Last night, Phil Galfond’s training site Run It Once put up a free video: Part One of its new PROvsPRO Elite Invitational, a 10-man single table tournament consisting entirely of top players, played through PokerStars’s Home Game system.
The prize money for the tournament was put up by the site and, in return, the participating pros discussed their thought process while playing. These separate commentaries were then edited together, essentially giving the viewer the experience of being omniscient, with full access not only to the players’ hole cards, but also their internal monologues.
The result is fascinating, entertaining, and often funny… but more than anything, it made me wish for a similar video featuring not pros, but total amateurs.
The trouble with leveling wars
As one would expect, the entire game proved to be one big levelling war. Not only were the players thinking at a high level and expecting their opponents to be doing likewise, but players of this caliber tend to run into one another a fair bit in regular play, so everyone had at least some idea of everyone else’s overall style.
This makes for extremely fun viewing, of course. There are times when one player guesses at another’s thought process, and then you hear exactly those words come out of the other’s mouth. There are other times where one player states the opinion that his opponent can’t possibly have a certain hand, but that’s exactly what he does have, and is playing it that way precisely because he expects his opponent not to believe he could be doing so. Great stuff.
However, the thing about levelling wars is that they come up rarely outside of high stakes heads-up play and the final tables of major tournaments. Not even these top pros make much of their money by winning the levelling wars against high-caliber opponents; every successful poker player’s bread and butter is the efficient exploitation of weaker opponents. As Nick Rampone says at the beginning of the video, “this video is not about game selection, as you can see.”
Furthermore, levelling wars are incredibly personal by their very nature. It’s useful to understand the basic principle of attempting to figure out what your opponent expects you to do, and then to do something different, but every matchup of players is unique. A video like this is a bit like a grammar book which lists only exceptions and provides no rules. The most useful takeaways come at points where a player says “Ordinarily I would do X,” and then does something different: but it’s the default move that you should be learning from, and not what they actually did.
To beat a fish, think like a fish
I find that aspiring poker players tend to focus too much on learning about how better players think. Obviously, this is important, as to play like a pro, you will eventually need to be able to think like a pro. However, when it comes to the thought processes of weaker players, the usual sentiment expressed on poker forums is “who knows what fish are thinking? They’re fish. They’re not thinking.”
This is both untrue and a dangerous assumption. The truth is that everyone is thinking something. In the case of a losing player, much of what they’re thinking may be incorrect, but it’s very hard to play against someone whose actions seem almost random. Understanding what someone is thinking and what incorrect beliefs they hold is the key to anticipating them, which in turn is the foundation of exploitative play… and that’s where most of the money is in poker.
For instance, a friend of mine, who is a casual player, was railing me on PokerStars one day and asked why I had folded a flush draw. I told him that I didn’t have the odds to call off with it, and he seemed surprised. He said “you must have been about 50/50 to hit, no?” I pressed him on this belief and he said that there were four suits, so about I was about 25% to hit on one card, and with two cards to come, that made 50%.
Now, anyone who knows much about poker or statistics knows that he was wrong, and why… but hearing him say it, it made sense why he might have believed that. In all likelihood, he is not the only person who thinks this, and if many casual players believe that a flush draw is about even money to come in, wouldn’t that explain a lot about how low-stakes recreational players play their draws? This sort of information is invaluable.
The other thing I’ve observed about poor players is that they tend to assume that everyone else shares their beliefs. If they would call with a draw and raise with a pair on a given texture, that’s what they expect you to do as well. So, if you call they will put you on a draw, while if you raise they will put you on a pair. If you understand what they believe the “correct” play is, then you will know what it is that you need to do in order to deceive them.
Thus, as much fun as it was to get a glimpse inside the heads of several great players, I think it would be far more useful to repeat this experiment, but with a group of poor-to-average players at a variety of stake levels. To hear the thinking of the losing players, from their own mouths… now that would be a valuable resource.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
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