If I’m Right, How Can You Be Right Too?
Poker is a zero sum game. If there wasn’t any rake, the money won by players at the table would always equal the money other players lost. No mystery there. Because of that, poker seems like a place where you wouldn’t expect to find many win-win situations.
Nevertheless, there are lots of situations where two adversaries can each make the right decision, even while they realize that one of them will win the hand while the other will lose. If that last statement sounds contradictory, trust me; it’s not. If that situation was repeated hundreds or thousands of times, each player would stand the greatest chance of achieving the best possible long-term results by making the right decision; never mind who winds up winning any one particular hand.
Let’s assume you and I are heads up in a $10-$20 game. I raised before the flop with A-K off suit and you called with Q-J. Both blinds folded and there’s $55 in the pot, which includes dead money from the two players who were in the blind. The flop is A-6-3. I’ve got top pair and you’re sitting there with a flush draw.
Since I’m first to act, I can either check or bet. Because your most likely hands are a pair that’s inferior to mine, an ace with a weaker side card, or a flush draw, I’m have to bet and make you pay the price to see if the next card improves your hand. After all, if I check, you’ve just gotten an early birthday present: the gift of infinite odds accompanied by an invitation to draw out on me.
With infinite odds, you can’t lose? If you don’t improve, you won’t lose any money trying to make your hand. If you do make your hand, you will have gotten there with absolutely no risk on your part at all because I was foolish enough to give you a free card.
Since I have the best hand and you have to improve in order to beat me—unless you bluff and I fold, and that’s not going to happen because the flop fit my hand so well—I have to make it as costly as possible for you to draw out on me.
In a fixed-limit hold’em game, I cannot bet enough to make it too costly for you to draw to your hand. I can only bet the current limit, which in this case is ten dollars. That’s not much of a disincentive, all things considered, but it’s better than giving you a free shot at drawing out on me.
If I bet ten dollars into a $55 dollar pot, it will cost you ten dollars to call. When you add my ten dollar bet to the money already in the pot, you are getting $65-to-$10 or 6.5-to-1 on your money. The odds against completing a flush draw from the flop to the river are only 1.86-to-1 against you.
As you can see, the 6.5-to-1 odds offered by the pot far exceed the odds of 1.86-to-1 against making your hand. If you could repeat this situation hundreds or thousands of times, it would pay for you to continue on with your draw because of the favorable relationship between the pot odds and the odds against making your hand.
If I checked and gave you a free shot at drawing out on me, you’d never hesitate continuing to play, because you’d have absolutely nothing to lose and the entire pot to win. In fact, when it doesn’t cost anything for a chance to improve your hand, no odds are too long to draw against.
On the other hand, if we were playing no-limit hold’em, I could bet something like $200 into that $55 dollar pot. Now it would cost you $200 to win the $255 in the pot and you’d be getting only 1.275-to-1 on your money. In this situation, the odds against making your hand haven’t changed. They’re still 1.86-to-1 against you. But now the odds against making your hand exceed the payoff odds offered by the pot, and it’s a long-term money loser to draw to a flush in this situation.
If you spend some time musing about this, you’ll probably think of numerous examples where both players can make the right decision. Poker can be a funny game. While one player will win a specific pot and another will lose it, it’s not winning or losing any one specific pot that matters. What does matter is creating situations where the money odds offered by the pot more than offset the odds against making your hand. When you do that, you’ll win in the long run. In the long run, the statistical probability of an event occurring and your real-world, actual results will come close to converging.
That’s something to think about. Much as it may seem that way when you’re focused in on a hand, poker is not about winning or losing any given confrontation. It’s about getting yourself into favorable situations that figure to pay off in the long run.
When you think about it in terms of those oft-quoted dueling aphorisms, in poker it’s usually much more a case of “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” than, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”