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The Metagame: Playing at Playing Poker
In his important new books, Harrington on Cash Games, Vols. I & II, Dan Harrington invites us to ponder the importance of the poker "metagame."
The metagame, in his words, is "the sum of everything that you know about the other players, and everything they know about you."
Harrington's goal is to encourage us to look beyond individual hands and attend to the overall structural features of the game involving such notions as table image, table presence and how they change over time.
There are valuable and useful ideas buried here; so, as my old English teacher used to counsel me when I stumbled upon intellectually stimulating notions, "review and elaborate."
Linguistically, the meta- prefix comes from the Greek and has a host of meanings including about, beyond, among and behind.
The first is the most common - and the one intended here. Your poker "metagame" will encompass this "aboutness" as though it were a compendium of all the possible features of the game as you play it over time, over sessions and with a constantly varying, fluid collection of opponents.
If you're playing decent poker, you probably have a pretty good grip on fundamentals. You know how to play particular holdings, and you pay attention to position and to your opponents' actions.
But cards, position and opponents are but parts of a single situation. If you are playing the "meta" part of poker you are also trying to do things that will have an impact on the larger framework.
That includes how your opponents see you, how they will interpret a particular move you make, what kinds of hands they will put you on and how they respond to these thoughts when they have them.
Most books and columns on poker strategy gloss over these elements or treat them in the most cursory of fashions, partly because these factors don't enter into the low-level games that the vast majority play.
If your opponents think only about their own cards, it won't help to continually change gears to keep them off balance. It'd be like trying to impress a blind man with your expert juggling. But when the game is played at the higher levels, these elements become critical.
Each of us will have a metagame that characterizes how we play. It will represent our particular patterns of folding, calling and raising and how these patterns change over time or shift to adjust for other contingencies.
It will also include (importantly) the personality factors that we bring to the table. When the opponent on your right comes to realize that you are a loose-aggressive player he can make adjustments in his game that will improve his chances in hands with you.
You need to be aware of these changes and counter them with appropriate shifts in yours. This isn't easy, and it isn't done in a single hand.
The concept goes beyond characterizing individual players. A given table will have metagame features. It will shift when players leave and are replaced by new ones with different styles and approaches. Its makeup will be "holistic."
It will be more than the sum of the players' styles, but will assume an overall form based on how each player interacts with the others.
If two big stacks cash out and are replaced by minimum buy-ins, the whole culture of the table will be altered. The value of hands like medium and small pairs goes down. There is little sense in chasing the unlikely set when you can't win enough with it to make it mathematically correct to try.
But the value of big cards increases since their vulnerability is diminished by the lack of damage that these new players can inflict. In short, adjustments in the metagame will be forced on the table and those who do not respond appropriately will suffer financially.
Harrington emphasizes the importance of table image. From time to time, he notes, you may have to make non-optimal plays. While they may cost you money in the short run, they function to keep your opponents off base and make it difficult for them to read you which, in the long run, will benefit you.
By mixing up your game you attend to the elements that control the metagame and, if you do it right, you will have better results.
A basic strategy that incorporates metagame features has five key points which get developed in a chronological order.
1) First, you establish a table image by playing in a style that feels comfortable, reflects your personality and your approach to risk.
2) Once this has been established your (astute) opponents will begin reacting to you and whatever advantages your style had will begin to wither. You must adjust. If you've been "rockish," loosen up. If you've been bluffing, cut back and only push solid hands.
3) Focus on shifts that other players may also be making. If they are as careful about balancing their play as you, they will be making similar adjustments.
4) Expand your vision: make sure you pay attention to the constitution of the table and the impact of new players on the texture of the game.
5) Keep in mind how these shifting features of the game change over sessions, games and venues. Over time you will establish an image for yourself. Make sure it is bedecked with question marks.
The psychological importance of the metagame comes from keeping your opponents off-base and feeling insecure.
David Sklansky once defined a poker "mistake" as any decision different from the one you would have made had you known your opponent's cards. Since poker is a game of partial information, we all make mistakes.
By making the metagame elements central, you will increase the likelihood that your opponents will make errors, because their information about you will be even more "partial" and less reliable.
When your opponents don't know what you have, they will feel less secure and have less confidence. This lack of surety will work to your advantage.
When you've incorporated effective "metagame" strategy, you're no longer merely playing poker - you're playing at playing poker.
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 co-author 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 full tilt. 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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