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Raising the Stakes: Poker Strategy is Evolving

Blog By Annie Duke
I have been thinking a lot lately about how much Poker has evolved since I started playing. In a lot of ways, the evolution of the game itself mimics the evolution of the individual player. 

When players first pick up poker, they are  most often very concerned about what’s in their own hand. They don’t really think about ‘their hand’ in relation to what the other player(s) could be holding. It is not until sometime further down their personal poker evolutionary path that they have gained enough experience to realize that poker isn’t so much about your hand, but it’s more about everyone else’s hands.

That ‘ah-ha’ moment is when a player realizes they can bluff. They realize that if the other player’s hand is weak enough, it really doesn’t matter what ‘they have’ because they can make the other player fold regardless.

Now, there are a lot of levels deep you can go with this thinking. I could really take you down the rabbit hole here, but let’s explore a bit further. I raise and you raise me. I think you must be raising me because you think I don’t have a good hand so I raise you back since you don’t have to be strong if that’s your thought process.

What if you then go to the next level and decide that I know that you think I am weak, so my raise doesn’t have to mean anything either and so you raise me a fourth time?!?!  Of course, I can then just decide that you are raising me the fourth time because you know that I know that you were weak on the first raise and maybe I raise you back (is everyone still with me?). Now we have a betting war going on – just waiting for someone to say uncle.

It takes a lot of experience to get that deep in your thinking. The game of poker only recently, really just in the past decade, has evolved to where this kind of thinking has become pretty standard. I suspect the catalyst for this kind of action is due the introduction of the hole card-camera in the early 2000’s.

Back when I started playing, before widespread televised poker, you would never see someone bluff-raise that many levels deep in the hand. If I raised with a hand and you re-raised me, I usually believed it, believed that your raise meant that you were strong. Put in a fourth bet and a player could only have one of two hands: AA or KK. Nowadays, your opponent could just as easily be bluffing.

I don’t think any hand demonstrates the dramatic evolution in the game better than John Bonetti’s knockout hand in the 1993 Main Event, where Bonetti finished third.  At the time, it seemed all anyone could talk about was that hand, it was legendary – Bonetti had all but locked up at least a second place finish given the chip positions. Jim Bechtel (the eventual winner) was sitting with 1.15m in chips, Bonetti had 935K and Glenn Cozen had a mere 95K. The blinds were 5K/10K so with less than 10 big blinds in his stack and Bonetti and Bechtel sitting so huge, it looked like Cozen had third locked up. For Cozen, his best out would be for Bonetti and Bechtel to clash in a huge hand, which both players theoretically should have been looking to avoid.

As fate would have it, that is exactly what happened. Bechtel raised coming in for 35K, Bonetti called in the small blind and Cozen called in the big blind for a third of his stack. The flop hit 6sKs4d and Bonetti checked, Cozen checked, Bechtel bet 75K and Bonetti raised to 180K. This is just what Cozen had been hoping for, a clash of the Titans. Cozen folded and Bechtel called the raise. When the turn card came up a Js, Bonetti moved the rest of his chips in, about 700K. Bechtel called and showed a set of sixes to Bonetti’s AK. Bonetti couldn’t win no matter what the last card was.

This hand was hotly debated at the time. I have a distinct memory of my brother calling me to discuss the hand. I had just started playing and was living in Montana and it made an impression on me that my brother thought this hand was worth an involved dissection.

Essentially, the community at the time felt Bonetti should have taken a much smaller line of play on the hand. He could really just check and call and keep the pot super small so that he didn’t go broke with just the one pair. Everyone back then thought it was so crazy that he had gone broke.

What I notice about the debate when I reflect on it now is that no one ever put in more than one bet on the hand. When Bechtel raised before the flop, Bonetti just called. When Bechtel bet on the flop, Bonetti raised and Bechtel just called. There was never a re-raise on the hand, or a fourth raise, or a fifth. Back at that time, if there had been a fifth raise you could be sure that someone had AA and probably the other guy had Aces, too.

I remember so many situations back when I was starting out  – where I would raise, someone would re-raise me, I would move my chips in, and they would call and we would both turn over Aces. Back then, with that action, it was all we could have. The game itself hadn’t evolved enough to get to that “I think, that you think, that I think, that you think…” stage.

Consider how crazy this hand from the Epic Poker 8-Max Main event would seem to anyone back then: Erik Seidel raises on the button with 9-5 off-suit. Mike McDonald re-raises from the big blind with A-8 off-suit. Erik Seidel, suspecting McDonald just thinks Erik is weak on the button, re-raises McDonald. McDonald smells the play and moves in, causing Erik to fold. In 1993, everyone would have said that was crazy. How could McDonald put in the fifth bet without Aces? Well he knew that Erik knew that he knew…

What would have boggled the mind of even the best players back in ’93 is now standard among poker’s elite. Does your average player make a play like McDonald’s? No. But the best in the world do – and that is what is new.

I think that televised poker has so much to do with this evolutionary thinking. Back then, even if a rare event was televised, you didn’t see the hole cards. Without seeing hole cards, players were just more inclined to believe that raises meant strength. The hole card cameras pulled the curtain back on the game. The new generation of players coming up see how often someone raising or re-raising just didn’t have anything and that caused a huge leap in the game. The leap that allows for McDonald’s five-bet bluff.

Annie Duke is a professional poker player with nearly two decades of experience. She is a World Series of Poker bracelet holder and the 2010 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Champion. Annie is also the author of several books including the best-selling poker book, Decide to Play Great Poker and currently serves as the Commissioner of the Epic Poker League.

 

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