your hand. By mixing up the game, you make your betting pattern hard to interpret.
You sometimes raise with bad hands, sometimes just call with good hands. When you make a stab at the pot, you might have any two cards or maybe you just flopped the nuts - who knows? You try not to give away the kind of hand you have; you try to be unpredictable.
Bob Ciaffone talks about the "value of having an unlimited hand" in his Pot-Limit and No-Limit Poker (with Reuben).
Dan Harrington describes how he plays the same hand in different ways in order to be unpredictable (Harrington on Hold 'em). Game theory indicates that mixed strategies are necessary to optimize your expected value (EV).
If you can maintain your opponents' uncertainty concerning your hand, you will see your strong hands paid off more. For example, when you bet out on the flop with a top pair or a set, opponents will play their middle pair, knowing that you'll often bet out on a missed flop.
Strong opponents will know that your pot-sized river bet doesn't mean that you have the nuts. You can have a range of various hands, some of which they can beat, and so the pot odds tell them to call you down with their losing hands.
The situation is illustrated by Daniel Negreanu on High Stakes Poker, when he says to an opponent with a better hand: "I can't put you on a hand, I think I will have to call you." (Read the PokerListings.com Strategy Snapshot here.)
Defining Your Hand to Pull Off a Bluff
On the other hand, when you bet a bluff, you don't want your opponent to call. In this case, a broad hand range in your opponent's mind will work to your disadvantage. It forces him or her to call you too often.
To set up an effective bluff, you'll want to remove any uncertainty around your hand strength. You bet in a way that leaves little doubt that you're holding strong - you tell a story the opponent can really trust.
If it seems very likely that you do have the strong hand you're representing, calling will seem like a losing proposition to your opponent. For each degree of uncertainty left in your opponent, the probability that he will call you goes up, and the value of your bluff goes down.
For sure, when pot odds are bad or there's a lot of money left to bet on later streets, a bluff can succeed even though the opponent feels some doubt about the whole thing. Nevertheless, less is more when it comes to uncertainty in connection with bluffing.
According to Phil Gordon (in hisLittle Green Book), when a player puts in the fourth pre-flop raise, he always holds a pair of aces.
So, if you play against Phil, or someone who has read his book, and you get the chance to put in that fourth raise, your opponent just might narrow down your hand range to include only aces and then throw away his premium hand - regardless of what you actually have.
Controlling Uncertainty with Your Betting
Various betting patterns influence uncertainty in different ways. Some bets divulge nothing about your hand, while others pinpoint your holdings more or less exactly.
A bet that looks standard typically won't change the perceived hand range much, while an unexpected bet might narrow it down rapidly.
Sometimes, a re-raise or a check-raise may signal some pretty specific holdings, while a flat-call or a standard continuation bet may leave the door open for a lot of different hands.
On the other hand, using reverse psychology, a flat-call may sometimes signal more strength than the expected "standard raise" (e.g. the "float play").
In his Squeeze Play, DanHarrington lists a prime example of a bluff where you use the well-defined nature of your own hand against the wider hand ranges of your opponents: One player raises pre-flop, which can imply a range of hands.
One player just calls, which also indicates a wide hand range. If another player calls, his hand range is even wider. Then you step in with a sizable re-raise. Against two or three players, this typically defines your hand as being very strong.
The idea is that with their weaker hands, on average, the opponents will not be able to call you, most of the time. Remember, it's a match between the hand range you think the opponent puts you on and the hand range that you put her on. It's all about probable holdings.
Of course, the entire context in which a bet is made governs how it's interpreted. Good players develop a strong feeling for how to read different moves in specific situations. You must know their way of reasoning, so you can manipulate it. Your total understanding of poker comes into play.
In some situations it will be very difficult to find a bet that preserves uncertainty without putting your vulnerable hand at risk, for example, when you have flopped top pair on a dangerous board with straight and flush draws.
In this case you need to bet the hand to maximize your equity, even though it means defining your made hand and not winning any more bets with it.
After all, uncertainty is not the be-all and end-all of poker. It is a valuable implement in your poker toolbox, though.
Comparing Hand Ranges
To find possible plays in various situations, you may want to consider how your hand range compares to that of your opponent's - that is, the range you think she puts you on compared to the range you put her on.
If most hands in your range beat most hands in your opponent's range, you can bet a bad hand with a good chance of picking up the pot. That is, if you think that she thinks that she's probably behind.
On the other hand, with a strong hand in that situation it will be hard to get any action. This is the motive behind slow-playing - you want to represent a wider hand range, so that your opponent will keep playing her probable lesser hand.
It's also interesting to note how the actual hand you hold compares to your hand range: is it weak or strong compared to the hand range that your opponent puts you on?
For example, if you think the opponent puts you on a medium-to-high pair or a good ace, actually holding aces puts you in a different spot compared to actually holding eights (the precise spot being defined by board cards, etc.)
If the average hand in your range is worse than the average hand of your opponent, but your actual hand is much better, you must be prepared to defend your hand against an opponent coming on strongly, understanding that he doesn't know your actual strength, only your average.
If you make him uncertain about your hand, it follows that you must not overestimate his confidence in his own hand.
As always in poker, multiple levels of reasoning are possible here. You can estimate what hand range your opponent thinks you put him on and use it in connection with betting to influence the hand range he thinks you think he's putting you on, etc.
Normally, though, two or three levels of analysis will cover most of what's happening in a game of poker.
Consciously Using Uncertainty
You need to realize that this battle of hand ranges is always ongoing at the tables, even if people are not actively thinking in those terms.
Players always try to understand what's happening in the game; sometimes they're not sure at all and sometimes they know exactly. Their degree of uncertainty changes.
By making uncertainty an active part of your poker thinking, you can gain an extra edge against your opponents.
Obviously, again, all the usual factors come into play as well: position, signs of weakness, scare cards, stack sizes, table image, etc.
Nevertheless, a lot of well-known plays and moves can be understood in terms of manipulation of uncertainty. And the concept can no doubt be applied to more obscure gambits, too.
You'll just have to keep playing to find out!