The Exploitable Call

Lee Jones
Published by:
Posted on 01/04/2022

I’m rarely the smartest person in the room, but I have an enviable talent for spotting the smartest guy or gal in the room. In the poker room, Andrew Brokos is one of those people, and you would do well to follow his various musings over at thinkingpoker.net.

For example, he and co-host Carlos Welch recently did a podcast, and Andrew said something brilliant. This is not unusual, but it was so powerful – so incisive – that I felt obliged to write about it.

A correspondent had written into them describing a hand they had played. They got into a situation where the villain made a big bet on the turn, and the correspondent worried that if they folded, “would I be exploitable?”

Andrew stopped the proceedings right there, and said, “In all the coaching I do, in all the hands that people send us, I always hear them saying, ‘If I fold here, is that exploitable?’ They never say, ‘If I call here, is that exploitable?’”

I jumped out of my chair and cheered, because Andrew had just put his finger on a problem that has plagued poker players ever since the term “GTO” was invented.

Once the math wizards and super-computer-based solvers had allowed us to see what “equilibrium” looks like for no-limit hold’em, poker players, who had been blithely ignorant of the possibility, suddenly began worrying that they were “exploitable.” As if overnight, their opponents had turned from imperfect mortals into bots self-trained on billions of heads-up hands.

I’ve got great news: your poker opponents, by and large, are still terrible at the game. The sobering sidebar is that the best players are better than they were a year ago, and in a year, they’ll be better still. But fortunately, you’re not playing against those people.

Here is what I believe underlies what Andrew is seeing: poker players are always – always – looking for a reason to put money in the pot. “Folding is boring.” “You can’t win the hand if you fold.” This supposed fear of exploitation is another, now en vogue, excuse to call.

Andrew continued… “You can be exploited by calling. If your opponents are under-bluffing, and they usually are, then they are exploiting your tendency to over-call.”

So, in your search for a reason to call quest to not be exploited, you inadvertently end up being exploited by that very call.

The solution? Exploit “the field’s” inclination to under-bluff, by calling less. Throw away your bluff-catchers. Call only when you can beat some of the value hands that your opponent can have.

Now you’re going to say, “Wait a minute, Lee – just two days ago, I threw away top pair with a decent kicker to a half-pot bet on the river, and she showed me a busted flush draw.” Well, good for her! I have three things to say about that:

  1. By betting half-pot, she offered you 3:1 on your call. So, you had to be good 25% of the time for your call to be correct. Do you think she was bluffing (or value-betting worse) 25% of the time? Unless she’s better and more balanced than 95% of poker players, she’s not bluffing that frequently.
  2. If she’s a maniac, you’ll find that out soon enough. If she bluffs too much, then the correct counter-exploit is to call with all your bluff-catchers. Now, I warn you: it’s seductive to tell yourself she’s a maniac because that’s an official Andrew Brokos-approved reason to always call. So just ‘cause you saw her bluff once, you’re not allowed to declare her a maniac and call every time. You must objectively, with a clear head, decide that she’s over-bluffing before you can flip that switch.
  3. If she really is balanced, and is bluffing at approximately the correct frequency, meh, just stay out of her way. If there’s more than one of her kind at the table, change tables – you don’t need to play in games with more than one of those critters.

So, the next time you find yourself asking, “If I fold here, will I be exploitable?” pause. Ask yourself, “If I call here, will I be exploitable?” Then do the right thing.

Feature Image: From WPT under Creative Commons