A Critical Warning
Before you start with this week’s column on balance, I have to issue a major warning. A ton of players have some feeling about poker that they shouldn’t worry about balanced play because they are up against players who are so weak that balance isn’t important. There’s a major misconception at work with this mindset, and I’m going to clear it up here:
An understanding of balanced play will help you to exploit your opponents more than you will ever be able to without understanding it.
With that said, we’re going to start to get into the core of strategic play this week with a brief discussion of the basics of practical balanced play. While we aren’t going to get deep into the mathematics of it, we are going to look at how the basic framework operates in terms of game theory.
Building a Foundation
You have been the aggressor for the entire hand, and you have been post-flop against just one opponent. You are out of position, and now you find yourself on the river with 90 percent of the pot left behind in your effective stacks. If you’re going to have the option to play in a balanced way on the river, then you’re going to need certain types of hands in your range. This is the foundation of practical balanced play.
Suppose the board is something like 5s9hJhAs4c, and you led the betting on all three of the previous streets. Consider that you need both strong and weak hands on the river to be able to have the option of balanced play. How would you end up with weak hands on the river on this type of board?
Obviously you would have to bet on the flop and turn with weak hands, but which weak hands would you be betting with? There are a lot of flush draws on the flop and hands like T8 or QT that would have been good semi-bluffs, so there are plenty of options for that. On the turn, you would have likely fired a second barrel with a lot of strong draws because the ace would add a fair bit of fold equity to your play. Finally you find yourself on the river, and you need to make a final bet with some of those weak hands.
On this board, it works out really clearly. But other boards aren’t so easy to work with.
On the board we looked at above of 5s9hJhAs4c, natural play for people who understand the basics of continuation betting and firing the second barrel (both from a tactical point of view) led to an opportunity to play in a balanced way on the river since there were plenty of ways to have both strong and weak hands. However, not all boards work out this way, and you’ll often have to step outside of the tactical frame of mind to make sure that you have balanced options on later streets.
Consider that you raise pre-flop from middle position and get called by the small blind only. The flop comes 8hQsQd. There aren’t really any clear drawing hands to semi-bluff with, and a lot of people are of the opinion that you can’t really bluff much on these flops because you’re just going to get called down by any pocket pair, any eight and a lot of ace-high hands. In an interesting moment often leading to cognitive dissonance, many of these same people would claim that value betting something like JJ doesn’t make sense either.
For the sake of having an instructive example, suppose that you bet both the flop and the turn with a strong queen or something like 88 that’s an overpowering hand. If you want to have the option of balanced play on the river, then you can run into the problem of not really having any weak hands in your range. We have to work backwards to solve this issue.
Suppose the board runs out 8hQsQd6hTc. If we think back one street to the turn, then we see that we would have liked to be able to make a continuation bet here with hands that have a lot of pot equity since we won’t gain much fold equity at all from the 6h on the turn. Along these lines, we would like to have something like a flush heart draw or maybe T9 for an eight-out straight draw. Logically enough, if we want to make this happen, we have to make continuation bets on the flop with these hands.
That’s why betting the flop with something like Kh9h is so important in situations like this. They’re really your best semi-bluffing hands overall because they combine things like overcards, runner flush draws and runner straight draws. Note that the chance of the runner flush or runner straight coming in isn’t where all of your value comes from. Instead, a lot of value comes from being able to barrel the turn and river. These options can add a ton of value to your range overall because they allow you more flexibility in how you play.
In this week’s column, we’ve looked at the practical foundations of balanced play which more or less has to do with making sure you actually have the hands in your range that you need to have in your range. As we continue moving forward next week, we’ll look at how balanced play can be a reference point which gives you free reign to exploit your opponents in ways you probably aren’t thinking about now.