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Unbalance Yourself: Poker Strategy vs. Uncomplicated Players

Unbalance Yourself: Poker Strategy vs. Uncomplicated Players
  • Balancing your play makes sense vs. perceptive opponents, less so when they're not paying attention.

  • Against players more concerned with their own hands than yours, a straightforward approach is best.

I read about the need to "balance your play"... and I laugh. In the typical $1/$2 game — at least in the places I normally play — the key is to remain "unbalanced."

What is "balanced play"? One example would be to bet hands with little or no value the same way you would bet hands with value. This is done to prevent attentive opponents from being able to access your betting range accurately, thereby thwarting their ability to take counter measures against you.

For example, preflop, you might play {Q-Hearts}{2-Hearts} the same as {Q-Clubs}{Q-Spades}. By playing this broader range you would prevent yourself from becoming too easy to read. Consequently, you would prevent yourself from being too easily exploited by your attentive opponents.

The addition of this weak hand to your range of hands with which you might raise in early position or reraise, for example, would help conceal the true strength of your hand when you raise or reraise with queens — and in so doing keep those skilled opponents from playing correctly against you.

Fair enough. There's much about this argument that makes sense against skilled, attentive opponents. If you play only strong hands strongly, and if you only play weak hands weakly, your perceptive opponents may well decline to pay you when you are strong and start stealing pots from you when you are unlikely to have improved those strong starting hands. Against such opponents, the simple advice to "mix up your play" makes a lot of sense.

But against poor players who do not know enough to recognize your habits of play, such balancing of your range will often end up costing you money.

Consider the play of premium pairs. Do you need to balance your range against new, poor, or otherwise clueless players who do not notice what you do and who only act based on their perception of the absolute value of their own hand? Against players like that, you gain little to nothing from "balancing your play," as they will not notice what you are doing.

Put another way, they are not perceptive enough to notice that you only bet strong hands. And even if they do, they will not be skillful enough to stay out of your way or otherwise play successfully against you when you do show aggression.

It's important to note here that I'm not suggesting that you only raise in early position with a premium pair, or that you otherwise adopt extremely tight play. In fact, against generally clueless players who act solely on their perceived value of their own cards, it usually makes sense to play many hands. You want to increase your opportunities to capitalize on the many mistakes these opponents will make through the play of the hand.

But when you are playing all of these hands, you should endeavor not to balance your range but to broaden it. Your motivation matters.

You're not looking to fool your opponent into making mistakes about the true value of your hand. You don't care about how you are perceived, because your opponent isn't skillful enough to connect your betting action with your hand strength. Rather, you are looking to exploit the mistakes he makes by not thinking about the strength of your hand.

Here's an example. You have about $300 in a $1/$2 game. You are in mid-position with {Q-Hearts}{2-Hearts}, and a couple of players in front of you call the $2 big blind. Call the bet — don't raise. Were you trying to "balance your play," you might have raised in order to keep a skilled player from recognizing that you only raise when you have a strong hand. But here, with unskilled opponents, there's no need to do that. So just call.

Let's say, on the other hand, you have {7-Hearts}{6-Hearts}. This is a hand with which you might raise. Make it $12. A simpleton on the button, with $200 or so behind calls your raise. Had he raised, you could have thrown your hand away, as you would almost surely be up against a much stronger hand and could release it without seeing the flop. But in this instance he calls. The other players fold. You see the flop heads up.

The flop is {6-Diamonds}{9-Spades}{10-Hearts}. Make the donk bet, something like $15 or $20. Against a good player you might not make the bet, as he might use his position, his reading of the flop, and his memory of your previous play to knock you off of your hand, even if he didn't hit. But against a less savvy opponent, bet, and expect him to fold — not because he figures you for a premium pair or having hit the flop, but just because he missed (something he'll do most of the time).

Were he more attentive, he might well be thinking about your hand and whether this was a good flop for you. He might be considering whether, given your predictable continuation bet, he might get you off the hand with a raise.

But with this kind of opponent, you don't need to worry about that. If he raises you, you know he hit, and you should probably fold. If he calls, you can reassess on the turn and bet based on how you think he will act, not worrying about how he will view what you are likely to hold.

"Balancing your play" makes sense when your opponents are aware and prepared to use their insight into your likely holdings to devise and execute a winning strategy against you. But all too often, good players give their opponents more credit than they deserve in this regard.

Against typically uncomplicated players, as you'll find in many home games and in lower stakes games in public poker rooms, it's usually better to follow a straightforward line that relies on and exploits your opponent's likely mistakes, even if such play would make your hand transparent to a more skillful opponent.

Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.

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