Using the Lessons of OFT to Gain Early-Game Advantage in Texas Hold’Em

I have been playing no-limit Texas Hold’Em semi-regularly for about six months. One day last February, on a lark, a local game a friend of mine was in needed another player. I stepped into a 10-handed game and won the first of two tournaments that night. Everyone there that night attributed my victory to a combination of luck and that I was the new guy whom no one could read. In truth, I think I won for the exact same reason. It certainly wasn’t skill.

Since then, my luck has been spotty. I’ve tried varying my style of play between aggressive and tight in order to maintain my image of being predictably unpredictable. Still, I’ve mostly been a player who plays the cards rather than playing the other players at the table. In my quest to improve my game, I’ve been reading books on poker strategy and playing a combination of three video/computer games. From this, I’ve learned a few things:

1) It’s easier (at least psychologically) to win when you are the chip leader.
2) The game’s early stages are critical for increasing your chip count so you can become the chip leader.

Thus, it’s pretty simple: become a chip predator early to become King of the Mountain in chips as soon as possible. WaitâÂ?¦this is perfect Big Sargasso material!

OK. Brainstorm.

Back in the fall, I taught a college course in Ecology. In the unit on predation and herbivory (the interesting Marlin Perkins stuff) is a concept called Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT). OFT deals with the decisions a foraging animal must make to maximize its food return on energy investment. In other words, an animal spends time and energy resources looking for and trying to obtain food. If it looks in the wrong places where little or no food is present or spots potential food but cannot obtain it, the effort is a waste. The best of all possible locations is one that has plenty of easily obtainable food items. Think of a hawk flying over a field inhabited by hundreds of field mice.

Why am I bothering with optimal foraging? There might be some OFT wisdom here to help me become a better player. At the very least, if I can get into the mind of the optimal forager, perhaps there’s a Zen I can tap into for perspective.

R.H. MacArthur, celebrated ecologist and biogeographer, and Eric Pianka are largely credited with trying to break down OFT into a series of steps the animal must consider, either consciously or subconsciously, to maximize its return. All steps require an expenditure of energy – some obviously more than others. These five steps are listed below:

1) Deciding where to look for food
2) Looking (searching)
3) Deciding whether to “pursue” food
4) Pursuit of potential food item
5) Capturing and handling food item

At the card table, think of the poker chips as the “food” of the poker player. In the wild, as I’ve stated earlier, the animal can waste a great deal of time and energy on fruitless searches and this can deplete the animal’s energy stocks. Since I am applying this to poker, let’s assume that steps one and two are taken care of and skip to step three.

Sometimes prey is small and fast, forcing the predator to spend a great deal of energy in pursuit. You can see that if the prey animal is too wily and too small, even if the predator does catch it, it’s not much of a meal. In contrast, if the prey is big and slow, though it could provide a huge amount of food, it may be willing to defend itself; and thus, the predator might face a long, costly fight (spending energy and perhaps life-threatening injury) if it decides to pursue.

You can see the poker parallels here. In no-limit Texas Hold’Em you have to decide how and under what circumstances to spend (read: bet) your chips in order to maximize your chip return. Most players realize that if they never stay in a hand, not only can they never win the game, but also their chip stack will be slowly eroded as the ever-increasing blinds circle the table. To win, as you can imagine, much depends on the cards that you’re dealt. To maximize your return on your efforts, as in the animal example, by deciding whom to pursue at the table, you may be able to increase your chip stack without the effort of taking your opponent to a showdown after the river card is played.

Many successful players identify several keys to growing their chip count in the early stages of the game:

1) Identify the inexperienced players and work them. They may be your best sources of early income. As in the wild, the naÃ?¯ve often get picked-off early. These players are the low-hanging fruit and “easy meals” of poker – and a key to increasing your chip stack fast. The inexperienced, just like all players, can be tight or aggressive with their chips. Always be careful bluffing the tight players head-to-head, because if they stay in, they’ll likely have a hand. This is step three in MacArthur’s OFT breakdown.

In the case of an inexperienced player betting wildly, the temptation is to go for the fast knock-out (keep raising the inexperienced player). Last night, an experienced player took on a person who threw chips into the pot simply for the sake of throwing chips. The chaotic novice took the hand all the way to the final card and made her hand of three-of-a-kind. This beat the experienced player’s two pair and took a huge piece out of the experienced player’s chip stack. The experienced player was forced to play super conservatively after that.

Moral of the story: Beware. Not all inexperienced players are easy pickings.

2) Occasionally raise in early betting position to set for pace of the hand, putting pressure on players with marginal hands to fold. This increases your chance of taking the pot. Fewer players in the hand means a lower chance of the opponents that stay in making their pairs, straights, flushes, full houses, etc.

3) If someone tries #2 too often, re-raise the player to see if he or she is willing to stay in. This way, the early raiser may wilt under pressure, giving you a shot at taking the pot before the flop comes. This can work very well if your opponent has a small chip stack. If he or she is not willing to go all-in under these conditions, it could be easy money for you.

4) Be very cautious of taking on players with more chips than you. They can afford to lose more hands than you. They may be willing to call your bluff, taking some or all of your chips in the process. This is the large prey item that may put up a fight if you engage him/her. You could get seriously injured in the process and even knock yourself out of the game. Predatory animals often use the element of surprise to avoid a stand-up battle of attrition. You’ll need something to “get the drop” on your opponent. Likewise, make sure you have an advantage (good cards, a respectable table image [you’ve taken down a number of pots recently], know your opponent’s tells, etc.) before attempting this. This tip mixes step three with step five in MacArthur’s OFT breakdown.

5) Method of play is also important. In Texas Hold’em, you can use the several rounds of betting to win the hand. Working the timing and amounts of your bets, raises, and calls can maximize your chip return (again whole books are devoted to this), but this is highly dependent on who you’re up against, your table position, and your hole cards. I will leave the explanation of the nuances and psychological effects of quick calling or betting (rather than thinking about and slowly setting up your next move) to the experts. Under the right conditions, it can unbalance your opponent, much the same way an offense in football can unbalance a defense by using it’s two-minute drill in the middle of the second quarter. You can file this under pursuit of prey, MacArthur’s step four.

Unlike the OFT examples I used here, all poker players like to see themselves as predators. In reality, the difference between being a predator or a victim at the poker table depends on experience, wits, and what you do with the cards the dealer hands you. Fortunes can change quickly, turning hunter into hunted and vice versa. Ultimately, like the mountain lion or the circling hawk, you need to make the best decisions you can on what, when, and how to risk your resources when engaging your prey.

Time will tell if reflecting on the parallels between OFT and Hold’Em strategy will help me win a few more tournaments. At the very least, it might keep my hands from shaking when I go all-in on a 7-2 offsuit.

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