Friday, May 11, 2007

Poker Theory

In my book, The Complete Book Of Hold 'Em Poker: A Comprehensive Guide to Playing and Winning , I have a chapter on Poker Theory covering what I call theoretical perspectives -- different ways to look at the game. Someday I might like to try to write a book expanding that chapter, it's my favorite chapter of the hold'em book.

Here's an old thread on rgp where somebody was critical of that chapter. Like most of the criticisms of the book, he was complaining that I didn't cover as much material as he thinks I should have. As I point out in one of the replies in that thread, the book was contracted for 100,000 words and I came in long as it was. And, I don't think my writing style is longwinded (I'm a little more long-winded in blog posts than in other writing because in blog posts I'm writing for search engines in addition to for readers).

Here's the first post in the thread
Carson's "Theories of Poker" chapter contains some wonderful gems but
also some misleading fool's gold.

Many poker players tend to take a rather rote "cookbook" approach to
the game. They memorize general rules of thumb without really
understanding the reasons behind that advice. When "exceptions to the
rules" arise, these folks aren't aware the advice no longer applies,
and they make mistakes.

Most serious players eventually seek a better understanding of poker
fundamentals. Many, however, develop a theoretical perspective that
offers only a single, narrow view of the game. This "tunnel vision"
might be adequate for numerous situations in their usual game, but it
often fails when less normal conditions arise.

One of the strengths of THE COMPLETE BOOK OF HOLD 'EM POKER is that
Carson encourages readers to adopt a broader, more flexible approach.

There are many alternative theories of poker, and a
complete analysis of the game requires a frequent
shifting of theoretical perspective. (P. 107.)

Which theoretical perspective you use to analyze a
situation just depends on the situation and the game-
condition context of the situation. . . . That's the
key to developing a dynamic approach to the game.
Developing the ability to quickly shift your point of
view is the first step in being able to adjust to
changes in game conditions--the key to winning poker.
(P. 116.)

He lists eight theoretical perspectives, such as:

* Poker is a struggle among the players for the rights
to the ante.

* Poker is a game of strategy and deception.

He gives a brief explanation of each theory and indicates the game
conditions when they are most likely to be relevant. More
importantly, Carson uses these theories throughout his book to explain
various aspects of poker and why you should think differently when
playing in different situations.

I commend Carson for encouraging his readers to reflect on poker at
this new level. This is all very nice, as far as it goes.
Unfortunately, he doesn't do as well taking them to the next level.
Indeed, he indicates the next level doesn't even exist. Here's that
misleading vein of pyrite I mentioned earlier:

We don't have a general theory of poker. By a
general theory I mean a unified theoretical view that
encompasses most, if not all, of the commonly
accepted theoretical perspectives of the game. (P.
113.)

I believe there is a general theory of poker, at least for those
players whose primary goal is big profits:

* Poker is a game where maximizing the expected values (EVs)
of your decisions maximizes your long-term profits.

It's that simple--and that complex.

It's that simple, because once you understand expectation well, you
will understand everything Carson's eight theories attempt to
explain--and more.

It's that complex, because it isn't easy to understand expectation
well. And it's even more difficult to compute or estimate EV for the
many different situations that arise at the poker tables.

This complexity means serious players often need to think about
expectation away from the tables in order to develop good short cuts
or rules of thumb that they can apply in the heat of battle.

For example, there are instances when you very likely make your best
betting decision simply by comparing your pot odds to your odds of
losing the hand.

Similarly, there are times when you very likely make your best betting
decision by recognizing you are in a struggle for the antes and simply
playing aggressively.

I view Carson's eight theories as short-cut methods for guessing which
decision has the greatest EV. They supplement the general theory of
poker that I presented above and are encompassed by it.

If readers do not understand the eight theories in terms of
expectation, they are less likely to recognize which theory applies to
a specific situation.

Suppose you have pocket aces under-the-gun in a very tight game.
Based on Carson's explanations, you probably will conclude the
"struggle for the antes" theory pertains best and raise pre-flop.

In some of those situations, however, you ought to just limp in. If
you understand expectation, you can realize when calling is better
than raising. In the same way, this knowledge allows you to recognize
when you need to consider more than just pot odds.

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