Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thoughts about balance

Note: If you don't play poker this probably isn't worth reading

With all the literature written about poker, it’s surprising that so little of it discusses the subject of balance. I don’t mean balance as in balancing poker with life, but balance as a strategic concept in poker.

I define balance as weighting your actions or hand range given your range of hands versus your opponent’s range of hands so as to make it difficult for your opponent to discern what you hold. Consequently, your opponent is prone to make more mistakes which leads to an increase in the expected value of your entire hand range. You may even sacrifice value of specific hands in your range with the intention of increasing overall expected value of your range.

For example, let’s say someone raises UTG in a 6-handed game and you’re in the big blind. A typical opponent’s UTG raising range is about the top ten or so percent of their hands. Most players in the big blind in this situation are re-raising with their top 2-3% of hands, maybe JJ+, AQ+, AJs+, and KQ while calling with another 15-20% of their hands. This strategy isn’t very balanced because a re-raising range of 2-3% is transparent and easy for your opponents to play against post-flop. An excellent way to balance this is to always flat call pre-flop. Since most players will bet the flop after being the pre-flop raiser, you can check-raise any favorable flop with your premium hands and build a pot with the same number of bets in it had you 3-bet pre-flop. Your opponent is now faced with the same bet versus 20% of your range instead of verse 2-3% of your range.

Another example of balance is as follows. Assume you’ve raised pre-flop from the cutoff, been 3-bet by the button, and the big blind cold-calls 2 bets. In this situation, there is a lot of value to capping with your premium hands. Calling is an option because it disguises the strength of your hand and you’ll very likely be able to raise the flop. However, I believe you’re giving up too much value by not capping pre-flop. Your equity edge with hands like AA, KK, QQ, and AK is roughly double what it was in the first example and this is a lot of equity to sacrifice pre-flop for the sake of balance. A better way to balance is to add a few hands to your capping range. If you’re only capping with something like AJs+, AQ+, 99+, KQs, then add some more hands. You can cap any suited connectors that are part of your cutoff opening range. So this might include 87s, 98s, T9s, JTs, and QJs. These hands play pretty well 3-handed and although you might be giving up a small amount of pre-flop equity, your range is less “top-heavy” and your opponent’s can’t easily narrow your range. You may even want to add hands like 97s, T8s, J9s to the mix.

One more example of balance is after you’ve called a raise pre-flop from the big-blind versus the small-blind and you flop a good hand on a low board. For example, let’s say the board is 235 and you have 46 ,35, or 36, or the board is 357 and you have 46, 57, or Q7, etc. In this case I believe it’s almost always correct to flat-call. The reason being is that you should be calling any flop that contains three low cards with nearly 100% of your range after defending from the big blind verse a small blind raise. If you elect to raise all of your good hands on this flop and call with your remaining hands, it becomes very easy for your opponent to play the turn optimally. He/she can bet the turn every time you’ve flat called the flop knowing that you likely have a marginal or weak holding because you didn’t raise the flop. Since your opponent will be getting a 3-1 price to bet the turn, it becomes a very profitable bet. So a good way to balance this is to flat call with all of your good hands as well. Now your opponent is left guessing whether you’ve flopped something or not when deciding whether to bet the turn.

These are just a few examples of balance. There are so many areas where balance can and should come into play. I think it’s important to identify common situations and think about what your actions represent to your opponents in these situations. If your actions are too transparent, then look for ways to cast doubt in your opponent’s mind as to what you hold while increasing overall profitability of your hand range.


  1. Great thoughts Tony, gave me a lot to think about.

  2. This does bring up some questions...

    1.) At what point does balancing your play cause your play to become "poor"? i.e. How often do you give up some pre-flop equity for future consideration.

    2.) Does the need for balancing your play decrease as the number of players at the table increases? While it is very important to disguise your hands HU as you'll be playing a large number of hands vs. the same opponent, at a full table game you'll be playing far fewer hands and playing them against a wide range of opponents.

    3.) Opponents you're trying to balance your play against. How much attention is an opponent actually giving to your play if he/she is 6 or 8 tabling?

  3. Heya Jim-

    Good questions, I wish I had all the answers.

    What I'd like to do is another blog post on balance and answer these questions there. I started typing tonight and it got really complicated and I realized it's going to take a lot more time. So I'll try to get a blog post up in the imminent (intentionally vague) future that attempts to answer them.

  4. As imminent as the Cereus merge was? LOL