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The Limitations of Exploitative Play

21/02/2019 by Alexander Fitzgerald
Strategy
D&B MAGAZINE

Exploitative Play in Live Poker front cover

I love teaching the everyman how to play poker, because I can identify with them.

Growing up, I loved competition. Unfortunately, competition didn’t love me. I wasn’t athletic enough to excel in sports. I wasn’t intelligent enough to play chess competitively, or to compete within academia. My glacially slow mind wasn’t appropriate for video games.

Simultaneously, I found real life to be mundane. I couldn’t stand school. I was bored out of my mind when I was working security, commercial fishing, landscaping, and cooking jobs.

I just wanted something to happen. Anything.

Poker saved my life. There was always something going on once I found poker. If you played your cards right, you could literally change your life. I found that exciting. That was always the real salary of poker to me. I just wanted a shot. I just wanted a life where something could happen.

I went pro at 18. I’m 31 now. In those 13 years, I have had some success, but I would never call myself a great talent. Yes, I squeaked into WPT and EPT final tables, and I won small WCOOP and SCOOP events, but I never conquered the poker world. Most of my money, truthfully, came from playing $1.00/$2.00 on exceptionally bad networks whilst dealing with their terrible software and cashout policies. Where I have found success in life is teaching the game of poker. However, I teach a specific class of players. I only teach people how to beat low and mid-stakes games. I paid my bills consistently for years thrashing bums at low to mid-stakes tournaments and cash games; it’d be disingenuous to teach anything else.

It’s a fun job, teaching Granny how to bitch slap kids at her $2.00/$5.00 game in the Midwest.

I also love my clients, because they love competition just as much as I do. Some of them are former athletes who blew out of their sport with an injury. Some of them are senior citizens who don’t have mad hops on the court anymore. They still want to compete, but they’re not trying to make a career out of the game. They just want to hold their own at moderate limits and hopefully make a little money (and maybe, just maybe, a lot of money).

I find it so fun to help these people achieve their goals, because they are realistic and attainable. Teaching these people is enjoyable, because it’s like helping your best friend beat small games with fundamentals. There’s less guess work. You help them memorize how to be the aggressor in position and not bluff/call off their stack in mediocre conditions, and they’ll usually win.

But of course, there’s more to it than that:

The thing about teaching poker, be it through info products, books, or private lessons, is that there is only one rule: It has to work. No one cares how intelligent you sound or how beautiful your theory is. They want results, and that’s it. Truthfully, they shouldn’t ask for anything more.

Whenever I create strategies for my students, I remember this golden maxim: It has to work. It doesn’t matter how weird I sound or how basic the strategy seems to be. If it works for my students, then we’ll both continue to make money and ride off into the sunset together.

To help my students win, I’ve developed a multifaceted strategy: • I put them in games they can beat • I give them simple rules which anyone can remember in the field, because most people forget convoluted strategies the second the pressure is on • I deliver my classes in the style of an American football coach. I frequently yell in a condescending fashion. I occasionally sound like I have CTE. This delivery method might not make me a likeable person, but it does make the simple rules memorable.

Thankfully, the above strategy has worked wonders for my students.

But there are limitations to what I can do. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you what they were.

For one, you need to know I see nothing wrong with GTO play. I am good friends with many poker players who are a hundred times more talented than I am. I am not even in their zip code. Just like you, I am a big fan of what they teach me about GTO. I love watching them play in high stakes tournaments, both online and live. I’m super excited to read Michael Acevedo’s new book Modern Poker Theory: Building an Unbeatable Strategy Based on GTO Principles when it comes out.

Furthermore, I think GTO play has many benefits. Practitioners of PioSolver have lit up the tour over the past few years, because they’re discovering inefficiencies in the field others don’t see. While they might be playing GTO versus good players, they are exploiting other players to great benefit.

Additionally, playing a calibrated GTO style is unexploitable, which is extremely intelligent when you don’t know much about your opponents. In online poker, for example, GTO play is helpful when you’re playing multiple tables and can’t make exact reads. GTO play will keep you in the game long enough to start developing reads you can exploit. This is why many of the more intelligent backing houses online use GTO styles.

GTO is a good failsafe, because there are times exploitative play is dangerous.

You cannot exploit others without becoming exploitable yourself. If you know for a fact a starting pitcher throws a fastball for a strike 100% of the time on a 3-2 count, then you should look for the fastball and swing every time. However, if the pitcher finds out you learned of this scouting report, then he can exploit you by throwing a different pitch.

The reason I wrote Exploitative Play in Live Poker for live poker is because, generally, I can anticipate the ranging errors low and mid stakes players will make in Western Europe and North America, and I can create counterpunches for them.

One easy counterpunch live is to threebet more. In live poker, I had numerous people collect data for me for years in low to mid stakes games, and we found that people fold to threebets a wildly small percentage of the time. We also found that the average guy was opening up 25%+ of the hands from the lojack or later if he was under the age of 45.

There’s a simple exploitative play to run here. You simply threebet the guy in position with decent hands (suited-gappers, small pairs, broadway cards), get him to flat you out of position with a plethora of junk, and then you c-bet 66%-75% of the pot on boards without two cards 9 or higher. This larger bet size will have you folding out high cards generally, which is great, because your opponent has tons of them. He will frequently have high cards 45-55% of the time, and a 75% c-bet only needs to work 42.8% of them.

Continuing, this strategy will also have you backing off on boards he’s likely hit, and taking free cards when you need them. Your hand selection too will help you develop some pairs you can either fastplay or pot control with. The hand selection will also give you some equity for when your opponent is likely to have hit the flop.

Long story short, you can make good money with this strategy versus a guy who opens too much and folds too little to threebets, and who doesn’t like calling with high cards out of position versus large bets.

That said, let’s say you’re playing online and your opponent is a massive multitabler who is opening a 15% range. Or, let’s say you’re playing a higher stakes game live and the guy actually folds 40-50% of his hands preflop. Now, that huge c-bet on the flop could be suboptimal. Why would you bet so big when he has so few hands he’s folding?

I was recently getting a lesson on how to use Cardrunners EV’s new solver, and what my teacher was demonstrating to me was that my large 75% c-bet worked amazing…versus wide ranges. If the big blind called, it was awesome. If the guy opened 25% of the hands and called with all of them OOP, it was awesome. If the ranges were tighter, however, a smaller bet was a much better idea.

Thankfully, in most smaller live games, younger guys play too many hands, so generally this strategy will work. But it does demonstrate a limitation of exploitative poker.

One of my greatest worries when I coach is that someone will take my word as gospel in EVERY poker situation. I need my students to understand that I have been wrong before, and I will be wrong again. This is true of any poker coach you decide to learn from.

You must do the work in your own free time and make your own conclusions, otherwise you will be trusting your career to fallible humans. You must trust your opinion above all others, and you must work hard to make that opinion worthy of trust. Collect as much data as possible. Listen to the GTO practitioners and the exploitative players; they both have a great deal to offer you.

The problem with trusting a poker coach unequivocally is that the poker coach has limitations.

I only get a few hours, on average, with any student, be it through a poker book, Youtube video, or coaching session. There is only so much I can do. This creates a problem for me, because the player logically expects to win more after speaking with a poker coach, and I have limited time.

I would love to discuss nuances in poker all day. But it won’t help you win rapidly.

I would love to discuss threebetting out of position in every session I teach, because the concept is so fascinating to me. I think it’s an area of great exploitative profitability that I’m excited to pursue. However, I don’t teach out of position threebetting in hardly any of my lessons, because bloating pots out of position is an excellent way to cause losses. There is an incredibly large number of ways to do it wrong.

What I generally can do with any student is get them playing in softer games. If you’re playing low-stakes on a sportsbook site, or if you’re playing live poker in North America or Western Europe (in limits below $2/$5 and $1,000 MTTs) you’re generally going to be in safe water.

If I can get those players playing their big pots in position, and not giving away their stack every time they flop a pair, I’ll generally get them winning. If they want to go beyond that, I’ll send them my more advanced materials, or (more often) I’ll refer them to a high stakes beast as their new coach.

More importantly, with limited time at my disposal and with clients expecting results, I have to take exploitative shortcuts. These shortcuts work for the vast majority of low to mid stakes players, but they are can be exploited.

Much has been made of my work with databases. One Amazon reviewer even called me the “Billy Beane of poker.”

Let’s get this straight right here: I have not done anything remotely as important for poker as Billy Beane did for baseball. In fact, what was staggering to me when I did try to use databases, was that there was so much I couldn’t use them for. To write Exploitative Play In Live Poker I contacted backing groups who recorded live hands. I also conducted surveys of live players. Many of my students tracked hands for years. One even created spreadsheet data entry files for us to use. I also examined how these player pools played online, and saw if it lined up with the live data I was collecting.

If you pay attention to Exploitative Play In Live Poker, you’ll notice I only use a sparse few conclusions from the databases, because there was a great deal I couldn’t learn from data.

For example, when you check back the flop, how often does your opponent lead the turn? The number is all over the place. Any average number would be misleading, because the data is so scattered. In some cardrooms everybody leads the turn and your pot control technique makes a ton of money, and in other rooms nobody bites. I can’t find rhyme or reason for any of it. Sometimes the same cardroom will have this stat change month after month.

I had literally hundreds of questions like that that I couldn’t answer. I’m pretty sure Billy Beane could have done a better job during his afternoon coffee break.

Here is most of what I learned from the data. You’ll notice it’s fairly basic:

  1. Live players in low to mid stakes do not threebet enough
  2. Live players do not raise flop bets as a bluff nearly enough
  3. A majority of live players do not double barrel bluff on normal boards
  4. Live low to mid stakes players do not bluff rivers enough
  5. Live male players under the age of 45 open too much from later positions, especially after the ante kicks in.
  6. Live players do not fold pairs after the turn with any consistency
  7. Live players do not fold much to threebets. This is likely to save face.
  8. Live players do not float out of position with high cards enough
  9. Threebetting more in position tends to make a profit, even if you make mistakes.
  10. Raising preflop more when no one is likely to threebet tends to make a profit, even if you make mistakes
  11. Threebetting out of position makes a profit, but leads to catastrophic losses if you make mistakes

That’s it.

You actually can do quite a bit with this, and in my book I advocated what would work: You play your big pots in position, you threebet frequent openers in position, you get heads-up with the big blind with large raises, you c-bet large versus the wide ranges of threebet flatters and BB flatters, you value bet thin once you get to the turn or river, and you generally trust the player won’t fold after they call on the flop. Oh, and when they raise postflop, they generally have it.

I did make attempts to discuss more advanced strategies in the book. I contributed exploitative plays versus players who are threebetting you frequently. I gave basic ideas on how to use live tells to detect players who don’t play within this rubric, who could possibly be triple barrel bluffing or raise bluffing. I also discussed the instances where players are willing to fold pairs after the turn.

Judging by the favorable reviews the book has on Amazon, the plays advocated in the book tend to work for my students in low to mid stakes games. Which is great. But I must stress this: THIS IS A STARTING POINT. The exploitative style is a bludgeon without finesse. It is designed to help you make money at low and mid stakes so you can get excited about poker. It is not a be-all end-all panacea.

The GTO practitioners are not your enemies. They are simply the next step. You must learn from anybody and everybody if you want to win at this game for a lifetime.

You have to realize that exploitative plays and info product strategies must take shortcuts, and the strategies will largely work only if you game select.

For example, in my lessons I tell my students to just trust the guy has the hand when he double barrels you. This tends to be the case in low to mid stakes, especially if the turn doesn’t bring an overcard, a flush draw card, etc. However, from what I can tell from my limited research, actually about 20-40% of players are capable of double barrel bluffing at low to mid stakes.

It is in my best interest, when I have limited time, to tell you to stay aggressive in position, exploit players who call too much (which is to say every player), and to just concede a pot when a guy is barreling or raising.

I will be right the majority of the time at low to mid stakes when I tell you to fold to double barrels; the guy will generally have it.

Additionally, if you want to investigate how most recreational players lose all their money, it is typically through calling down with one pair when they have no idea what is going on. If I can remove that with such a gross over adjustment, I will help the player win more.

My shortcut will help the player make the right decision the majority of the time, but it won’t give the player the right decision EVERY time. That is the difference. You must get closer to 100% efficacy if you want to move up in stakes.

When I only have a few hours with you, the responsible move is to give you the play that works the majority of the time, because truthfully that’s the best I can do. But in your private time you should strive to close the gap.

What would help most players is to study some advanced strategies, perhaps some in the GTO realm, that teach them how to identify the situations and players that make call downs correct. It would also behoove the player to keep a copious amount of notes on players at their local haunts or sportsbook site, so they can determine who doesn’t fit into our field analysis.

What the player can’t do is call it a day after finding some plays that work well in their local game. They need to keep learning. They need to pay attention to how the game is changing. They have to understand what helps their exploitative plays work, so they can understand when conditions change so much that abandonment of a play is necessary.

Do not ever stop learning. Listen to everyone, but make your own judgment calls. Start with the plays that will beat your local recreational players or mediocre regs, then slowly tackle the stronger regs. Move up only when you feel you practiced hard for the change in elevation.

Good luck to all of you.