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Texas Hold'em No Limit Intermediate


7,722 Views on 2/6/15

Taking creative, innovative lines at the poker tables can help you take your opponents out of their comfort zone and increase your profitability at the tables

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It's common for us to imitate pokertaglines we have seen good players take. The lines we've seen the most often generally become the lines we are most comfortable taking. We then have a tendency to dismiss options outside of those common lines as “bad”. This is a phenomena that affects the majority of the player pool.

Certain lines appear all the time while other lines appear extremely rarely. This is why we use terms such as “standard” and “default”. If all players were playing independently of each other and unaffected by each other, there would be no such thing as “standard”. Every player would have his own unique brand of playing style and sizings.

Is this because these “non-standard” lines are bad? In some cases, it might be. But there are a whole range of unexplored options that might be as good or even better than the “standard” lines.

If we were to visualise player pool tendencies it might look something like this:


The red areas indicate lines taken by our opponents. The broader circle represents the entire range of possible decisions. The small circle in the centre represents the common lines. Notice how the vast majority of decisions occur within that small central circle.

In his book “How to be a Poker Player” Haseeb Qureshi coins this as the “theory of centrality”. The majority of our decisions are very central as they appear on this graph, and perhaps they shouldn't be. Let's consider why.

Non Central Decisions

We are not for a minute suggesting that we abandon all lines that occur within the centre of that diagram. We make use of a standard lines for a reason, they will often be the closest to optimal in many situations.

But many players simply never use any line outisde of that centre circle, which is the opposite extreme. This is likely because they haven't seen other players take these lines commonly and feel unable to evaluate the effectiveness of the line. They are essentially waiting for permission to use a certain unorthodox line – someone to come along and say “You can use this line, it's +EV, I've done the maths”.

But if we are relying on someone else to tell us which lines we can and can't take we are going to have marginal success in this game at best. We need to be able to think outside the box, be brave enough to take lines that others never take, and objectively be able to evaluate the effectiveness of non-standard lines without outside help.

The Advantages

If we look at the diagram we will see there are one or two red patches just outside but close to the centre circle. The further out from the circle we get, the less red patches there are. Some lines might be small adjustments to “standard” lines which are significantly more effective but are not noteworthy in the sense that they are radical. For example it's very common to bet 2/3rds pot in most situations. Being able to think objectively about when it is correct to instead bet 40% pot, or 100% pot can drastically increase our effectiveness without being anything totally ground-breaking in itself.
Some lines might be small adjustments to “standard” lines which are significantly more effective but are not noteworthy in the sense that they are radical.
The advantages to such plays should be obvious in the sense that they increase our EV and overall profitability. If we find ourselves using the same size bet every hand on each street, we are playing purely in that centre circle. We might be potentially playing a reasonable poker strategy but essentially lacking that finesse which separates a good player from a great player.

The further out we go from that centre circle the less red marks we see. These outliers are even less common and slightly more radical than the previously discussed lines. Perhaps they involve large overbets, small underbets, or uncommon lines. While these options may in some cases be the highest EV there is another advantage to using these lines also. It involves the way we and our opponents think about the game.

Disrupting Thinking Patterns

If you've ever watched two grandmasters play a high level game of chess, you will often see them rattle off the first 15 or so moves very quickly. A few seconds per move. They've seen the same situation thousands of times and studied the opening in depth.

Eventually one player will make a move that is not part of the standard opening. Doubtless he had envisioned this particular variant in advance and created a strategy surrounding it. The second grandmaster now goes into the tank. He has potentially never seen this situation before. He needs time to explore the different variables and understand the structure and dynamic of this new board texture. Perhaps 20 minutes will pass before he finally makes his move.

So what has this got to do with poker?

Sometimes playing pokertagpoker is not so much about our thinking ability but understanding when to think. Why did the grandmaster stop and think for so long? He was in a situation he was unfamiliar with. He had no pre-constructed strategy in his mind for dealing with this situation. He had to construct his entire strategy afresh from that moment in time.

It's very common for poker players to rattle off standard moves without thinking too much. Especially standard decisions. The more experienced we get, the more situations we can think of as “standard” and make without too much hesitation. But then....someone throws us a curveball. Let's imagine they make a 3x pot overbet on the flop.

We deal with 2/3rds size bets all the time on a daily basis. In fact we have spent much time working off the table attempting to solve such situations. We have a pretty reasonable idea regarding exactly what our calling, check/raising and folding range is. We've done it so many times before we barely need to think.
It's very common for poker players to rattle off standard moves without thinking too much... But then... someone throws us a curveball.
But now we are facing a 3x overbet on the flop. When was the last time we faced this situation? We certainly do not have any sort of pre-existing strategy for coping with this spot. We've never sat down and calculated exactly what our calling, check/raising, and folding range should be against a 3x overbet. Should we even have a check/raising range against such a large overbet? We are confused, and unlike the grandmaster in our example, we have a 30 second time bank, not 20 minutes. 

What would you do?

Many players would try their best to calculate a decent poker strategy from scratch. But seeing as it probably would take us a good 15 minutes off the table we are fighting a losing battle. Our hard work off-the-table is somewhat unhelpful here. Having said that, we don't feel overly bad about it since we will probably not be in the same situation for months, if ever again. It's not as if we are going to spend the next 3 weeks constructing defending ranges for different board textures when facing a 3x pot bet.

Some players do not even understand how to create a new strategy for a situation they have never seen before. In fact they only really know how to play poker in standard situations. This is because they are not generating strategy themselves, they are simply trying to imitate what they have seen other good players do. They will usually end up making a decision here that is not based on logic.


Wouldn't it be good if we could put our pokertag opponents in such situations, taking them out of their comfort zone. If only we could take them outside of the realms of pre-existing studied strategy where they have their entire game plan already mapped out.

Of course, the answer is, we can. We need to consider non-standard lines in every situation. We are not necessarily saying that we should go around overbetting 3x pot on every flop. But when was the last time we overbet or underbet?  When was the last time we took an uncommon line such as x/c flop, x/c turn, donk-bluff river?

We might find that unorthodox lines are more profitable on average. Imagine we were playing against a robot and could precisely simulate the expected value of certain decisions. We might find in a certain situation that the EV of betting 2/3rds pot on the flop is 5bb, while the EV of betting 2x pot is 4.5bbs. But poker isn't played by computers it is played by humans.

When we bet 2/3rds pot we are attacking our opponents existing and fortified strategy. When we bet 2x pot we are possibly attacking a strategy that does not even exist yet. When we factor in the lack of efficiency with which a human player will defend vs the unorthodox line, we may find that we are actually making more money on average even if our line turns out to be technically inferior.

Bots Vs Humans

Naturally it should be completely impossible to put a computer out of it's comfort zone. (At least a properly designed computer, many poker bots are actually breakable using unorthodox lines). A properly designed poker bot will construct an existing strategy every time, perfectly. It doesn't matter how unorthodox our line, an artificial intelligence will respond with equal efficiency in every situation. Playing vs such a computer, non-central lines would have absolutey no inherent advantage. We actually want to play as many hands within our own comfort zone as possible. We'd have the best edge against a machine that way.
For a long time there were guys like Isildur1, a relative unknown who appeared to be crushing high stakes pros and spinning up millions online. Yet at the same time everyone said he was “crazy”
.At this stage humans are still significantly stronger than poker bots. But only if they are playing in their comfort zone. If we take a human out of his comfort zone we are essentially turning him into a fish who has spent little to no time studying exactly how his strategy should be. The idea is that we personally have spent time working on specific non-orthodox lines that we like to use. We are comfortable in this situation while our opponent is not. 

For a long time there were guys like Isildur1, a relative unknown who appeared to be crushing high stakes pros and spinning up millions online. Yet at the same time everyone said he was “crazy”. Do you see how this works now? Crazy is essentially another term for “non-central”. Isildur1 was not crazy, (well maybe a little),  he knew exactly what he was doing and made a lot of money in the process.

Think Outside the Box

So next time we are the table we want to consider lines that we have never seen before; we want to think outside the box. However unorthodox a line seems, if we have a good justification for it, then we should feel comfortable trying it out. This is one mark of a strong player. They do not simply regurgitate existing central theorems that permeate the entire player pool. They are the ones who create strategy itself.



I am of British nationality and go by the online alias w34z3l. I am considered one of the top consultants in the field for technical analysis (i.e. database work) and application of game theory concepts to various card games. I make a ... Read More


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