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The Exploitive vs Optimal Approach

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tomson    Poland. Dec 14 2007 11:05. Posts 1982


In poker strategy we can discern two general types of approach to different situations - the exploitive one and the optimal one.
The exploitive approach is where we, based on whatever information we might have, try to exploit our opponents leaks, but at the same becoming exploitable ourselves. The goal of the optimal one, on the other hand, is to play in a manner that minimalises our exploitability, though it might lessen our EV had we accentuated on the players mistakes.

Obviously we're not going to be playing one way all the time - we will mix a little bit of one and the other. It would be impossible to adapt a winning style that has no variables. You can't treat everyone entirely individually either.

What does this lingo mean in reality?
Within the last years the poker world has developed some fundamental basics that are universally applied by almost every player. Like opening a raise for about the pot size pre-flop. Or continuation betting somewhere between 1/2 and the whole pot. The reason we all do this is because, among other things, we want to stay as deceptive as possible, revealing as little information as we can. This is the optimal approach.

Using the same example as above - when our opponents are very unobservant and don't notice that we bet bigger pre-flop with strong hands than we do with our mediocre ones then we are using the exploitive approach.

As it's easy to guess which approach we pick relies heavily on our adversaries perception. We have to make an assessment pf what they know about our game, what they don't and what we know about theirs.

Here's a simple example.
Some time ago I was playing UltimateBet. The software of this pokerroom is extremely fast and it has a 'bet pot' button so, as most of you probably know, this results in some very aggressive plays and it's very common to see people mashing 'bet pot' on each street. Since this didn't really suit me (as it leads to playing enormous pots) I preferred to make more standard bets like continuation betting the pot for 3/4. This was my default, optimal line. However if I saw a player for the very first time this didn't necessarily have to be the case.

A new player joins the table. I don't know him, he doesn't know me. I fold a couple of hands and get AA. I raise pre-flop and get called by the unknown. I bet pot on the flop, pot on the turn and the river. Now normally that wouldn't be the case as I wouldn't deviate from my normal bet sizing, because it might be suspicious. However in this case I know that the player doesn't know my tendencies and I can 'blend in' with what seems typical for these games and as a result play in a way that's probably more +EV.

Another related example.
This one actually is a pretty common thinking fallacy I see among good and even very good players. Very often I see them making bluffs that are consistent with the way they would play a good hand. That's fine, but they're doing it against players that they have no history with.

X raises pf, unknown calls. Flop is rags. Unknown checks, X bets, unknown calls. Turn is an A. Check, check. River is an unrelated card. Unknown checks, X bets, unknown calls. X shows a bluff, unknown takes it down. X comments on the hand: 'Well, that's the way I would play an Ace'. The problem with this thinking is that his opponent had no idea of his usual tendencies/lines so he felt the river bet after the turn check was fishy. Against unknowns make your bluffs as 'straightforward' as possible. A concept that sounds basic, but you wouldn't believe how many people make this particular mistake.

When do we use exploitive lines?
We should always keep in mind what the players know about us. However, to be honest, even when up against people you have played for quite some time you'd be surprised with how much you can get away with. E.g. changing your continuation bet sizing - 2/3 without a hand, 4/5 with. It sounds extremely exploitable and I don't necessarily recommend doing it, but the point is these things take a long time to be noticed. A very observant person would have to see you get to showdown at least a couple of times with both bluffs and strong hands to realize what you're doing (otherwise he can only be guessing as he has no proof). Even assuming he's good it still takes quite a bit for him to see several of your showdowns with different holdings. Reasons for that are:

  • usually after the flop is dealt a player sees the showdown less than a quarter of the time
  • nowadays everyone multitables and very rarely observe hands they're not involved in
  • even if they are involved in the hand they don't necessarily always check what their opponent mucked (some sites like Prima don't even give you the opportunity)

Therefore it's definitely worth experimenting with taking some exploitive lines from time to time. Even more so live, because:

  • Very often you will encounter unusual pre-flop bet sizing, so it's easy to raise a bit bigger with strong hands and get away with it while not appearing suspicious(not always the case, but in some games it is)
  • People don't pay enough attention to bet sizes in relation to the pot size. If you were to randomly ask even a very good live player during a hand what's the pot size he won't give you a close number, just a rough approximation. You don't have the numbers in front of you like online.

How do we take advantage of someone's exploitive lines?
It's complicated. To answer this question thoroughly one would need to write a seperate article. You have to use a mixture of different skills - observation, hand reading, logical analysis, image considerations etc. etc. But, to give you a better idea of what it usually looks like, here's an example:

Villain in this hand is a very solid player who we have been 3betting successfully a LOT recently, taking down the pots either pre-flop or on the flop with a continuation bet. Lets assume around 100bb effective stacks. Villain opens 3.5bb pre-flop, we 3bet on the BTN to 11bb with 87s. Folded to villain, who thinks for a bit and 4bets to 23bb. We have NEVER saw him 4bet us before and we have quite a bit of history with him. Now to many of you if you have a mediocre hand this will seem like an automatic fold, but lets look closer. Since we have been 3betting him a lot he has to believe we're doing so with a very wide range. Therefore he has to know that we usually don't have a good hand here and the majority the time fold to the 4bet. So we can decrease the possibility of him having AA or KK, because he would have most likely called with it and check-raised our continuation bet that we always make (maximizing his EV against our most likely range). What hands he COULD be doing this for value then? Hands that don't necessarily flop well like AQ,AK, QQ-TT would definitely want to 4bet, BUT with those type of hands he would probably more inclined to 4bet larger to avoid situations where we call, the flop is not very good for him and he's oop. Most players will definitely 4bet big with something like AQ,AK. That probably makes them a bit less likely in this example. Not impossible by any means, but not that likely. It is quite possible in this case that it is just a bluff with which he doesn't want to commit himself pre-flop, ergo the small 4bet. So you repush with a wide range.

There obviously will be times where we are wrong, but if the read seems correct most of the time this will be +EV, because winning nearly 35bb uncontested is just huge. Whether you agree with the analysis or not, the hand proves a point. Villain was frustrated with our constant aggression and decided to fire back using a exploitive line. He tried to exploit our tendencies, but his line was exploitable as well. Thanks to a little hand reading and analysis we correctly put him on a bluff and took advantage of that by pushing all-in.

In conclusion.
It's not really important that you know the definitions by heart. What matters is that you can properly identify situations where you can deviate from your standard game to your advantage and not allow your opponents to return the favor. By doing so you will increase your winnings and become a better player.

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Peace of mind cant be bought.Last edit: 14/12/2007 14:22

Critterer   United Kingdom. Dec 14 2007 12:54. Posts 5337

good article ty

LudaHid: dam.ned dam.ned dam.ned. LudaHid: dam.ned northwooden as..hole 

Cray0ns   United States. Dec 14 2007 13:09. Posts 993

Thanks for sharing this article.

I agree that optimal play is exploitative given our knowledge of villains, although when I hear someone mention optimal play I associate it with "least exploitable" as if in terms of villains perspective. People also throw around "abc". I often feel that "optimal" is "abc" until you develop reads - in which "optimal" moves towards "exploitative". Although when listening to aba, he would mention "abc" in a way that made me thing he intended it to include standard exploitative adjustments - which I too agree with. So basically it's all semantics I suppose and the more important issue is determining the potential areas for exploit are. As we increase our knowledge of a villain, chances are the optimal line is different than the one we take vs normal unknown to exploit that new knowledge. I personally am not satisfied with my acumen for this yet nor the speed at which I apply these adjustments.

The simple example is a good one imo, in that an important read to posses is what is standard for different sites, stakes, live/online. Against an unknown single-table donk, what is standard in this game is more important than what is standard for you. Also being aware of the site standard buttons - if the site has a half pot or 3/4 button that doesn't round, it may be worthwhile to fake one of these standard bets by throwing some decimals onto the and adjust it slightly for value or to save on a bluff - I'll have to think about this more.

The "no history" example and the last example remind me of tje discussion in the latest cts vid considering what regs use lines a first time. "When they 4 bet the first time - is it a bluff or for value?" I'm torn on whether this is more of a gameflow consideration or a motivation/personality issue.

 Last edit: 14/12/2007 13:10

TimDawg    United States. Dec 14 2007 14:31. Posts 10197

sick, finally seems like this is going to be a good article

can't wait to read it

online bob is actually a pretty smart person, not at all like the creepy fucker that sits in the sofa telling me he does nasty shit to me when im asleep - pinball 

YoMeR   United States. Dec 14 2007 15:34. Posts 12435

to make this article fully comprehensive on the subjects that tomson is covering he'll need to write something similar to a book ;(

nice article sir.

eZ Life. 

twotimesopt   United States. Dec 14 2007 15:58. Posts 2393

very good article.

crayons - i didn't read your whole post, but the statement "optimal play is exploitable" doesn't make sense. they are two fundamentally different approaches to the game. in the most abstract sense, optimal play ensures that we are never expected to lose (since poker is a zero-sum game), and exploitable play seeks to improve our EV while making no guarantee about our expected winnings or losses.

quit tryin to be a repo man - definitely -EV and negative expectancy - AvidGambler 

blunt_smokr   United States. Dec 14 2007 16:01. Posts 1314

Thanks tomson

Misjka   Netherlands. Dec 14 2007 17:03. Posts 266

I liked it, you're using concepts and approaches that aren't mentioned a lot, but that are extremely useful.
Also, the article is way more clear in specifying concepts than the good ol' 'play the players, not the cards'.

n0rthf4ce    United States. Dec 14 2007 19:03. Posts 8119

one of the BEST articles i have ever read about poker. vnvnvn 

Silver_nz   New Zealand. Dec 14 2007 22:44. Posts 5647

very nice, I really liked the example... a couple more examples would really go well :3

taqtiX   Iceland. Dec 15 2007 04:13. Posts 338


Im not much for cards but I think these .45s beat a full house 

SpasticInk   Sweden. Dec 15 2007 09:49. Posts 6298

yep, interesting.

you exemplify all your concepts which is great (which lots of poker article lacks).

well written.. gj tomson

TimDawg    United States. Dec 15 2007 13:42. Posts 10197

liked it a lot although it did seem a bit short

defintely looking forward to more though, nice job

online bob is actually a pretty smart person, not at all like the creepy fucker that sits in the sofa telling me he does nasty shit to me when im asleep - pinball 

Tycho   Netherlands. Dec 16 2007 14:47. Posts 1553

thank you very much

keep writing

Poker is fun. 

Jelle   Belgium. Dec 21 2007 11:22. Posts 3476

very nice article =) Personally my favorite in LP's article section so far


emerce   Poland. Dec 22 2007 06:28. Posts 32

thank god we have on-line dictionaries!

nice read, toms.

for you are but a plankton in a sea of sharks 

ManaBlue   Canada. Apr 13 2008 13:20. Posts 36

I know I'm a bit late on this one, but nice article none the less.

Thank you poker, I will never be good at SC now. 

lachlan   Australia. Nov 22 2008 09:42. Posts 6991

im late. awesome article

full ring 


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