Game Theory Optimal Vs. Practically Optimal

Often in poker the mistake we make is assuming that our opponent is going to take the theoretically correct action. However, theory often conflicts with emotional response, and thus poker players often make irrational or theory-incorrect decisions. We need to be aware of this disconnect and act accordingly.

The most important motto I have on this subject goes: “Trying to make people fold overpairs is not the way to get ahead in poker.” I remember one hand where I held T♠9♠. Sitting 250bb deep at $10/$20, a good player (Ken the Cow) opened to $70, and another good player 3-bet to $240. I cold called in the BB (this was definitely incorrect but I wasn’t good enough to realize it at the time). Ken called as well, and the flop came down J♦8♠3♣. I checked, Ken bet, the other player folded, and I decided to make a massive overbet shove. Now, in theory, my range should look like ONLY sets and possibly T9s. At the very least this should have given Ken pause, and in theory that range should mean an easy fold for him. So, when he snap-called with KK, I was very surprised. The simple truth is that people tend to err on the side of paying off with overpairs rather than erring on the side of folding. It’s just human nature. Every time you hear yourself saying “He has AA here, so I’m going to shove because he can’t call,” check yourself. He can call, and he usually will.

The other important implication of this comes when playing against calling-station types. You c- bet a flop, and they call with what you know is an extremely wide and weak range. You use this to justify a second barrel because they have such a wide and weak range. When they call again, you use this to three barrel. Then, when you just bluffed off a stack against bottom pair of threes, you wonder where you went wrong. The GTO implication of him folding his weak range is at odds with the practical assumption that the player likes to call and shouldn’t be bluffed. You should identify the practically optimal course of action and follow that as opposed to the game theory optimal line. Remember—you’re playing against people with personalities and not against robots.

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