Don't Limit Yourself: Choose Your Plays Wisely

Chang Yong Suk

Strong parallels exist between life and poker.

Thanks to this relationship, many of the philosophical and psychological principles of human behavior are directly transferable to poker.

One of the most important philosophical principles for a poker player to understand is that of causality. Causality is simply described as the relationship between cause and effect.

In the poker world, the number of actions and plays available to you on any given street is dictated by the action taken during preceding streets, or hands.

If you're just learning the game, this idea may still be difficult to grasp - but by understanding how causality applies to poker you will open the door to understanding poker at a higher level of thought, where a single play can be spread across multiple streets.

Your Poker Playbook

A play in poker is simple in theory, but its dynamic nature is one of the largest contributors to poker's deceptive play. In poker, there are only a few major options in the core types of plays:

  • Value betting (betting with the best hand to extract the most value)
  • Bluffing (betting with the worst hand to give value to a hand which otherwise has none)
  • Blocking (obstructing your opponent from making value-based plays to allow your possibly worse hand to gain strength or retain the value it possibly holds)
  • Information betting (an information bet is simply one of the previous three forms of plays, but made without the knowledge of which play you are intending to make)

Gavin Smith
Gavin Smith rarely misses a value bet.

When we call poker plays dynamic, it's because the unknown random result of the next card dealt can dramatically change the inherent value of the hand you hold.

A valueless bluffed hand can as easily hit a card to dramatically increase its value (transforming the bluff play into a value bet) as a valuable hand can hit a card to subtract massive value, rendering your value bet into a mere bluff.

Not only can your play's intent be shifted by the cards to be dealt, it can also be affected by how you choose to execute your play.

In an example used by Daniel Skolovy in his article "Turning Your Hand into a Bluff," a player reraises all-in with pocket aces on a board of K K 9. The size and manner in which he made his intended value bet renders the play a bluff, as no player will ever call his bet, unless he has the aces beat.

Even if the player believes, and is correct, that his aces are the best hand, the size of his value bet resulted in extracting the absolute least amount of possible value.

His hand becomes no more valuable than 7 2 by making this bet. Not only are the plays dynamic, but the value attached to the hands involved in the plays are as well.

Actions: The Building Blocks of Plays

A play is my general term for an intended effect on your opponent through the use of one or multiple actions on single or multiple streets.

A play can be as simple as a single action on one street (this type of play is often referred to as "small ball"), or as elaborate as multiple actions across multiple streets, with all the actions tying together to work as one united play (this type of play is sometimes referred to as "long ball").

Since it's always best to start at the beginning, first we have to take a look at the available actions, and understand their part in the construction of a play. The best way to understand how each action will function as part of the whole is to understand the basic effect each action has when made.

Checking: A check is regarded as a sign of weakness, or insecurity. A player making a check is most commonly uninterested in the hand after the flop, or is unsure of where they stand, and would like to gain more information before they make any more decisions.

Either way, the check gives off the impression of weakness.

Betting: A bet is the antithesis of the check. It shows assumed value and willingness to enter into a contested meaningful pot. At face value a bet gives off the impression of strength and confidence.

Raising: Due to the gap concept, a raise is the most blatant display of strength available to a poker player. It shows an extreme assumption of value and confidence.

The player has little respect for the other hands in play, announcing that they hold little imposing value in the face of his own cards.

Holiday Chipstack
Aces can be a gift; just try not to turn them into a bluff.

Calling: A call is the only action which inherently carries an element of deception. All other actions can become deceptive as part of a play, while calling can be deceptive on its own as a simple action.

A call displays both weakness and strength at the same time. A player making a call is displaying a feeling of value in their own hand, with a willingness to continue in a contested pot (strength), and at the same time displaying a respect or fear for the assumed value of the opponent's hand (weakness).

These are the basics of the actions. At face value, these actions always mean the same things. A check is always a display of weakness, even if the player is holding considerable strength. The use of an action as part of play is what allows a player to manipulate and deceive her opponent.

Through this deception and trickery, the meaning of an action can be assumed by an opponent to be the opposite of its standard connotation, thus allowing the player to use different combinations of actions to build elaborate plays to serve their purpose in the hand.

Combining different actions in different orders will affectively change the story each individual action represents.

In part two of this article we'll look at how some of the most common plays are constructed, why they work, and the difference in execution between plays across single and multiple streets.

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