Shifting Trends Pt. 1 – Strategic Fashions in Poker

Alex Weldon : August 18th, 2015


Shifting Trends is a new series of strategy articles in which we will discuss how baseline poker strategy has changed over the past five or so years. It is written from the perspective of a low-to-mid stakes online Sit-and-Go, Spin-and-Go and multi-table tournament semipro; some of the trends we’ll look at may differ when it comes to live and/or cash game play, but the basic tendency of group adaptation we discuss here in Part 1 applies regardless.

My grandfather was an economist at McGill, and he often lamented that the trouble with economics is that you’re trying to predict human behavior, and the thing about humans is that once you’ve told them how you think they behave, they will do something different. Personally, my background is in physics, so that problem likewise reminds me of the principles of quantum mechanics, whereby we’ve discovered that it’s impossible to make observations about a system without changing it in the process.

A thought experiment

The problem is easy to understand by way of a thought experiment. Here’s an article about how humans pick “random” numbers between 1 and 20; the results are that 17 gets way more than its share of the votes, being picked almost four times more often than it should be, followed by 7. The more general trend is that odd numbers and especially primes get chosen much more than “round” or natural-seeming numbers like 4, 10, 15, 16 and 20.

Now that you’ve read the article, or at least my summary of it, let’s say you’re out at the bar and some stranger claims to be psychic and asks you to pick a number from 1 to 20. What are you going to pick? Certainly not 17, and most likely one of the numbers you now know you aren’t expected to go for. Even if nothing material is at stake, humans hate to be predictable as a matter of principle, perhaps because we have some underlying insecurities about the idea of free will.

Prediction and poker

For obvious reasons, understanding and predicting human behavior is as important to poker players like us as it is to economists, but our problem is even worse. This is because there’s a strong, concrete incentive for our opponents not to want to be predictable, above and beyond mere existential hand-wringing.

But here’s the thing: our aversion to being predictable is itself extremely predictable. Most of us know that if you flip a fair coin five times and it comes up heads the first four, it’s still equally likely to be heads or tails on the next flip. The same is definitively not true of humans. Someone who has bluffed repeatedly in similar spots may continue to do so as long as they don’t think others know that they’ve been bluffing, but as soon as they’ve shown down a couple of those bluffs, most players are likely to change their behavior, at least briefly, until they think everyone has forgotten.

Mass adaptation

We’re all familiar with this happening in the short term, on the individual level. It happens for some more than others, of course; strong players can rapidly get into leveling wars with one another, but even the most naive players will eventually catch on to the fact that you’ve figured them out. There’s only so many times you can steal the blinds off the same nit before he decides to look you up.

The same thing happens to populations of players as a whole, however, albeit much more slowly. There’s always some general, unconscious understanding of the “normal” way to play poker, which serves as a baseline, while individual players’ strategies are seen as deviations from that default. Everyone is looking for a winning approach to the game, however, and until you have a read on a given player, the best strategy to adopt is usually going to be one which beats a typical player, whatever “typical” currently is; once upon a time, it was loose-passive play, but these days the general trend runs towards the ABC tight-aggressive play which was originally designed to beat the calling stations.

General strategies and specific tactics

The adaptation doesn’t only happen at the level of general strategy however, but also in terms of how players approach specific spots and employ specific moves. Let’s look at this by way of another thought experiment.

Consider the situation that we’re facing a small-to-medium continuation bet on a paired, unconnected rainbow board like JJ6. This is a very particular situation in Hold’em in that the range of hands players can have is very narrow and compartmentalized – trips, a decent pocket pair, some kind of marginal hand like Ace high or a small pair, or nothing at all. Furthermore, it’s very hard for hands from any of those brackets to improve to beat hands in the next bracket up, or even other hands within the same bracket.

This is very much unlike most textures, where both made hands and drawing odds fall on more of a spectrum. That means that this kind of flop has special status in most players’ minds, assuming they have any experience with the game at all. And any time you have a unique situation like this, people tend to have strong ideas about the “right” way to play. These can be fairly subtle strategies – for instance, many modern professionals would not have a raising range at all here, preferring to slowplay their trips, call with their marginal hands as well, and perhaps even float with their air hands once in a while. But for the sake of our thought experiment, let’s imagine instead a small, insular community of fairly unsophisticated players – a private, regular home game, let’s say – who tend to think in simpler terms and will simply raise with their trips if they believe they will get called fairly often, but will instead raise their air hands as a bluff if they believe they will get a lot of folds.

Now, game-theoretically, it’s easy to see that the equilibrium strategy will eventually have players either never raising, or more likely, raising all types of hands at least part of the time in order to remain balanced. In practice, however, most groups of players will never get anywhere close to equilibrium before something disturbs the system again, such as new players entering the game, or some of the existing players suddenly changing strategy based on something they’ve seen or read elsewhere. Let’s say, then, that we begin with a situation where players are tending to bluff at these flops a lot, but slowplaying their trips, and that this strategy is pretty effective because no one is calling off with worse than trips very often. How is this population going to evolve as the smarter players start to realize what’s going on and try to get ahead of their buddies?

Reactive adaptation leads active adaptation

Let’s stop for a moment and separate what I’m going to call an active behavior from a reactive one. This is a tough distinction to make, because most actions in a poker hand are reactions to moves that came before, and provoke further reactions of their own. However, what we’re talking about is moves which are usually less-common, but are taken more commonly by a given pool of players when presented with a particular, not-so-common situation. Here, for instance, continuation betting is common in general, but the second player’s raise is less common in general than calling the c-bet or folding, yet may happen more often among some players on this specific, uncommon board texture. Therefore, that’s our “active” behavior, while the continuation-bettor’s response (calling or folding to the raise) is our “reactive” behavior.

How do these two behaviors change as players try to adjust to the overall trends of their community? Well, for starters, no one is going to change their raising range here, because what they’re doing is working – the preflop caller, who has position, is winning a lot of these pots off of the continuation bettor, who just isn’t going to have the trips often enough to call. If anything, the smartest players will just start bluffing even more often in the short term, because for the time being it’s free money.

What will happen, however, is that players will start calling off with one-pair hands more frequently, starting with the most attentive players in the group. They may also start omitting their continuation bet and simply folding when they don’t even have a bluff-catching hand, or even reraise-bluffing with those hands. As this happens, more bluffs will end up being shown down, and so the less attentive players will start catching on as well. Eventually, stacking off with pairs will become the default move on this board texture, and maybe even with Ace-high type hands, if the situation goes on long enough. At some point, enough players will be calling often enough that raising as a bluff becomes a losing move on this texture. What’s important to note however, is that at the time that this tipping point arrives, most of the players will still be bluffing a lot.

Once the bluff-raising is no longer profitable, however, the next stage of adaptation will kick in. The most attentive players will notice that their bluffs now seem more spewy than profitable and start to dial them back, possibly all the way to zero. At the same time, they’ll start raising their trips for value more often, since they’re now getting called often enough that there’s little need to slowplay. Others will eventually follow suit, until we get to a point where there are few enough bluffs and enough value raises happening that folding rather than calling becomes the correct move with most pairs. That adjustment, in turn, will start the fashion swinging back the other way.

In other words, fashions within a poker community for how to play a specific spot tend to go in cycles, but more importantly, it’s changes in reactive behavior that typically happen first, leading to eventual changes in the active behavior. A previously-effective strategy will usually continue to be employed by most of the population for some time even after enough players have learned to see through the ruse that it is actually no longer effective. What this means at the individual level is that at any given point in time, for a given move, there will be a significant number of players who have learned to spot and respond correctly to it, yet still continue to employ it themselves because they believe – correctly or not – that others have not yet caught on.

Staying ahead of the curve

When you reach a state of flux such that some players have changed to a different active behavior and others have not, it can be really tricky to know what to do. You won’t, for instance, know whether a given player is still raising as a bluff in the above scenario, or has made the adjustment and is now raising with his monsters in order to represent a bluff. When that point comes and a trend is mid-swing, observation becomes very important. However, you can generally expect better players to be adapting quicker than poor players. Thus, if everyone was doing Thing A last year and now some people are doing Thing B in that spot instead, a player who has shown herself to be strong in other ways is more likely to be doing Thing B now, while a player who has made several poor plays may be more likely to still be doing Thing A.

But really, the most profitable time to spot a trend is when it has already reversed on the reactive side, but the active part of the trend has yet to catch up. For instance, if everyone is still bluffing on paired boards, but those bluffs are now getting called a lot, then if you can be not only among the players who is snapping off bluffs, but a frontrunner in terms of raising your own trips for value, that’s a great situation to be in, as you’ll be coming out ahead on both ends.

The value of distance

Anyone who’s paying attention and playing a significant volume will notice these trends to an extent, but I think I’m particularly aware of them because of the course my poker career has taken. I’ve never been one to stick to any particular grind for long; I’ll play a certain format on a certain site for, say, six months, then quit for a while due to some combination of boredom, frustration or being busy with other things, then come back some time later to play something slightly different than what I was playing before.

That approach makes the changes in these trends really striking to me, in the same way that you don’t notice your own child growing day to day, but when you see someone else’s kid for the first time in a year, it’s always a shock to see how much bigger they are than the last time. Whenever I come back to poker, I’ll find that something I used to do successfully is suddenly not working at all for me; sometimes I’ll then notice that everyone else is still doing it too. That’s because they never put the same distance between themselves and the game, and the shift happened too slowly for them to notice while being in the middle of it.

Throughout this series, I’ll share some of the observations I’ve made recently, in the hopes that they’re helpful, but really, the best advice I can give is to give yourself that distance when you feel like your regular game is no longer working. It may be that trends have shifted and you haven’t been able to see it from where you are, because you are yourself caught up in the current. You don’t have to leave poker entirely to get a different perspective, just change up your game. Play fewer tables and higher stakes, or more tables and lower stakes. Switch from cash to tournaments, or vice versa. If it’s possible where you’re living, switch from live to online or vice versa.

It doesn’t matter exactly what you do, just step away from your usual grind for a while; when you come back, if you’re attentive, you’ll be able to see which way the currents are flowing and get out ahead of them rather than being swept along inside them.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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