Balance and the Either/Or Philosophy

Balance is a hot-button word for most advanced poker players. So, let’s define it quickly.

Balance means having a range composed of an equal number of value hands and bluffing hands for any given action.

The benefit of maintaining a balanced range is that you force your opponent into flipping a coin with every decision he makes against you. This can be frustrating for your opponents because no decision they make ever feels “right”. It’s hard to make money against a balanced opponent.

The other hand, though, it’s hard to make money when you are balanced. Simply put, money comes from exploiting our opponents’ mistakes. So, when a fish calls too much, we respond by value- betting more and bluffing less. A fish is inherently unbalanced (toward calling too much), so our exploitative response is to unbalance ourselves in the opposite direction. In certain spots, regulars are unbalanced toward folding too much, so we unbalance toward bluffing more and value-betting less. This brings us to the Either/Or Philosophy:

If it’s a good spot to value-bet, it’s not a good spot to bluff. The reverse is also true. (There is one exception).

There is a reason why this is a philosophy and not a rule—I use it to help me discover creative lines when something isn’t working. I’ll give you some examples.

  •   You raise and the button calls. The flop is T97 with a flush draw. In general, this is a great spot to value-bet (there are so many combinations of pairs and draws that we feel great with a value hand). So, we often check-fold this board with a hand like A4 or 33.
  •   A regular on the button raises and you call in the BB. The flop is K83. You check, he bets, and you check-raise. Against a lot of regulars you have a lot of fold-equity here— therefore it’s usually a good spot to check-call or donk with a set. This means that it’s a good spot to bluff. Once your opponent starts calling your check-raises, it becomes a great spot to value-bet and a poor spot to bluff. Now, let’s deal with the exception:

 Your opponent raises and you call on the button. The flop is 733, he bets and you call. The turn is a 9. He bets again and you call. The river is 4 and he bets again. If you held 77, you would go all-in at this point. You will get a lot of folds here, which would imply

that you should take a different line for value. However, the possibilities of your opponent bluffing multiple streets or improving to a strong 2nd-best hand (turning top pair, for example), make your line best for value even if it is also the best line to take as a bluff.

As I said before, the Either/Or philosophy doesn’t mean that you can’t take the same line for both value and a bluff. The point is to look for spots where bluff lines and value lines diverge. I’ll explain.

You 3-bet preflop and your opponent calls. The flop is T74. You expect to get called always on the flop, but you also expect your opponent to fold very often to a turn bet. So, betting the flop is the best line for both value (you expect to get called) and bluffing (you expect him to fold on the turn). So, the divergence occurs on the turn—you should check your value hands on the turn and continue bluffing. Following this philosophy will help you to explore creative lines. If I find myself getting called too much when I take a certain line, I look to play my value hands that way. If I’m seeing a lot of folds, it’s time to start bluffing with that line. While bluffing and value-betting can share an optimal line, they usually don’t. Finding where the lines diverge will help you exploit your opponents more precisely and effectively than ever.

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