A month ago, I read a great comment from Olivier Busquet on Twitter. He said that people often talk about the difference between theoretical and exploitative play, but they rarely discuss the distinction between exploiting unknown players and known players. In fact, many players revert back to theoretical play when they are facing unknown players. Busquet seems to imply that this is a mistake because you can do even better by “deciphering and exploiting general population tendencies.” I agree.
Exploiting Unknown Players
Even when a player is unknown, you may know enough about him to profitably deviate from theoretical play. For example, when playing a small stakes tournament, we can make a Bayesian inference and safely assume that a random unknown opponent on our table isn’t a world class theoretical player. Even if we’ve never seen him before, we know he has leaks. In the small stakes games I play, it is safe to assume that he is very likely to be too loose in the early levels and too tight as we approach the bubble. This was the gist of my article Don’t Study Poker in an Ivory Tower Only to Play in the Gutter.
Since that time, I have begun coaching players on the specific strategies I use to beat the “unknown” players in these games. They are beginning to see improvements over the theoretical approaches they have tried to implement in the past. Now they must take the next step. It is one that Busquet described as beating known players by “developing specific exploitative game plans based on a certain amount of information.” Again, I agree.
Exploiting Known Players
No unknown player should remain unknown forever. By paying attention to every hand at the table, including the ones you are not in, you should be able to gather information that:
A. confirms or denies the general read you assign to random “unknown” small stakes players
B. provides an opportunity to develop a more nuanced, individualized game plan that would be even more profitable than the general exploitative strategy.
Gathering this information is perhaps a player’s most important job and the vast majority of players have trouble doing it consistently.
This dilemma reminds me of one I discovered as a middle school math teacher. I would end my class imploring my students to “study for the test tomorrow.” This advice never seemed to work until one day I realized that they had no idea how to study. I only began to see results once I allocated some time to teach study skills in addition to the mathematics. Recently, this disconnect came up again when I told my poker students to “pay attention and get reads.” Once I realized that they had no idea howto get reads or to use the information that they happened to come across, I decided to write this article.
How to Categorize Players
On a macro level, I can quickly ascertain whether or not a table of poker players is likely to play the way I expect. In a small stakes game, I expect the players to be mostly loose and passive. You can quickly make this read when you see several multiway limped pots. If this is as common in you game as it is in mine, just assume everyone is loose passive until proven otherwise.
This global read can be confirmed on an individual basis by watching the number and quality of hands that go to showdown. If they played hands that you know they theoretically should have folded, then they are loose. If they played them by mostly checking and calling, then they are loose passive. If they played them by mostly betting and raising, then they are loose aggressive.
For now, you can ignore the other players because these two groups will be your biggest sources of information; and therefore, your biggest sources of profit. They will be the people who are losing the most chips or winning the most chips. You job is to determine what is or isn't working for them and use that information against them in the future. To do this, you must study them intently and drill down even further. This is where many players drop the ball. Here are a few things I try to look for when developing reads.
Chunking and Extrapolating
By definition, if a table has several loose passive players, there will be several showdowns. This is a gold mine on poker sites where you can see the mucked cards. Even when you can't see the cards, you can sometimes determine that a mucked hand was weak in cases where it could not beat the weak hand that was shown down by the winner.
If you are able to see the exact cards, you can start chunking and extrapolating. For example, if you noticed that a player limped a hand like KQ from early position, it is likely safe to assume he is limping similar Broadway hands from there as well. KJ, QJ, QT, JT, etc. can be chunked into the same basket as KQ. Be sure to watch and see if he plays the suited and offsuit combos differently, but pay particular attention to the offsuit combos since they will make up the bulk of that range.
If you notice a player limping a lot of Ax hands, what can you extrapolate about the range of hands he is raising? He has fewer Ax hands in his raising range. This means he is more likely to be bluffing if he c-bets often on Ace-high boards than a player who raises all of his Ax hands.
Some players reliably use big bets with strong hands or big bets with weak hands. You can quickly confirm these sizing tells on players who go to showdown frequently. Again, if we learn what his big bets mean then we can extrapolate from that to determine what his small bets likely mean even before we see him make one.
Most players c-bet frequently as the preflop raiser, but many of them do not double barrel and triple barrel enough. Early in tournaments when lots of hands are going to showdown, you can determine which streets a player likes to value bet or bluff on and which street he likes to check or fold on. This is powerful information that can be used against him later.
When you sit in a small stakes game, you should treat an unknown player the way you treat most small stakes players. You should not treat him the way you would an unknown, theoretically balanced opponent. Trying to out-balance him is like fighting over stray pennies. Gathering specific details on his leaks is like gathering one hundred dollar bills that he is dropping out of his pockets.
Once you have watched enough of his play that he is no longer unknown, you should often times be able to exploit him more than a balanced player could. Other times, you may realize that he is relatively good compared to the average small stakes player, or at the very least, playing in a way that you have not yet figured out how to exploit. If this is the case, your best response is to climb back up into your Ivory Tower and play as theoretically sound against him as you can while diligently looking for a reason to come back down.