Imagine a world where poker was played much slower. Instead of getting a few hundred hands per hour multi-tabling, imagine that you could play one hand per week. Every hand would be in a complete vacuum, devoid of connection to its predecessors and with minimal impact on future hands. There would be no game-flow, no development of image, and no tilt. Every single play would be about making the most +EV play right now. With no consideration for the development of future EV, the game becomes very straightforward.
Thankfully, we don’t play poker in that world. What I’m going to say in this chapter is probably controversial. It is almost certainly the most dangerous theory matter to apply. Misapplication of total game strategy will cost you a lot of money. Even proper application of the theory (difficult to achieve), can lead to increased short-term variance. In short, I’m going to encourage you to make some -EV plays for the development of future EV.
Total Game Strategy is the theory that you can make -EV plays in the effort to create greater +EV opportunities in the future. Deviating from the constant effort to make the most +EV play in each hand can be scary and risky, but it also makes us unpredictable and difficult to read.
It’s not unheard of to suggest taking a riskier play to establish a more profitable scenario for the future. Let’s say that the button raised and you’re in the BB with 55. The SB folds, you 3-bet and he puts in a 4-bet. You’re sitting 100bb deep. In general, you might just fold this hand.* However, let’s say that there’s a fish sitting directly to your right with 500bb. In this case, it’s probably worth it for you to put in a 5-bet and gamble for a flip. The benefits of being able to play 200bb deep against the fish more than outweigh the possible -EV of shoving the 55. If there were no future considerations, we might avoid the riskier play—given that we’ve got our eye on the future, we’ll take a look at some risky, possibly -EV plays that could have +EV benefits.
I first started thinking about the idea of total game strategy when I realized that it was a bad idea to 3-bet a hand like TT or JJ from the BB against a tight, UTG raiser. When I started smoothcalling these hands, it was clear that my range in the BB had just become stronger. So, in the name of balance, I started adding some weaker hands in my flatting range as well—things like suited connectors and A2s- A5s. However, no matter how I tried, the bluffs from my SCs and Axs never seemed to make enough money to outweigh all the times that I had to check-fold the flop. However, my check-raise percentage skyrocketed with the new additions (as you’d expect). The profitability of the slowplayed strong hands (JJ, TT, AK, AQ, etc.) also increased. The increased looseness from the blinds was losing me money now but making me money later.**
The other puzzling thought that drove me to exploring total game strategy was the existence of Samoleus. Samo was playing nearly 50% of his hands and winning consistently. There is simply no way that anyone is good enough to turn a profit with all 50% of his hands. He had to be losing money on some of them. Probably a lot of them. However, he was making such a killing from his aggressive, bluffy image and his ability to show up with anything at anytime that I decided that there must be something to this idea. So, I decided to start loosening up even more from the blinds, calling all kinds of suited one-gappers, some suited 2-gappers, and offsuited broadway cards like QJo or KTo.
The results were mixed. Against some players, the strategy absolutely crushed. They would play quite poorly against my check-raises, folding their air too often on the flop and paying me off too much on the turn and river. Other players gave me fits. They would play back appropriately with their air, check back the flop with varying frequencies, and generally respond aggressively to my weakened range.
So, I basically stopped doing it against those guys. If you think someone is a top player in your game, give them respect and don’t flat extremely loosely against them in the blinds. If the preflop raiser responds poorly to check-raises, is a bad or average poker thinker, or if you have specific reads on their play postflop, then start loosening it up. Don’t be afraid of your EV when you check-fold 65s on a K72r board. Just try to make as much as you can by check-raising all the K74 boards and get ready to make a whole lot more money with 77 or AK on those boards.
*In a very aggressive game with a lot of light 4-betting, this becomes a no-brainer shove. The point is still a good one, though—even if the shove was marginal, the opportunity to play deep with the fish outweighs the potential for a slightly negative expectation.
**If your opponents are already paying off a lot with light hands (TT on a K73 board, for example), you don’t need to be flatting in the blinds with weak hands. In this sense, total game strategy is another way to describe counter-adjusting. If your opponent isn’t making very many mistakes in general, it may be a good idea to make a slightly -EV play (calling 65s preflop, let’s say) in order to create more mistakes postflop (we make him start calling down with TT on a K73 board and then we stop calling preflop with 65s).