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Profitable Mistakes I want to begin this month by looking at a few hypothetical situations:
1. You are holding a pair of 7ӳ on a 799 flop and get all your money in against a single opponent. The turn is a 5 and the river is an Ace. Your opponent tables A9 and drags the pot, having rivered a higher full house.
2. Same situation, but this time your opponent shows you 99 for the flopped nuts.
3. You hold 4[spade] 3[spade] on a 9[diamond] 6[spade] 5[spade] flop. Your opponent, a smart and talented player, checks and calls a ? pot bet. The turn is the J[club], and he checks and calls another ? pot bet. The river is an offsuit Q, and he checks and calls one more ? pot bet, turning over A[spade] Q[spade].
4. You hold KT against an extremely loose, passive, and all around bad player. He checks and calls substantial bets on a T95 flop and a 4 turn. The river is a Q, but you put in a value bet anyway, only to be called by AT and realize that you were behind all along. What do these situations have in common? I would argue that they are all well-played hands where you had an unlucky result. This may be more obviously the case for the early examples than for the latter ones. In fact, the first two situations are so commonly recognized as stemming from bad luck rather than bad play that they have earned themselves their own vocabulary: the Ԣad beatԠand the ԣold deckԮ
Most players learn early in their careers not to take a bad beat or a cold deck as indicative of bad play. When trying to improve your game, you focus on the factors that you can control, and there just isnӴ anything you can do about a lucky river card or running the second nuts into the nuts.
What is harder to see, and what I want to argue in this article, is that the latter two situations are every bit as unlucky as a bad beat or a cold deck. The results of hands (3) and (4) should not be taken to mean that your river bet was a mistake. If anything, these results suggest that you are bluffing and value betting well on the river. Remember that neither your bluffs nor your value bets need to succeed 100% of the time to be successful. If they do succeed that often, then you are probably not doing either often enough. Thinking in Terms of Ranges Functionally, whenever you play a hand of poker, you are playing your cards against the entire range of hands that your opponent could have in a given situation. The fact that he happens to turn over 99 for quads instead of T9 for trips is inconsequential if youӲe sure that he would have played both in exactly the same way. Itӳ just as far beyond your control and your concern as the Ace that flops to put that AK way ahead of your KK after the money went in pre-flop. This is more true when playing online than when playing live. When sitting across the felt from real, live poker players you still need to use your poker and logic skills to deduce their hand ranges. However, physical and verbal tells will sometimes help you to narrow their range even further and determine whether they are bluffing this time. For the most part, though, that information isnӴ available online, and even live it is rarely as easy to use as some books make it seem. You have to make the best decisions that you can against your opponentӳ entire range and let the cards fall where they may.
The really tricky thing about this is that it makes it very difficult to evaluate your own play. In example (3), did your bluff get called because your opponent rivered top pair? Or was he going to call with his AQ unimproved anyway? Would your bluff have succeeded against the smaller pairs that likely made up the bulk of his range? Similarly, in example (4), you canӴ conclude that you made a bad value bet just because you turned out not to have the best hand. Thatӳ as absurd as concluding that you should have folded your full house in example (1) because your opponent was lucky enough to improve on the river. So if you donӴ have the results to orient you, how do you know whether you are bluffing and value betting well on the river? The truth is that you really canӴ know for sure, but just as KK will show a profit against AK all in preflop over time, regardless of the results of any particular trial, so too can you look at trends in your results over time. The occasional picked-off bluff or backfiring value bet isnӴ a mistake, itӳ actually a hint that youӲe bluffing and value betting well. By definition, playing for thin value means you arenӴ going to beat the top of your opponentӳ range.