Picture this, you arrive at the river with the stone-cold nuts. Eager to make as much money as possible, you push all-in. Alas, your opponent folds; it must not be your night. Once again, you have a monster hand, shove, and once again, your opponent folds. This seems to happen every time you have a strong hand. Are you just unlucky? Or, have your opponents realized something about your game that makes folding to your all-ins a piece of cake?
One of the ways that we prevent our opponents from making comfortable decisions when playing against us is through balance. Today we’ll be talking about balance, what it is, and why good poker players remain balanced at all times.
Why Is Balance Important?
An unbalanced player is someone solid regulars love to play against as they’re very predictable. Often, unbalanced players will make an action too frequently or too infrequently. This can lead solid players to make some very intuitive and easy decisions.
In the example shown in the introduction, it’s clear that our hero was not bluffing on the river as an all-in. This allowed the exploitative players to always fold.
This doesn’t just limit itself to the extremes. Even if we think our opponent is bluffing too frequently by just a small amount, calling that bet becomes much more profitable as we’ll win much more often.
Often the game theory optimal (GTO) strategy of poker is to remain perfectly balanced. By forcing opponents to only call bets with the best bluff catchers, GTO players rely on their opponents not being able to do so. This inability for players to call with the “correct” hands is what makes these players profitable.
How Do We Stay Balanced in Poker?
To be balanced, you mustn’t bluff too frequently or too infrequently. This would allow our opponent to make an easier decision:
- If you only bluff, you make it easier for your opponents to call.
- If you only bet for value, you make it easier for your opponents to fold.
It’s important to remember the math behind poker when trying to play a more balanced game. The perfect balance of hands to bet on the river is not 50% bluffs to 50% value. It depends on what price you have set for your opponent to call.
All the poker hands we have in a situation are called our range. Within our range, we have combinations of cards. i.e., The Ace of Clubs (A♣) and the King Diamonds (K♦) is one combination (combo) of Ace-King (AK). In reality, there are 16 total combos of AK, 4 suited, and 12 off-suit:
For balance, you should understand how many combinations of value you have on the river. When a card is accounted for, we can’t have it in our hand. So, we exclude it from the combination matrix (figure 1). If the A♦ is on the board, we can’t have any combos containing the A♦ in our hand.
Being Balanced Hand Example
The Board is A♦ K♠ 9♦ 6♣ 4♠. We’re on the button, have bet on both the flop and the turn, and are going to go all-in for the size of the pot on the river.
We can count the combinations of hands we would want to play this way:
- AA: 3 Combos
- KK: 3 Combos
- 99: 3 Combos
- AK: 9 Combos (use Figure 1 to help you visualize this!)
- A9: 9 Combos
In total, we have 27 combinations of hands that we can go all-in with for value. However, to be balanced, we should also sometimes bluff because, if we don’t, then our opponent can always fold! To work out how many combinations we should bluff with, we need to assess how often our opponent has to win to make a profitable call against us.
If we say the size of the pot is 100 big blinds (bb), then we bet 100bb into the 100bb pot. Then our opponent has to put 100bb in the pot to call our river bet and win a total of 300bb. This means to break even, our opponent has to make the correct call one-third of the time or around 33%.
To be truly balanced, the total combos that we bluff with should be 33% of our entire river betting range. We have started with 27 value combos, so we must bluff with 13 combos on the river. This 13 out of 40 times, which is 32.5%.
Should I Play Balanced Against All Players?
The short answer is no. Against stronger players who you know have the capabilities to exploit you (even at the micro stakes), then you must try and play a more balanced game. Being balanced is one of the fundamental principles in a GTO strategy.
However, in softer micro stakes games, we can be exploitative. If we know that our opponent is calling us far too frequently, we should bluff less (and even value bet with more hands). By deliberately adapting to our opponents in this exploitative fashion, we stand to win much more money from them in the long run.