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Managing the Short Term Stats - Exploitive Plays

16 April 2009, By:
Most people, poker players included, have pretty short memories when it comes to statistical patterns. When playing live poker, you can use this to your advantage.

Poker players keep track of opponents' behavior and adjust their game accordingly. A player who raises a lot gets more calls, a player who folds a lot gets more raises against her, and so on.

However, most players have pretty short memories when it comes to statistical patterns. It's something in the way humans are built.

Keep an eye on your momentary image

When you play live poker, you need to realize that your latest actions contribute more than your earlier actions when it comes to the image that opponents make of your behavior.

Say for example that you're regularly playing 25% of your starting hands preflop. That is, your poker stats show a 25% VP$IP.

Even if you keep strictly to this strategy, in some periods you'll be playing fewer hands. The card average varies, and having to wait two or three rounds to get a hand that you can play from the position you're in is not unrealistic.

But when this happens, you can be pretty sure that the players around the table will notice your constant folding. They'll be thinking to themselves: "Oh my god, what's wrong with the guy, I've never seen him play this tight."

They focus on your most recent actions (or lack of actions) and give little consideration to all the previous hands you've played together.

Cognitive biases in human perception

The most recent events stick out in our memory. Cognitive scientists speak of the "recency effect", or the "availability heuristic". The human tendency to put disproportional emphasis on recent events over previous ones has been confirmed in scientific labs.

Of course, as a poker player you'll see a window of possibilities open up here. If the opponent uses an imperfect reasoning, you should be able to exploit it, right? According to game theory, Sklansky's Theorem of Poker, or whatever explanation you can come up with.

And you can. In the example above, once opponents have concluded that you're playing uncharacteristically tight, a raise from you will get more respect than it deserves.

Accordingly, when you're getting cold cards, go ahead and raise a little lighter than the cards admit. The opposition has no way of knowing what kind of crap you're actually playing with. What is actually an uncharacteristic looseness on your part looks to them like your normal rate of preflop raises.

Playing the short perspective

You're playing the short perspective, balancing your short term stats to make your game look normal in the eyes of the opponents. It's an unobtrusive way of bullying people.

In the other end of the spectrum, when you run hot and play an above average share of hands during a limited period of time (all the while sticking to your usual preflop hand range), opponents will notice that you play a lot of hands.

Being biased and over-emphasizing your short term stats, they'll conclude that you must be applying some pretty light starting hand requirements. Now they'll start calling and re-raising you with more hands than usual. Use it against them.

Say, for example, that you raise one hand with AA, the next with KK and then in the third hand you look down at 77 in middle position. Even if 77 in middle position is a raise hand in your preflop strategy and you would usually feel comfortable with putting in a raise with it, you may not want to play it out of position against a re-raise.

Of course, it depends on your opponents, but if you feel that they are getting fed up with your constant raising and there's a considerable risk that one of the players behind you will come over the top lightly, you may want to refrain from raising, contrary to your usual strategy.

Or say that instead of 77 you have a hand like TT when you put in that third preflop raise in a row, and then a player moves all in over the top. Then, even though you normally wouldn't call all in with TT, in this case you may have to, since you suspect that the opponent is re-raising you pretty lightly.

These are both cases of balancing your short term stats to adjust for a cognitive bias in the human perception.

Just a part of the picture

Of course, other competing mechanisms come into play as well. The fact that you play fewer hands than normally can of course be explained by a real change in behavior.

It's natural to be more or less tight from one game to the other. Your changing style may depend on a host of things like normal mood swings, small things at home or work, if you're sober or drunk, happy or miserable, alert or tired, and so on.

Nonetheless, balancing your short term stats toward an expected standard behavior is an effective way to exploit a cognitive bias in your opponent's perception.

/Charlie River

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