The Evolution of Poker Strategy

Part 1: Doyle Brunson

Darwin’s theory of evolution proves remarkably accurate when applied to poker. Survival of the fittest. As poker strategy keeps evolving, how can one stay ahead of the curve and predict upcoming trends in the next global game of rock-paper-scissors?

As tough as it is today, it is one thing to learn to beat the game in its current state, and quite another to learn how to understand and apply methods in changing situations. If you rely simply on mimicking winning strategies, you will never know what to do in unknown situations. To become the best poker player you can be, you need to think for yourself and unleash your true style.

Doyle BrunsonI’ve stayed competitive against the best for the past decade, through rapidly changing game texture. I’ve managed this because I’ve been willing to actually work to understand poker strategy, rather than just blindly apply it. Do this, and you will constantly know where poker is going, and remain ahead of the curve.

Through this series of articles we will travel back in time and revisit key moments in the evolution of poker strategy. Follow me into the rewarding journey of understanding why a play is popular today, and why it can disappear just as quickly tomorrow.

The first NL players

I started playing poker in 2003. As a result, all I can offer is a good educated guess as to what things were like, made up from having reviewed hand histories, talked to older players, and read their respective books. One thing is certain: Before the poker boom, the best players in the world were a small cast, playing each other regularly in games filled with passive regulars that “respected the game.”

In the “beginning” of No Limit Hold’em, most players were coming over from having played Limit games all their lives. Old habits die hard, and they would make big mistakes, like feeling committed and wanting to see too many showdowns. To put it simply, they were calling stations. They were also not very good at controlling the size of the pot, and either wouldn’t bet enough to protect their hands, or would bet way too much. All of these factors combined would give their opponents very simple decisions.

(TIP: Never forget that you WANT your opponents to make mistakes. When you protect your hand, bet an amount big enough so that they should fold their draws, but not big enough that they won’t consider making a bad call. Sure, they will outdraw you some of the time — but this is a profitable risk, so don’t get mad if they do!)

Furthermore, the starting hands were all wrong. People tended to undervalue drawing hands that have so much more equity in No Limit if playing deep (which they often were!). In Limit, the value of deception is far lower, because mistakes only cost you a couple of bets — consistency and not missing value are far more important. It follows that the first No Limit Hold’em players played a little too straightforward, and were relatively easy to read as a group. Remember that for a long time check-raising was at best considered bad etiquette, and at worst simply disallowed by the card room! It was truly another era.

The first sharks

So how do you beat this? Well, the first sharks simply played better themselves, rather than trying to outplay their opponent. Correct hand selection, odds calculation, and discipline were enough to win. Good players would stick around in small pots, tighten up a lot on the flop, and wait to hit big; when they did, they would suddenly make the pot grow very big and extract an enormous amount of value. Tight set-miners would make a profit, just as loose sticky players would. There was no point in being tricky — since hand reading was so approximate, your opponents couldn’t possibly understand what you were trying to represent anyway! Plus the tourists were making huge mistakes anyway, so what was the point in being deceptive?

The gap between the sharks and the amateurs was so big that correct isolation was a huge part of the game. In short you would protect your “market” by transforming a calling hand into a raising hand pre-flop if an average player was already in the pot. Doing this, you push the other sharks away from the pot, and have the recreational player all for yourself post-flop. This concept is still used today, but far less often: regularly overplaying a hand pre-flop against a table of generally good, thinking players will get noticed and have dire consequences!

Without online games or big card rooms with massive table selection like today, it was also harder to find the right stakes for your bankroll. Risk management at big tables was an important skill for the first poker pros, who would often play under-rolled, and have to pass up on small edges in big pots as a result.

The visionary

Doyle Brunson, the godfather of poker, needs no introduction. His performances, charisma, and ground-breaking books have inspired many, and shaped today’s poker world. Doyle was part of a new breed of players who were not simply content with slowly printing money from amateurs. His competitive nature and mindset made him an expert at beating the entire table at once. So what did Doyle do better than most, and why?

And then there was Doyle

First, let’s look at the skills one needs to become great in this environment:

— With far less strategic advice available in print, you need to work out the solutions by yourself. No computer programs means relying on your instincts and willingness to try and fail are required.

— Your edge comes from various amateurs that you can’t read well based on their betting patterns, but who leave plenty of tells for you to exploit. They also let their emotion dictate their play.

So, to sum up: creativity, people skills, and willingness to try and fail. It’s not surprising that the people rising to the top at the time were a different breed from today’s young guns, where the sheer level of competition rewards precision and stamina, as well as a lot more theoretical knowledge. One thing that hasn’t changed is the relationship between poker and ego. Cocky players have paid the price probably since the first day No Limit was invented, and No Limit tests players’ mental ability far more. There is immense pressure in big pots, and your ego can get bruised when you wrongly stack off!

As a Texan, Doyle had a lot of opportunities to work on his No Limit game, since it became popular there first. He recognized that pros and amateurs alike didn’t like playing big pots, and defined “Power Poker,” a loose aggressive style taking advantage of the situation.

Doyles weapon: Power Poker

— A loose style pre-flop

Since the edge post-flop is so big, Doyle maximizes his profit by getting into a lot of hands pre-flop, and looking for setup situations. As a result, he gives a lot of action, shows trash regularly (7-2 anyone?) and gets less respect at the table, which is fine.

— Continuation bets

To quote Texas Dolly: “If they check, you bet.” Quite simply, every time an opponent shows weakness, Doyle puts them to the test. This method is still very popular today, although aggression in small pots is quietening down in tough games, as getting raised is much more frequent. For a long time, players simply didn’t know how to defend themselves and wanted to avoid playing against an opponent that made them uncomfortable, so they just gave up a ton of hands to continuation bets.

— Semi Bluffs

Doyle truly embraced the power of fold equity by playing his draws aggressively. It was much more of a “feel” thing in comparison to today’s EV calculation of ranges vs. ranges. However, Doyle was so good at reading his opponents he would nearly always be able to provoke folds when he sensed weakness. He won so many pots uncontested that it would make up easily for the equity lost when he did get called, not to mention the tilt factor when he hit! Playing a draw aggressively has become the rule rather than the exception in today’s game, and it’s not about to change any time soon.

— Pot size manipulation

Because the players at the time had not much experience with No Limit, Doyle was able to tailor the size of his bets much more than we would today. He talks about over-betting in multi-way pots if he holds, for example, 7-7 on a 4-4-7 board. This is because bad players would try to play A-4 from any position, so with deep stacks, his chances to win 500BB on this were good. Today this just sounds ridiculous: bluffs, semi-bluffs, medium hands and strong hands have to be bet the same depending on the situation, or your opponents will quickly understand your patterns. Sure, you will have some flexibility and can choose to bet somewhere between 1/3rd of the pot to full pot on some flops. However, as we’ll see in subsequent articles, that should be mostly determined by what your range is in this situation, rather than your actual hand. In short: While manipulating the pot size is still a huge skill required to beat the games at all levels today, nobody ever takes it quite as far as Doyle did back in the day.

Doyle actually started to routinely over-bet the pot, sometimes even betting 5 times what was in the middle. The basic theory is this: when you apply pressure, you give people tough decisions, meaning they make more mistakes. Since you make money from other people’s mistakes, it doesn’t matter if you make a small mistake — providing it will induce a big mistake from someone else more often. Betting big in certain pots makes opponents’ mistakes much more costly in the long run, even if you take a big risk.

Added benefits include fear factor, and not having to build the pot as much before the river (therefore allowing more room for slow play). As we progress through the evolution of poker strategy, we’ll get to talk about over-bets in more detail: This play was on the brink of disappearing from online poker when everyone started looking for the “correct play” … that is, until someone called Isildur made it popular again.

Conclusion

 Doyle’s strategy crushed the game. When you put it all together, it makes sense on a macro level: when you have an opponent that always puts you to the test, you are left with a sense that he can pull the trigger in a pot at anytime, and that quickly inspires fear. Naturally, pros started to avoid him, which gave him more liberty to play against the players who yielded the most profit. These players would fit into two categories:

— The ones that tried to stay away from him post-flop thinking “I’ll catch him later” — except they never would, because it was so easy for Doyle to spot when they finally had a hand. They basically acted as dead money to sweeten the pot.

— The ones that put their ego on the table, and tried to play back at Doyle. Most of them sent Doyle’s kids to college rather rapidly, or learned to play his game and joined him amongst the greats of poker.

The poker community owes Doyle Brunson a lot, both for sharing his strategy through several poker books, and for being a great ambassador during the poker boom. The game certainly treated him well, and he went on to dominate poker for decades.

Join me next month to see how strategy evolved from there to become more subtle and tricky — and why.

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April 2014