The Diminishing Medium Value Category

We learned a lot about evaluating our hands in the chapter “Hand Categorization”. However, we more-or-less ignored a phenomenon that occurs in some very specific situations. This oversight didn’t happen because these spots don’t happen often—in fact, they happen quite often and are usually spots that my students have difficulty with. Rather, it was originally excluded because I wasn’t sure I adequately understood it; and, if I don’t fully understand it, it’s going to be difficult for me to teach it. However, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this subject and have decided to take a stab at explaining what “the diminishing medium value category” (DMVC) actually means.

Before, it was clearly explained that a premium hand means one that could be raised for value, a low value hand means one that should be folded (or raised), and a medium value hand means one that can’t be raised for value but is strong enough that we shouldn’t fold it. In general, our hands fit into one of these categories without too much difficulty. We previously discussed how a variety of factors influence how we categorize our hand, understanding that the lines between premium, medium, and low shift constantly.

To be brief, sometimes stack size, position, and history combine to reduce our medium value category to an extremely small range of hands. We’ll discuss two such scenarios in detail. The first of which is extremely common. Effective stacks are 100bb. We raise in the CO with AQ or TT. The Button is a good regular, 3-betting us somewhat regularly but not totally out of line. Of course, he decides to 3-bet us this time. The blinds fold and it’s onto us. Most people who are familiar with the modern, aggressive games will say that these would both be easy situations—we just get it all-in preflop. I would agree. Let’s take a moment to figure out why.

With AQ or TT*, we face some very simple problems. First, we are certain that we won’t be able to fold out better with a reraise. So, bluffing is out of the question. Secondly, without significant history we can be confident that we’ll rarely get worse hands to play with us if we reraise. These things would incline us, then, to call the 3-bet and play OOP. Unfortunately, this seems to clash with my previous recommendations to never call a 3-bet OOP with 100bb stacks. Why then, despite all the signs pointing towards AQ and TT being medium value hands, are we planning on raising?

Here’s a challenge. Try and come up with more hands that fit this description than AQ and TT. JJ seems to work. 99, perhaps. Maybe AJ. There aren’t many more than that. Our medium value range has been shrunk down to only a handful of hands.

We are faced with two options:

  1. 1)  Strengthen and widen our calling range when facing a 3-bet OOP. This means flatting OOP with AA and KK, and probably adding some worse hands into the mix as well (KQs, ATs, etc). This option isn’t too likable as it requires us to play sub-optimally with a lot of hands in order to balance our normally diminished medium value category (for example, it’s almost certainly optimal to 4-bet AA every time and fold JTs every time given 100bb stacks if we ignore the merits of balancing). **
  2. 2)  Eliminate the medium value range entirely and operate with only a premium value range and a low value range. This is the preferred option of most high stakes players. It’s very simple; if there’s enough dead money in the pot (i.e. our opponent folds often enough to a 4-bet), we can 4- bet AQ or TT and chalk is up as thin value. Obviously, as image develops 4-betting AQ or TT for value becomes less thin. By the same token, we can 4-bet a hand like A6s and call it a thin bluff.

Just as we saw in “The Theory of Donking” and “The Great Debate”, it can be very difficult to balance multiple ranges when facing one decision. Instead of trying to balance a donk-betting range and a check-calling/check-raising range, we tend to opt for only the latter. Instead of trying to balance both a 4- betting range and an OOP calling range when facing a 3-bet, we usually just play 4-bet-or-fold. Or, instead of trying to balance both an IP c-betting range and an IP checking-back range, I’ve generally encouraged using only the former (although that discussion takes place more fully in “The Great Debate”).

The second example of the DMVC is far less applicable but should still be interesting to those trying to master the theory. Let’s consider a common preflop scenario. We’re on the button with 63s. A fishy player with 100bb limps in front of you. The blinds are both tight-aggressive regulars. All signs, in this case, point towards medium value. Preflop, with no raise in front, that means limping. However, we rarely limp in these spots, especially with thinking players left to act. Simply put, we have such a narrow range for limping preflop that it’s usually better to just abolish the medium value range in general and play raise-fold. This is the basic structure for why we tend not to limp—for the sake of balancing, we throw any hand into either the value category and raise it or into the bluff category and either raise or fold.

There are some obvious hand-reading implications surrounding the DMVC. When we decide to maintain a medium value category in these spots (like calling a 3-bet OOP, checking back the flop, or limping preflop), a thinking player will quickly and accurately identify our range.*** This puts us into a difficult leveling game where he knows what we have, we don’t know what he has, and we try to guess what he’s going to do given that he knows our cards. Obviously, this isn’t the greatest spot in the world. On the flip side, though, when we choose to eliminate the medium value category we hide the strength of our hand but we also lose the deception of being able to take any line with any hand. Basically, having no medium value category is like wailing away on your opponents with a hammer. It’s difficult for them to play back correctly, and we’re not making many mistakes, but they know what to expect. If you keep your medium value category, your opponents will definitely not know what to expect, but it’s not too hard for them to play back correctly and we are liable to make a lot of mistakes. In my experience, mastering the skill of balancing two ranges in the same spot is one that only becomes necessary at the highest levels of poker. You’ll find plenty of success by hammering away and keeping it simple.

Essentially, the medium value category diminishes because of stack size issues. If we were infinitely deep, we would never fold to a 3-bet when OOP. We could have a wide and balanced range for calling OOP and check-raising flops and for 4-betting preflop. In this sense, the DMVC is inherently tied to the concept of leverage. A leverage point is simply the point of eliminating your opponent’s medium value category. Against good players, we 3-bet smaller in position because we expect them to play 4-bet or fold. They play 4-bet or fold because they’ve eliminated their medium value category. So, in response, we might 3-bet larger if someone was calling OOP and not balancing their check-raising range (folding too much or check-raising too much), or continue to 3-bet smaller if our opponents are calling OOP and balancing well.

Associated with this idea are millions of postflop scenarios where the medium value category starts to disappear. Suppose, with stacks at 130bb, a preflop raiser c-bets a wet 8♠7♠6♦ board and we raise. He reraises large over the top, too large to have odds to flat call with a simple draw (A♣9♣ for example). At this point, our medium value range diminishes. We go into shove-or-fold mode. Understanding that it’s usually better to eliminate our medium value category and call with nothing there is an important step to playing correctly postflop.**** We can often take advantage of our opponents’ mistakes in these spots. Let’s take that same 8♠7♠6♦ board and let’s say that we hold A♥9♥ and we think that our opponent has been raising flops like this one so often that we have sufficient dead money to come over the top. To our surprise, he decides to flat call our flop 3-bet. From my experience, he holds a flush draw 99% of the time given this action. This means that we can comfortably shove any non-spade turn card and collect heaps of dead money (checking here to induce a bet is usually a mistake, as flush draws will generally check back the turn in that situation).

The diminishing medium value category is a complicated phenomenon but one that appears in every session of poker. It offers a difficult circumstance—do I play slightly sub-optimally with one range of hands so that I can play optimally with other ranges? Or, do I play slightly sub-optimally with other ranges to make the medium value range optimal? Can I do both? If you perfect this chapter, you’ll be light-years ahead of your competition. Even a basic understanding, though, will give you confidence in tough spots both before the flop and after. As I said before, hand categorization is the most important concept to learn about poker. The medium value category is the most complex and interesting of the three categories—this chapter is probably the most advanced chapter in the book. When you feel like you’ve got a full grip on this, then congratulations—you’re one step closer to understanding advanced poker theory.

*AQ and TT are actually quite different in value given this action. Most regulars in the current game dynamic are 3-betting a polarized range that usually includes blockers. They rarely 3-bet small pairs without significant history. So, AQ is actually significantly more valuable than TT, as our opponents hold Ax hands far more often than hands like 96s.

**This is actually the superior option against aggressive opponents (except for the part about flatting JTs to balance—that’s dumb). If our opponents are going to put money in the pot preflop with a weak range we absolutely want to flat with our big hands assuming that they’ll either bluff or value-own themselves.

It’s not as simple or easy as just playing raise-or-fold, but it is definitely more correct. The chapter “Dealing with Polarized Ranges” explains this in more detail.
***This is generally not true. Most players will just assume your range is weak (because you didn’t 4- bet) and they’ll bluff or thinly value-bet themselves to death.

****Again, not true. If you hold the nuts on an 876 board you may well prefer to flat the 3-bet and hope for a blank card. This is especially true if your opponent is extremely aggressive and bluffs a lot. I counter-point myself later in this paragraph by suggesting that, if somebody flatted my flop 3-bet, I would shove any turn. Clearly, flatting with the nuts against me isn’t bad!

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