The Cost of Cover

“An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.”
–Friedrich Engels
I’m still extremely busy working on the best online poker site out there, but I did manage to get in a long, grueling session yesterday with the fish at Hollywood Park. I met up with Bill Rini and my buddy M for a long night of bad beats and brutal river cards. After coming in second in a single table “shootout” sit-n-go (Bill was knocked out in 3rd as an 85% favorite when our opponent rivered a deuce to pair his kicker, and my short stack was no match for our lucky loose aggressive opponent), I headed over to the top section for some wild $15-30 action.
I get red aces on my second hand, and the fun begins. A king flops, and two players call me to the river, which is another king. I make the crying call, and one opponent shows K8o and the other shows K4o. Great start.
No cards, no flops, and an hour later I was still stuck. I get Black Aces in early position, and as usual, 4 people cold call and want to see the flop along with me. I end up getting crushed by the big blind, who flops trips with his monster hand, J3o.
The bad beats continued for 4 more hours, and I found myself stuck 40 big bets, which is about as much as you can be stuck playing tight for 4 hours. Fortunately, I still felt on top of my game and didn’t let the beats affect me. The game was good, and I resolved to continue playing my best poker and not worry about the results. M came to sweat me before heading home, and I flashed him the “one more orbit” sign as I posted my final big blind.
By the time the button made it back to me, I had raked in 47 big bets to go home a winner. Most of it I owe to ramming and jamming my suited aces in a 6 way capped pot. The dealer pushed the biggest pot of the night (30 big bets) to me after I flopped an 8 and two of my suit and hit my second pair on the turn. The flush never came, but a woman with J2s was trapped between me and another player who hit top and bottom pair on the turn. My top two pair were good, and that single monster pot made up for a night of horrible beats.
Capping this pot with my suited aces confirmed the wisdom of Andy Prock:
“Poker is a game of little secrets. The best players aren’t the best because they have a different understanding of the fundamental nature of the game. They are the best because they have a deep understanding of all the tiny little edges that you can get here and there.”
I’m still trying to learn all the little secrets, but I owe a few extra big bets to the nugget of wisdom I learned from Izmet Fekali:
“The interesting thing here is that you are still making money
jamming preflop even when against dominating hand. The fish in the
pot took care of that. With enough callers (10-way family pots),
you could safely reraise even if you strongly suspected aces.”

Thanks Izmet. As I move up in limits and start playing against better players, I’ll need to sharpen my edge by gaining an “understanding of the tiny little edges”.
Maximizing Future Expectation with Marginal Hands
Speaking of playing against better players, I’ve been doing some thinking about game theory and the value of disguising your hand in games where your opponents pay attention to the range of hands you raise with. In live play (much more so than online), your table image has a dramatic effect on your win rate. Against weak opponents who never try to put you on a hand, tight is right, and you’ll usually win the most money by simply exploiting your mathematical edges on their overly loose calls. However, when sitting at a table with the same opponents for several hours, even the fishiest opponent will stop paying you off if you are only raising with premium hands.
In order to prevent “information leakage” and encourage your opponents to give you action on your good hands, it becomes necessary to disguise your premium hands. Abdul Jalib writes about this in his superb essay, Holdem Preflop Theory According to Abdul:
“Most hands are worth less than the blinds and so for most hands stealing the blinds is a coup; hence, raising is correct for most hands. AA is worth about four times the blinds, so stealing the blinds with it and your other very strong hands is a major disaster. Without other concerns, in a tight game you should raise with marginal hands, and limp (and usually reraise if raised) with your strongest hands. This advice contradicts Sklansky and Malmuth. Balance your hands that you could have in various preflop scenarios, mixing strong with weak and weak with strong, so that you do not give too much information away by your actions, yet strive to still play most hands appropriately.
The key here is the last sentence: strive to still play most hands appropriately. “Appropriately” here means playing the hand as you would if your opponents had no information about your play, and you are playing the hand solely from an Expected Value standpoint. We always want to maximize our Expected Value at any given moment, but disguising your hands maximizes future expected value rather than EV in the present.
Thinking about these concepts brought me back to my card-counting days, and many of the textbooks in the blackjack canon. Before I ever played a hand of poker for money, I’d been drilled with the importance of expected value by the Sklansky-like wizards of blackjack. In the blackjack world, EV is king, and the successful card counter wins by consistently exploting tiny edges over the house. Most card-counting texts focused on mathematical analyses of how to maximize your mathematical expectation by optimal play. The books explain in detail which action theoretically has the highest expectation, without regard to other considerations. But there was always a chapter about “The Cost of Cover,” which explained why sometimes a sub-optimal play would bring you better returns when future action was taken into consideration.
In his book, “Burning the Tables in Las Vegas”, Ian Andersen describes the logic of sacrificing a small edge in the present in order to maximize future returns:
“I believed that if I could make significant and consistent deviations from basic strategy at little cost, I could buy myself unlimited playing time. How much money, I wondered, could a blackjack professional win if the casino deemed him a rank sucker? I knew from my own observations that as long as a casino doesn’t view a player as a threat, it’s extremely unlikely he’ll be backed off. Surely, casino personnel reason, the laws of probability will eventually catch up with the player, no matter how much he’s won.”
Applying this idea to poker, how best can we deviate from maximizing our current Expected Value in order to collect more big bets in the future?
One way to do this is the “Mad” Mike Caro method. When you first sit down at a table, simply ram and jam your hand to the showdown no matter what you hold. No hand in hold ’em is that big of an underdog, so you stand a decent chance of winning. If you lose, then you can chalk it up to a 6 big-bet investment in your table image. Over the course of a few hours, this represents only a few calls that your opponents wouldn’t have made had you played that first hand “optimally”. First impressions go a long way.
But observant opponents can see through this act. I prefer to disguise my play by occasionally opening with marginal hands for a raise. This isn’t rocket science, but if you’ve been playing tight and it’s folded to you in middle position, you can now play a wide range of hands profitably, assuming your opponents will respect your raises (often this assumption is not valid). Hands like K8s or even T7s can be played profitably against the right mix of opponents, since you will often end up heads up against the blinds, and have many “implied outs” which you can take the pot with on a bluff. Most sane opponents will not call a tight opponent’s flop bet when an Ace hits the board (unless, of course, they have one).
Of course, mixing marginal hands into your set of openers requires you to be able to play well past the flop. Beginning low-limit players can come out winners just by playing good preflop hands against the sea of calling stations. But as you move up in limits and pots are contested by a smaller number of opponents, post flop play and reading your opponent’s hand account for a larger percentage of your winnings.
See Gus Hansen and Daniel Negreanu for practical examples of the theory discussed above.
Disguising your hand is necessary only when your opponents are actually paying attention. Most online players will call you down even if you only play aces, so there’s no need to deviate from the mathematically optimal play. In live play, you probably need to mix it up a little bit.
So if you’ve been folding for an hour and everyone folds to you in middle position, you now have an excuse to raise with hands like T8s. Just don’t blame me if you run into Aces.
Mandatory shill: don’t forget to read this so you can maximize the information you have about your online opponents.

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