August 14, 2009
This is the first in a series of articles that will discuss limit holdem from the ground up. Although the examples will be chosen from limit holdem, much of the discussion applies to all forms of poker. Much of the material covered will be of a theoretical nature. The reason for this is that the alternate approach â€” giving a concrete set of rules to guide oneâ€™s play â€” can only get one so far in todayâ€™s game. There are so many different possible situations that occur when playing poker, and any set of rules will either be too simplistic to give good advice on a consistent basis or too complex for a human mind to remember. Instead, to succeed in limit holdem or any form of poker, there are some key concepts that a player must understand and a thought process that a player must apply in order to beat games, particularly online where the skills of the player pool are fairly sophisticated. In this first article, we will develop the strategic framework for thinking about poker hands. All of the concepts introduced here will be used in the subsequent articles; you should think of the ideas presented here as the basic components of your limit holdem toolbox, which we will use to develop a thorough understanding of how to be successful at limit holdem.
In this article, we will discuss how to compute expected values and how to account for hand ranges and hand combinations when making expected value calculations. When our opponent has a very narrow range of hands, we can actually do the calculations by hand. This article will be somewhat technical, but the ideas presented are needed for a complete understanding of later topics. Future articles will discuss equity, odds, betting theory, position, hand range analysis, hand planning, exploitability, and balance.
The first topic that we will discuss is the luck and skill factors in poker. It is commonly asked whether poker is a game of chance or a game of skill. This is a great example of the logical fallacy known as the false dilemma. The question has no meaningful answer as posed because poker is a game of luck and a game of skill. The luck aspect of poker is immediately evident too us each time we take a bad beat. (Interestingly, our minds tend not to be as sensitive to the luck element when we are the ones who outdraw our opponent.) The skill aspect of poker is a bit more subtle to understand; indeed, many weaker players never acquire much understanding of the skills required to win at poker. The skill in poker arises from the betting decisions made in the course of a hand. The rest of this article will discuss in detail how to determine which betting decision is best in any given situation. Of course, the examples will be kept rather simple and somewhat artificial to make the calculations relatively easy to carry out, but the theory applies to the more complex situations that occur in actual hands.