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Intro & the “Environment Read”
In one of our recent Hand Analysis Labs I introduced the idea that, before each hand is dealt, you should be establishing an “environment read”: An overall analysis of the game you’re playing, its format, how many players are at the table, the size of the blinds/antes, and the sizes of your and everyone else’s stacks both absolutely and in relation to the size of the blinds/antes. You were to look at each of these things before every hand and consider how they should affect your decisions during that deal of the cards. Specifically, I said this environment read would be instrumental in governing our “baseline” decisions, and I promised I would go deeper into this “baseline” concept in a future lesson. This is that lesson.
Why a “Baseline”?
As the skill of your opponents increases, so too will their ability to “read” your cards by detecting patterns in your decisions. For example:
Maybe you’re extremely straightforward — you show strength when you’re strong and weakness when you’re weak.
Maybe you get overly “fancy” in certain situations — you recently learned about semi-bluffing, so now you do it every chance you get because you’re so excited about knowing an “advanced” concept.
Maybe you overvalue suited cards — your heart pumps when you see them and you have a hard time getting away from them until you’ve seen the flop.
Because there are so many patterns you can unknowingly follow that will betray your cards, it’s difficult to safeguard your game against them. It’s with that in mind that I, many years ago, applied a concept to my game that I called “the baseline”.
Note: I’m 100% not claiming I invented the ideas I’ll discuss in this lesson. I’m sure I came up with them subconsciously after digesting the dozens of poker books, thousands of pages of poker articles and game theory theses, and millions of hands I encountered in the first few years I was playing. For all I know, the exact info I’ll share here is available from some other source that far predates my time at the tables: I find it hard to imagine people like Sklansky, Brunson, Malmuth, Miller, etc. haven’t already thought of and published their takes on these exact issues.
What is the “Baseline”?
In order to stop myself from falling into any patterns that might betray my cards, I decided to standardize as many of my most common decisions as possible. By making all of my preflop raises the same amount, for example, I eliminated the possibility that an opponent could zero in on my range of hands based on the size of my raise.
“Baseline” is simply the term I came up with to refer to the set of things I decide every time I begin a new session. This set of things is simple, small, and (generally) consists of the following:
1. Preflop raise amount (in terms of BBs).
2. Flop, turn, & river bet amounts (in terms of % of the pot).
3. General playing style I think is optimal given my opponents and their relative position to me at the table (a topic we’ll discuss in-depth in the future!).
I decide on these three things at the beginning of the session, before any cards are dealt. The third decision — which playing style I think is optimal — I only make after establishing my environment read (see the intro section, above), and from that point on, any changes that happen to the environment (major stack changes, players joining or leaving the table, etc.) cause me to re-evaluate each of the three things and settle any changes to them before the next hand is dealt.
What is YOUR Baseline, Jesse?
Obviously there are tons of variables involved in a game of poker or a poker tournament, and those variables need to be considered before you can be confident in the baseline you choose to follow. However, if there are no obvious, gigantic outliers present in those variables, I’ve found the following to be a good starting point:
Preflop raise amount: 3x the BB
3x is a pretty standard amount in the poker world, as it makes the bet large enough that people have to take it seriously, but not so large it overextends you.
You want people with marginal hands — who still aren’t sure if they want to play — to opt to fold, so you have to make your raise large enough to push them out. A 2x raise, aka a “min raise”, for example, doesn’t force anyone to fold who wasn’t folding anyway. Someone with a marginal hand, who was willing to pay 1BB for the flop, will almost certainly pay 2BB, as well.
Using this logic, you could make your preflop raise 5x, or 6x, or even 10x, right? Right, but there are a few reasons you also have to be careful that you don’t make your preflop raise too large:
You don’t want to discourage all action behind you. Yes, most of the time it’s nice to just pick up the blinds and move on — any pot you win with zero resistance is a good thing — but sometimes you really do want people to fight you. If you have AA in EP, you want to see someone behind you call, then someone else to re-raise, then another person to shove: It’s a dream scenario. If your preflop raise is 10x, though, that caller (with the 55, JTs, A5s, etc) probably just folds, the re-raiser (with the JJ, AK, etc) just calls, or maybe shoves, and the shover (when he has AK or QQ, which he usually does) folds. Your huge preflop raise just cost you quite a lot of potential money.
Another reason to be careful of your raise size is that you don’t want to overcommit yourself to pots where you are the one with the marginal hand. If it costs you 5x every time you have a playable hand, you’re going to have to succeed at winning the blinds at a much higher rate than if your raise is 3x. If you raise it to 5x twice in the first, we’ll say, 15 hands you play, and both of those times it’s with something kind of marginal (like AJo in MP), and you get re-raised both times and have to fold, you’ve lost yourself 10 BB. You’ll have to successfully “steal” the blinds 6-7 times after that just to get back near your starting stack.
Also, even if no one plays back at you and you do get to see the flop with the lead in the hand, your 5x raise means there are now at least 10 BB in the pot, likely 11 or 11.5 if the SB and BB folded, and your continuation bet on the flop (which you’re almost certainly making) will have to be 7-8 BB, meaning you’ll have put 12+ BB into a pot virtually on autopilot.
To summarize, you want your preflop raise amount to be whatever amount will force undecided opponents — those with marginal hands — to fold, but not a single dollar more.
Flop, turn, & river bet amounts: 70% of the pot
The logic here is similar to the logic behind the preflop raise amount: It needs to be substantial enough to force players — some of whom may have even stronger hands than yours — to fold, but not so much that it costs you a ton of your stack or makes the pot too large to navigate future betting rounds.
If you always go with tiny postflop bets (we’ll say <=50% of the pot), it won’t be enough to force opponents to fold their mediocre “made” hands (pocket pairs that didn’t flop a set, but would still be reasonably strong, like 77 when the board is 249), and it won’t be enough to force opponents to fold their “unmade”/drawing hands, nor will it even make it -EV for them to do so. Getting opponents to lay down hands that are either ahead of you or have a great chance of getting ahead of you is key to being profitable over the long term.
We can’t be betting 100% of the pot size on every flop we see, though, even if it would force a lot of stronger hands to go away. Just like preflop, the amount we’d have to give up when someone pushed back at us would far outweigh the sum of the small pots we’d pick up. Also, we’d be creating a situation where, if someone were to just call our flop bet, the pot would be so large on the turn we’d likely have to decide right then if we were going to be playing for our whole stack. Keeping the pot as small as possible is the key to giving us lots of options when navigating the turn and river betting rounds.
General playing style: Tight, Aggressive (TAG)
I’ll discuss the specifics in my next article on playing styles, and there you will see why TAG poker is, really, the only way to guarantee you’ll be profitable in the long term. LAGgy play can be fun, and tight but more passive play can feel safer and more consistent, but both will lead you to looooooong stretches of frustrating results.
Why This Works
The reason having these baselines works to your advantage is simple: There’s really no way anyone can narrow down the range of hands you might have. Think about this:
This article — and all of my poker articles, really — tell you exactly how I play poker. I’ve freely shared my strategies, and my thought processes, despite the fact that I spend 1-2 nights/week playing with you, the exact people who have access to these articles. I do this with no fear because of one thing: Every part of my game is designed to make it as hard as possible for someone to narrow down my ranges.
I made it 3x preflop from EP? Yeah, I’m almost certainly strong, but how strong? My range leans toward AA or KK, but could be as low as 77 or as weak as AQo. It could also be the ~2% of the time I have one of the 3 weak or speculative hands I decided before the session that I was opening with from every position (could be “a red 7 and a black 5, an all-black or all-red 97, and any suited 62”, for example ????). You have no way of knowing, because my behavior looks exactly the same with all of them.
When I get one or two callers on that hand, and then bet 70% of the pot on the flop, is it because I made top pair, flopped a set, or whiffed completely? You have no idea, because I’m doing it no matter what. Will I go away when you raise? Possibly — I have no reason to horse around — but how can you know? You can’t. If you want to know, you have to pay to find out.
When the turn comes, and I fire 70% of the pot again, it has to be because I’m strong, right? Nope. That shit is coming almost 100% of the time. Don’t even bother playing with me preflop if you aren’t ready to commit 50BB to this hand, because by the time we get to showdown it’s going to cost at least that, and that’s before I’ve even considered what my cards are beyond them being in my starting range for that particular position in that particular environment.
Oh, I actually checked at some point in a hand? Good luck figuring that one out. Maybe I’m seeing enough strength from my opponents that I’ve given up and want to fold, maybe I’m seeing enough strength from my opponents that I’ve checked so I can come back over the top of them with the nuts, or maybe I’m seeing weakness in them and I’m checking because I think they’ll fold if I bet, but I may get some more out of them if I check because they’re capable of taking a stab with nothing.
The point is, by establishing a baseline and sticking to it you make it hard for your opponents to exploit you. They can’t identify when you’re weak, or strong, because those two situations look the same, and when you take that ability away from your opponents, especially the strong ones, you neutralize their edge over you.
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