Recently I've been reading The Mathematics of Poker (2009, Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman) and I came across an interesting idea that I thought I'd write about. For me, understanding how to analyse this situation really gets to the heart of how I think about poker. I'd love to spend more time playing and studying poker but it's such a time-sink and I don't really have the oodles of free time it would require, but every now and again I'll still open up a poker book and read about something, this is one of those interesting topics I was reading about hopefully you find it as interesting as I do.
Calling a shove pre-flop in heads up
The scenario being analysed in the book is a relatively common situation, particularly in online poker where people are more inclined to shove than in real life games. The question is:
How should we analyse whether to call when we have a moderately strong hand against an opponent who has gone all-in pre flop.
Let's set up an example so that we have something concrete to talk about. Say we have pocket Kings pre flop, and our opponent goes all-in, how should we decide whether to call? Obviously without knowing our opponent's hand there is no 100% correct answer. There is however one very useful way of analysing the situation.
Equity against a range
We need to ask ourselves - what cards would are opponent go all-in with, and how does my current hand fare against that range? i.e. we need to calculate our equity against our opponent's range. We are adding another layer of stochastic uncertainty on the event, instead of trying to guess what hand our opponent has (which is almost impossible) we are trying to guess what kind of hands he might go all-in with (which is very much possible). We then take this extra level of uncertainty and calculate the correct mathematical way to proceed.
On the one extreme, let's suppose that based on our read of how our opponent is playing, we might think that they would only go all-in with very strong hands, in this case just pocket Aces. We would then be a 4:1 underdog if we call with Ks, and we should definitely fold. (In order to calculate this we could use any standard poker calculator like the following)
One the other hand, suppose we know for a fact that our opponent has not looked at their cards at all but has still decided to go all in. In this case we should definitely call. The only cards we will be behind are pocket Aces, which make up a small fraction of the possible hands that our opponent could shove with, and we will be ahead or equal against all other possible hands. Therefore we would have a positive EV when calling.
What if our read on our opponent's range is somewhere in between though?
What we need to do is calculate our equity against each individual hand in our opponent's range, and then calculate the probability of our opponent having a given hand from that range. That is to say, in order to calculate the conditional expectation, we need to calculate the unconditional expectations against each hand and then multiply by the conditional probability of our opponent having that hand, given our belief about our opponent's range.
Let's go back to our numerical example, and suppose that we have pocket Kings, and we put our opponent on either Pocket Aces, Kings, Queens, or Jacks. All of these hands are equally likely, so there is a 25% chance of our opponent having each hand. We can look up our equity against each hand (after you've been playing for a while, you naturally start to memorise hand equities anyway)
Our probability of winning is then:
$$P(A) * P(beating A) + P(K)*P(beating K) + P(Q)*P(beating Q) + P(J) * P(beating J)$$
Putting in our values:
$$ 0.25*0.2 + 0.25*0.5 + 0.25*0.8 + 0.25*0.8 = 0.575.$$
We therefore see we have a positive expectation against this range, and should call.
No one actually thinks like this in real games?
It is a general misconception that professional poker is a game where players are trying to guess exactly what hand their opponent has, are constantly trying to bluff each other, or trying to pick up on subtle tells or signs that their opponent is or isn't bluffing.
The more mundane truth is that poker is ultimately a game of imperfect information, where the better player is the one who can correctly interpret the betting information their opponent is giving them, and can then quickly and accurately make the kind of judgements described above during a game.
Obviously poker players are not carrying out these calculations in their head to multiple decimal places in real time, what they will do though is review their hands after a game, calculate exactly what they should have done, and try to build up an intuition as to what the correct answer is, so that in the middle of a game they can quickly make decisions.
Software to Analyse this situation
Is there an easy software based method way of calculating our equity against a range? After I did a quick google there are a few programs that offer this type of analysis. For example:
More interestingly though, I also found the following open source software, that can be adapted to carry out this type of analysis:
At some point, I might try to use this code to set up a page on this website to let people analyse this situation.
I've been playing quite a lot of Poker recently, and the more Poker I've played, the more I've come to realise that it's actually a very deep game. One of the interesting features of Poker that makes it so complex is the inability to see each other's cards (this may sound like I'm stating the obvious but bear with me). Let's consider a thought experiment, what if we played Poker against each other without hiding our cards? I show below why it would still be a fairly difficult game to play well. The fact that we also can't see each other's cards just adds another level of uncertainty to the underlying complexity.
In technical terms Poker is a game of incomplete information. An example of a deep game which has complete information is Chess. In Chess we can see all our opponents pieces, and they can see all our pieces. The fact that we have perfect information when playing Chess in no way makes the game trivial.
Heads Up No Limit Texas Holdem
Let's suppose we are playing heads up No limit Holdem (No-limit Texas Holdem is the proper name for the game most people think of when they think of Poker, heads up just means that there are only two of playing). Let's first consider the case where we can't see each other's cards.
Suppose we have J♣6♣, and the flop is 10♣ 9♣ 8♠ there is $£100$ in the pot, we have a stack of $£200$, and our opponent also has a stack of $£200$. Our opponent goes all-in, what should we do?
Obviously there is no 100% correct answer to this question, and if we were playing in real life, we'd have to consider a large number of other variables. How likely do we think our opponent is to bluff? What was the betting pre flop? Do we think we are a better player than our opponent overall, and therefore want to reduce the variance of the game? Are we the two short stacked players in a tournament?
All of the above considerations are what make poker such an interesting game.
Playing with Complete Information
Now let's suppose that we can see our opponent's cards. For example, imagine we are in the same situation as above, but now our opponent shows us his cards, they have 5♥ 5♣. What should we do now?
It turns out in this case, there is actually a mathematically correct way of playing, but it is by no means obvious what that is.
At the moment our opponent has a better hand - they have a pair of 5s, and we do not have anything. What we do have though is the possibility of making a better hand.
We can reason as follows. We will win if one of the following happens:
We can calculate the probability of one of these happening, and we also know how much we will win if one of them occurs, we can therefore calculate the expected value of calling our opponents all-in.
It turns out that, the probability of us winning this hand if we call is $68.38$%, the probability of there being a split pot if we call is $1.82$%, and the probability of us losing the pot if we call is $29.08$%. In order to see how to calculate this, we note that there are $46$ cards remaining in the deck, and that we can calculate the probability of getting the cards we need for the $4$ way of winning.
Now that we have the probability of winning, we can compare this to the pay off should we win.
Expected Value of calling
The Expected Value is the average amount we would expect to win over a large sample of hands if we make a given decision.
In this case we calculate the expected value as:
$EV = 0.6838 * 300 - 0.2908 *200 = 146.98$
Therefore, over a large enough number of hands, if we are presented with this exact situation repeatedly and we take the average of how much we win or lose, we would expect the amount we win to converge to $£146.98$
The thing about this I find interesting is that when you are playing in real life, even when you can see your opponent's cards, unless you have access to an EV calculator it is still very difficult to determine the correct way to play, and this difficulty is only compounded by the fact that we also can't see our opponent's card.
In order to play Poker well when playing with Incomplete Information, we have to attempt to reason about who has the better cards, whilst bearing in mind this underlying uncertainty which is present even when playing with Complete Information.
I work as an actuary and underwriter at a global reinsurer in London.