Decision Making in Poker- The Top Down Method

This article comes from Gareth “Gazellig” James. Gareth is a semi-professional poker player and an MTT instructor at the Poker Training site GrinderSchool.com which focuses on providing affordable training targeted at small stakes and microstakes games. Gareth has strong background in NLHE Tournaments, and is available for coaching at gazelligpoker@gmail.com, on Twitter @gazelligpoker and on Skype: gazelligpoker.

I set up an MTT study group on Skype a few months ago and the strategy talk has really picked up over the last few weeks. It’s a great way for players from all over the world – there are players from countries like Belgium, USA, Poland, UK and Australia – to share ideas and talk about poker. Most of the time they help each other out and I am on hand to challenge and question possible misconceptions. I have always believed that we know everything we need to know; we just need to ask ourselves (or have someone else ask us) the right questions. I think this is a Buddhist belief, but please don’t quote me on that. My aim in the group is to ask a series of questions that challenge the beliefs and ideas of these players and students. So when a hand is shared I avoid the: “Well it’s standard to shove here!” response as I feel it is really unhelpful.

A hand was posted recently that gives you an example of the kind of dialogue I have with students in the group. This particular player even remarked afterwards, “I like your ‘let me think’ approach”. And this is exactly what I’m trying to do. I have spent a number of years as a classroom music teacher and I know that just telling someone what to do is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. If you ask them the right questions and allow them to discover the answer for themselves, their understanding and learning is greatly improved and they also learn the skills to ask themselves similar questions when they are faced with an uncomfortable situation in the future.

This is a hand taken from a €109 satellite to the €800 main event at the Belgian Poker Challenge that runs from September 4th to 7th. I think Hero was currently 34th/36 and with only 6 seats available he had a lot of work to do. He has 7.5BBs here and sees two limpers in front. Without the two limpers I think 77 is an easy shove here with only 4 players left to act behind, but the presence of the limpers makes things a little bit more complicated. With such a shortstack I don’t think Hero can pass up on many, if any, +cEV spots to try to get back into the game. He is going to find it difficult to win a seat, but it’s not outside the realms of possibility. My questions here might include, “What do you think are the ranges of the limpers?”, “Do you think you have any fold equity?” and “How does 77 play against their calling ranges?”. If you don’t have answers to these questions then I feel it’s probably better to fold here, mark the hand for review and move on. Yes, you might be making a mistake by folding, but at least you’re not making a potentially even bigger financial mistake by shoving. Some players looking at this might be thinking this is an easy shove, or this is an easy fold, but for players still learning the game, and really this is most people as we’re all still learning, it is important to find ways to develop your game and work out whether this is a shove or a fold.

I’m not sure if, with 7.5BBs, we have much fold equity over two limpers here so we are essentially saying, “Let’s toss a coin for our tournament life!” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering we’re right at the back of the pack and have a lot of work to do, but there are some other things to consider that might help. There are likely to be some hands in their limp/calling ranges that we won’t want to see, like 88,99, A9s, ATo, 98s where we’re unlikely to come out of it alive.

This is a big satellite to a main event that Hero has never played before so this is a big deal to him. It probably isn’t a big deal for someone who grinds these stakes all day and is happy to take what they feel is a tiny +cEV spot in this situation. This is where sometimes we need to adjust our strategy to suit our own goals. Now at this point you might be thinking that Hero shouldn’t be playing such tournaments where he is avoiding taking +cEV spots if he is unhappy to lose (essentially playing outside of his bankroll), but we all can understand that there are times when players want to take shots, and an opportunity to play in a big main event at your nation’s poker challenge is absolutely freakin’ awesome, man aka one that you have to take.

So back to the hand. My advice was as follows: if you’re ever unsure of a spot then a fold is probably better than a jam. There are some spots where you just KNOW that it’s a shove. We’ve all been in situations where we feel really confident about getting our chips in – and this comes from experience and from knowledge. We know that shoving AA here is going to be profitable as we’ve experienced similar situations before and it’s always the top suggested hand when we use ICMizer or SitNGoWizard to analyze the hand.

I continued by suggesting a top down method where you focus on the hands you just ‘know’ are shoves and work down. So we know that AA is a shove here, we know that KK is a shove etc. We’re confident that AK and AQ are shoves here because we dominate a lot of weaker Ax hands in our opponents’ limp/calling ranges. What we then do is stop at the point where we’re not sure anymore. This is where our knowledge and experience shows us that we’re not confident that this is a correct shove. So you might settle on QQ+,AK, TT+,AQ+, 66+,AT+ depending on your knowledge of the players involved and your knowledge and experience of similar situations in the past. The point is that in game you have to trust your own knowledge and experience to make a confident move. In an ideal world we want to get to a point where every move we make is a confident one and we avoid any spots where we’re not really sure. There are a ton of moves in poker that we know will make money/chips. Avoiding spots where we’re not sure is almost as valuable. Sometimes you will avoid a spot, mark it for review and then realize you made a massive mistake. But, guess what?! Suddenly your knowledge has improved and will help in similar situations in the future. Your experience here has given you the opportunity to learn that you have to make a different move next time.

Hero mentioned in the chat on Skype later that he went through this method and settled on AQ+ and TT+. This is what made him confident. This is the range of hands that he is going to shove in this spot and be happy about it. Now it’s really important that he uses one of the tools available like ICMizer and SitNGoWizard to work out if his analysis was correct. From that he can develop his own understanding and know what to do next time. In game, the top down method helps you make more confident moves and avoid making marginal plays where you’re just not sure. Above all, you’re discovering the answer for yourself. Go get ‘em you Buddhist ninja!

Gareth ‘Gazellig’ James is a semi-professional poker player and an MTT instructor at Grinderschool. You can contact him for private coaching at gazelligpoker@gmail.com, you can follow him on Twitter @gazelligpoker and add him on Skype: gazelligpoker.

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