Imagine if you always made the right poker decision without thinking. You would probably be extremely rich and you would probably have a very low-stress life. Sure, a big part of the joy of the game would be gone, but you could find other things to keep you entertained at the table. Maybe you could read a good book or listen to podcasts where people agonize over the decisions you find so intuitive.
Whether or not this fantasy sounds appealing, it certainly doesn’t appear to be an attainable goal for any human. However, we can get close to this reality, at least in certain situations. How do we do that? Planning! Yes, planning a decision and executing it is very similar in the moment to just knowing what to do without thinking. Of course, the profitability still lies in the quality of planning, but the stress is often eliminated simply by having a plan in the first place.
So how much should we plan? How much can we plan? What information should we be looking for once we have our plan? These are all questions we should be considering throughout our poker studies. In this article, I’ll give you a few examples of where I think planning is a worthy endeavor, as some examples of what happens when you don’t follow your plan, and times when you shouldn’t follow your plan.
Those of you who have been following Just Hands for a while know that we think live cash is all about exploitative play. One important way to plan for your sessions is to identify common leaks away from the table and plan on how you can exploit those leaks. For examples of this type of planning, check out this article on the top 10 mistakes your opponent’s are making.
Another excellent type of planning is to have a default preflop strategy. What does this mean? Basically, you want to have an idea of what hands you are going to be opening, limping, calling, and raising in each position against each position. This is a lot of work, although it is easy to find other people’s preflop strategies online as a reference. Zach went through his default ranges at casino 1/2 and 1/3 games here.
Why is it helpful? Take it from me that every decision made before you sit down at the table gives you more mental energy for later decisions. Your preflop decisions are important, but they generally aren’t for very much money. You really want to save your mental energy for turns and rivers where the big bucks are on the line and the situations are less predictable.
Now, why is it important to have a default preflop strategy? Hopefully you don’t play with too many good players, but they are out there. If you take a lot of time to decide to call an open, you are probably polarizing yourself more than you would like to. What I mean by this is that you are unlikely to take a long time to call unless you have a hand that is almost too weak to call or you have a hand you are considering 3-betting. A good player who sees you tank-call his cut-off open from the button is correctly going to take KJs and 77 out of your range. By calling relatively quickly with your whole calling range, you don’t give too much information. The same types of issues exists for opening and 3-betting.
This isn’t to say that acting quickly is a virtue in itself. When you need time, take time. What I am saying is that when you are able to make decisions ahead of time, it will help you conserve mental energy and help you avoid timing tells.
My last piece of advice involves topics like GTO-based play and frequency-based play. If those topics are unfamiliar, I recommend reading Poker’s 1% by Ed Miller and other foundational poker books.
My last piece of advice is that it is a lot easier to plan how we will play our own range than to try and predict how our opponents will play. Playing a perfectly balanced strategy is very difficult. However, playing a reasonably balanced strategy is a very achievable goal with a manageable amount of work involved. Studying your own ranges, figuring out appropriate bet-sizing and value to bluff ratios, and then picking our best value bets and bluffs are all exercises that will pay huge dividends at the table when we don’t have clear exploitative goals. A big part of my personal coaching method involves helping students to identify what the balanced strategy looks like and then decide if they have a good exploitative reason to divert from this strategy (which they often will).
For more advanced players playing in soft games, I recommend taking this even a step further. Adjust your default post-flop strategies to exploit common mistakes in your game. Many of us do this intuitively. For example, many of us c-bet more than a GTO strategy would recommend since our opponents are regularly overfolding. If this leak is rampant in your game, incorporate it into your default strategy. However, it is important to know that you are unbalanced so that if you find yourself in a tougher game, you can adjust back to appropriate frequencies.
So here is a final word about planning before I get to a hand example. If your plan sucks, don’t do it. Now, hopefully your plan didn’t suck when you made it. That’s a different issue. However, sometimes we make great plans that turn out to be terrible plans. For example, maybe you flopped a set in position and planned on betting three streets for value. Good plan. However, when the runout brings a 4-card straight, rethink your plan. Now that is a fairly obvious example, and a good plan would take into account the possibility of a bad runout. However, when we blindly become attached to a plan, we can end up making huge mistakes. A less obvious but similarly important set of considerations are physical tells. When we are holding the bottom 10% of our value range, we should maybe rethink our plan when our opponent is exuding signs of strength. When you have accurate tells on specific opponents, you can let that dictate your plan.
Ok, so onto the hand. This is from the Just Hands cash game which you can stream here.
So we were 6-handed playing $.50/$.50 and I open the HJ to $2 with AJo. CO calls and SB makes it $10. The SB is Peter from the Just Hands Stream, a tough player. I don’t have an automatic calling hand here, but I think Peter is 3-betting or folding, so I feel like I can call in position with a fairly weak range behind me in the CO. We are also about 500 bb effective. CO calls.
Flop (30) K73ss. I have no spades. Peter checks. When Peter 3-bets preflop and then checks, I think he has very few kings in his range. In game, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that Peter is 3-betting/folding preflop, so I think I underestimated the number of kings in his checking range (this comes into play later). However, I think that I have a profitable bluffing opportunity here. More specifically, when the CO folds (which I think will happen often), I will have a very profitable 3-barreling opportunity against Peter. When I bet the flop into two people and continue all three streets, I think Peter has to fold most of his range. I expect Peter to be checking some Kings and some strong hands like AA, but I think I get most of his range to fold by showdown. Since I expect a lot of his range to call twice and then fold, I am getting a lot of value when the bluff works in the manor.
So this should have been my plan. The issue going forward was me getting inside my own head. It started with me taking a long time to bet the flop. I think I spent more time thinking about this bet than I would with a hand like KQ or 77. That sort of haunted my thought process through the rest of the hand.
I bet 20, CO folds and Peter calls.
Turn (70) 6r. Peter checks. This is an excellent card to continue. Had I been following my plan, I would have bet 35 after a short pause. I did end up betting 35 (I like this sizing since my value targets with Kx are middle pocket pairs), but I took a while to do it. The reason for my delay was that I realized Peter may have more Kx than I anticipated on the flop. I think this is an important thing for me to consider, but I still liked my plan and should have continued it with conviction.
River (140) 5s. Peter checks. This is the street I’m really kicking myself about. Now many of my bluffs have gotten there and I have a huge range advantage over Peter. This runout was really perfect for my plan. A runout like 9T is much worse for me since I expect Peter to have 88-QQ here. I think a bet might have worked, but I spent a huge amount of time thinking on each street. I think this makes my bet look way weaker and I decided to check. I really should have bet since I think Peter is folding 88-JJ and probably QQ too. If I had made a more conscious plan on the flop and executed it without timing tells, I think I’m definitely getting folds from 88-QQ and maybe even some KTs. This is also a spot where Peter is very rarely going to check-raise bluff, so I don’t have to worry about him turning hands he may have folded like 88 into a bluff.
Peter turned up 99 and scooped. The worst part is that since this game was streamed, he now knows that I’m totally over-bluffing in this spot.
So on this runout I messed up by not continuing my bluff. However, imagine if the river had been a jack. Now I shouldn’t necessarily continue bluffing recklessly. I’m now beating part of the range I was bluffing, and another part of the range improved (JJ although it is unlikely). In this instance, I would definitely abandon the plan of 3-barreling and just take my showdown equity. While Peter isn’t one to give off a lot with timing tells, I think against some players I may decide not to pull the third barrel depending on the speed at which they call the turn.
So the moral of the story… Have a plan. If it’s a good plan, do it. If it isn’t, change your plan. If you can plan ahead of time, do. Alright, good luck at the tables, and as always, you can email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org