Reciprocality: Your Bottom Line Decoded

Dan Harrington

Reciprocality! A most unusual word. I love unusual words - new words, old words used in new ways.

In my other life, where I do other things, among those other things is lexicography. I write dictionaries.

We wordsmiths are a harmless breed, generally classified as "drudges," but we serve a function. We try to put the reins on language use, not to limit it so much as to craft it, mold its boundaries and find connotative insights to share with others.

When I see a new word I like to give it a trot around the park. "Reciprocality" gave me a rather neat run, full of good exercise. I think I dropped a couple of pounds. At least I broke a sweat.

The word is from Tommy Angelo, whose book Elements of Poker I reviewed a couple of months back. He's got this thing about poker. He loves it. He loves to teach people about it.

His book, interestingly, gives little specific poker advice, mainly because he believes that such advice needs to be geared to the individual players. He prefers to teach about life, about general theoretical perspectives, and he tries to make you think about the game in novel ways.

One of his innovations required expanding on the notion of reciprocal and getting reciprocality. My spell checker doesn't like it. Tommy's neologism was necessary because there's a lesson to be offered and there wasn't any simple way to do it before - which is how a lot of new words and new usages trickle into a language.

However, there is a base word here, reciprocal. Our definition of it from the latest edition of the Dictionary of Psychology (Reber, Allen & Reber, Penguin Books) goes like this:

"Descriptive of any relationship in which the elements operate in coordinated opposition to each other."

Phil Hellmuth
Hellmuth: post-bad beat, operates in not quite so coordinated opposition.

Not bad, if a little ponderous. Here's Tommy's definition of his term:

"Any difference between you and your opponents that affects your bottom line."

His is a lot cleaner and more to the point. And that's fine. We're writing for a bunch of academics; he's writing for a bunch of low-life poker junkies. But both carry the same essential connotations.

Angelo elaborates: "Reciprocality says that when you and your opponents would do the same thing in a given situation, no money moves, and when you do something different, it does."

And this may be one of the more important concepts I've run across in poker. It's as essential to developing a sophisticated game as that old hoary classic: "Big pairs play well heads-up." Only it's more complex, and it requires some serious analysis in order to use effectively.

To grasp why it's such a gem, let the following notion swim around in your brain for a minute or two:

"Pre-flop, pocket aces won't make you any money."

Done howling now? Let's think about it from the point of view of reciprocality. Almost everyone plays AA the same way. They raise and reraise.

If it's Limit, they pump it every chance they get. If it's No-Limit, they maneuver around doing their best to get it all-in before the flop.

So, pocket rockets aren't all that important a pre-flop holding, primarily because almost everyone plays them the same way. No reciprocality.

Liz Lieu home on the range
Liz Lieu: AA debacles drive her to the shooting range.

I'm not telling you shouldn't be happy when you pick up pocket aces. But their value is going to be primarily post-flop. You're going to need to play them right and make the most when you can, and lose the least when unhappiness hits the board. If you don't and your opponents do, then reciprocality will kick in and you'll be on the wrong side of the flow.

From the reciprocalistic perspective, what's the best hand in Hold'em? Or, better, what's the group of hands that are best for you?

Answer: Those hands that you play better than your opponents.

You may not like that answer, but that's the way it is. Suppose you play Q-Js exceedingly well, better than anyone else in the world. What does this mean?

Well, it means: (a) You win more when you have it and are best than they do when they have it and are best, and (b) You lose less with it when you're beat than they do when they're beat. By the principle of reciprocality, that's a good hand for you and you should look to play it.

Of course, adjustments must be made for factors like stack size, position, the skill of your opponents and the like, but the point will hold. It must.

An interesting corollary of this principle is that for a highly skilled player the most profitable hands are likely rather squirrelly holdings like T-8s and 8-7o.

Allen Cunningham
T-8s best hand for skilled player like Allen Cunningham?

It's now clear why in his book Angelo doesn't give much general advice about how to play specific hands in particular situations.

From his perspective what you should be doing is working to understand the texture of the game you're currently in, getting a feel for how your opponents are playing and looking for circumstances that have positive reciprocality, ones where the money will flow toward you.

It's also clear now why the very best players like to see lots of flops. They play difficult hands better than their opponents.

Most of us who have watched the high-stakes cash games on TV have likely sat there scratching our heads trying to figure out what folks like Daniel Negreanu or Antonio Esfandiari are doing playing some of the hands they play.

The answer is that they assume that their post-flop play is better than most of their opponents'. They believe, with some justification, that they play these "problem hands" better than the others at the table.

These hands, then, become the ones that will generate long-term profits because they will have positive reciprocality.

By the way, this "play well after the flop" notion is one of the more frequently referenced in the poker literature. Oddly, there isn't much written on it. I plan to devote a column (or three) to it soon. Tune in.

I remain reciprocally yours,

Arthur Reber

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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