Do you understand how frequencies work in poker? Years ago, Ed Miller’s classic training text Poker’s 1% heavily impacted the poker strategy scene with its unique approach to exploiting the common frequency-based errors of opponents in live cash games. This winning strategy endures because players are still not exploiting frequency leaks in their opponents as often as they should be. This week, James “SplitSuit” Sweeney breaks apart the flawed strategies of unstudied players who ignore frequencies to their own detriment.

Featuring: Sweeney

James “SplitSuit” Sweeney:

There are really two common leaks that I want to talk about with you and honestly, most players that you play against have either one, or both, or slight variations of these leaks. If truth be told, you probably have a little bit of these in your own game. I know I certainly did at one time. I know this is something that I’m constantly working on making sure I don’t fall back into the trap of. It’s a very easy trap to fall into and you’ll see what I mean. Again, while we’re going through these leaks, see if anything in your game is resonating and you’re like, “Wait, wait, wait, I do that.” Because again, most people do.

The first leak is the slot machiner. A lot of players, most of the players in the game that you play, are playing hold ’em like a slot machine. With a slot machine, you simply try to make a big hand, then you get paid out according to the pay chart based upon your final hand strength, very simple. So is this how know them and hold them works? Well simply, of course not, that can’t be it. Think about how many times you’ve gotten involved with a less than stellar hand pre-flop, you’re just simply hoping to catch a huge hand. But do you get paid off every single time? How often do you end up flopping a small flush and you get paid nothing because everyone just folds? You end up flopping a set but no one gives you action? Or you end up flopping bottom set and you end up getting pimped out by a flush on the river.

There are all these time when you’re absolute hand strength simply doesn’t actually pay anything out, or it could even pay out the inverse of it. You could end up losing money in situations. Now of course, sometimes you’re going to catch big and you’re going to get paid out, but it doesn’t happen every single time. With a slot machine it would, but in hold them, simply not. The real result here is most of the players that you play against are doing this. Either largely, or at least to some extent in their game. All they’re trying to do is make big hands and stock people. Do you see any of that in your game? In your own strategy? Probably.

Most people do this, but what’s the issue with this? First and foremost, big hands are rare. It’s a rarity that you catch a big hand. Don’t believe me, we can pull out Flopzilla for a one minute and really prove this. Let’s just take a hand like I don’t know, 87 Suited. That’s a pretty hand. Cool. How often is it going to flop really huge? Well for saying huge is a two pair or plus, that’s about four to five percent. Okay, that’s not a ton, one in 20-ish. What about something weak like king 4 suited. That’s about three and a half-ish. Okay, that’s not very high.

What about those really pretty hands that everyone likes to play? Like Jack nine suited, or Queen 10 suited. Again right in that four to five percent ball park. A lot of these hands that people want to play, these spicket of hands, they’re trying to catch these monster hands, but truth be told, they’re rare. Even take a pocket pair, that’s only catching roughly 10% of the time, 10, 11%. It’s kind of a rare thing. The thing is that when you’re trying to make a big hand and stack people, typically you need to catch a big hand and you want your opponent to catch a slightly second best big hand.

That’s an even more rare proposition, because you’re taking a rare big hand times a rare slightly best big hand. Yeah that’s not going to happen a ton of the time, so it’s very difficult for this outcome of trying to make a big hand to stack people to come to fruition. Now it used to be easier back in the day. When people would take any pair of the felt for any stack size, but that’s not the case anymore. Sure there are some people that will and there are some situations where they should, but more often than not, this isn’t how people are playing.

People are okay folding if the pot is getting really huge and they have a middle pair. Again, how is that strategy of just trying to catch a big hand working out for you? The other issue again like we just mentioned is the payout is super far from guaranteed. The slot machine you make a flush, you get paid what a flush is worth. In hold them not so much. Also one other point to this is players that play like a slot machine, tend to get involved far too often with speculative hands. They over estimate their own plight outs and they have proof ranges that are simply too wide. Maybe they’re not calling a queen for an off suit, but they’re calling every suit of connector, every suit of gapper, every suit of double gapper, any ace X.

Remember if your preflop frequencies are too wide, you cannot profitably recover from that. You’re simply going to have some issues in your pyramids. Definitely this is something that you want to be aware of. If you’re throwing too much pre junk in your pre-flop branch, trying to play poker like a slot machine, it’s going to be very painful. If we pull from Miller, who said this in the book and really I can’t really say it any better, is just simply stop doing this. Ed says this in the book. Along as you build your strategy around trying to make big hands.

If that’s your sole focus, trying to make big hands, you will never be good enough to move up and match what’s with the professionals. Simply put, you will lose to them. Until you abandon the entire thought process and rebuild from scratch, you will never beat the pros. Poker is not a slot machine, stop playing it like one. Amen Ed, very well said. The first major league is playing poker like a slot machine. The second major league is playing like a tag. You may be wondering how the heck can that be? How can playing tag, something that pretty much everyone is told to do, how can that be one of the biggest common leaks.

Ed sums up the TAG strategy in 12 very simple words. Think about this: Ed says a tag will stick to good hands pre-flop, will bet when checked to and if they’re raised they fold. Before we go any further, I want you to think about that statement and I want you to write down, maybe a paragraph, a couple of sentences, whatever it takes, how you would exploit that person, because you see TAGs in your game all the time. Chances you play a TAG strategy to some sense or another. Think about it. Just pause this for a moment and write down how you would exploit someone who does that.

They stick to good hands pre-flop, they bet when checked to and if raised they typically fold. How would you beat this person? Go. The truth of the matter is that most TAGs are just upgraded versions of the slot machiner, because all they’re doing is they’re picking up some extra pots along the way, by betting when checked to, which is awesome. It definitely does create profit. It’s something that you probably do in your own game. I know I certainly do it as well a large chunk of the time, but ultimately they’re still trying to catch big hands. If they don’t have big hands then they’re going to fold when applied pressure to.

Think about how that’s exploitable. When someone is over folding when facing raises, meaning they’re folding far too often to be correct. This is a huge leak that you can capitalize on. If I was looking at someone who is described as sticking to good hands pre-flop, betting when checked to and if raised they typically fold, unless they have nuttish combinations. Well yeah, that’s exactly how I would exploit them. I’d steal all their blind pre-flop and apply a lot of pre-flop pressure. I would raise them whenever the opportunity arose, simply so I could get them to fold anything other than the top nuttish combos and I’m going to create a lot of profit along the way.

Now it’s not going to be huge home run profit. I’m not going to be stacking these people left and right, but I’m going to pick up a ton of these small to medium sized pots that are going to add up and they’re actually going to be super profitable for me. Again, whatever somebody is over folding, folding far too often to be correct, beating them is so easy. Apply pressure, raise and watch them melt away with everything but the strongest of combos. I want you to be honest for a moment. Is this something that you’re doing in your own game. I know I was. Again this is why I read this entire book before I went to solve for Y, because I knew it was really important that I couldn’t over fold in that game and make myself a huge, easy, exploitable target to players who were very capable and very aware of taking advantage of that exact kind of player.

Keeping both of those leaks that we just talked about in mind. I want to talk about the question that we get all the time. Is poker dead? Well of course poker is not dead. The two leaks we just talked about are visible in most of the players we’re going to play against. Plus 75+ percent of your player pool, if I’m just doing a basic estimation. What we just described are very easy counters to beating both players. Beating the slot machiner and also beating the tag. Honestly both things kind of boil down to, apply pressure, be aggressive, watch them melt away, unless they have really strong combos. If they start trying to put their entire stack in the middle, be a little bit nervous.

Pretty simple strategy and also adjustments to their strategies. Honestly, if most of the players in your game are that easily beaten by super simple adjustments, the game is anything but dead. The thing is, is people want to say that poker is dead, when they really mean to say that the slot machine, tag strategy that I currently use is no longer working. Well right, when everyone is using the same exact strategy there’s not really going to be an edge, but there’s still plenty of edge and profit available, if you’re willing to work for it. Honestly the stuff we’re going to do in this series, is the exactly the kind of work you need to be doing to make sure that you don’t fall prey to just being the person that hopes they catch a huge hand and has no strategy outside of catching big hands.

Going forward you are going to have two rules to live by. Yep, this entire book boils down to two very basic rules. If you follow these rules, it’s going to keep you away from having the huge frequency issues that most people that you play against have, that most people you talk poker with have. Again, two rules, that simple. Let’s talk about them.

Two Rules

Rule one, if your opponent bets, or raises, you should usually continue. Now, if you already read the book you may be saying, “Wait, wait, wait, Miller said usually call, not usually continue.” You’re correct, good eye. Very good attention to detail, but Ed did write call, but later on he goes on to explain that really it just means not folding. Continue, or call in when he originally wrote it, really meant to either call, or raise. Essentially just not fold. For the rest of this series I’m just going to use the word continue pretty much all the time, because it makes it easier to understand. It just means that I’m not folding.

Again, if your opponent bets or raises, you should usually continue. That should make a lot of sense, but it’s probably something that you’re not doing, or not doing often enough in your game. Rule two, if you bet one streak and your opponent calls, you should usually bet again on the next card. Essentially if you bet once, you should typically bet twice. So these are very basic rules and if you’re impatient and you’re wondering what the heck does usually mean here? I know that was one of the first questions I had when I read this book. Usually kind of averages out to 70%. We’re going to talk a lot about that number as we go through this entire series and that’s going to be factored into pyramids that we build, but getting ahead of myself here.

Again we have two very basic rules. The big takeaway here if we read both rules again. If your opponent bets, or raises, you should usually continue. Again, usually meaning about 70%. If you bet one stream and your opponent calls, you should usually bet again on the next card. Notice that both of these rules focus on kind of two very major things. Simply not folding very often and simply not checking very often. Think about the kind of players you play against that implement those kind of rules. They don’t check very often. They typically apply pressure instead. They don’t fold very often, they typically continue instead and force you to show up with the next barrel, or force you to show up with a hand.

Don’t you hate playing against players like this? These are probably the people that create the most amount of pain and awfulness to you. Honestly it is for most players. Again, we want to implement those concepts. Really it boils down to exactly these rules. Again, if your opponent bets or raises, you should usually continue. If you got one stream and your opponent calls, you should usually bet again on the next street. If you’ve never thought about poker this simply before, write these rules down on a post it note, keep it next to your computer, wherever the heck you study and make sure to reference them constantly.

If you’re the kind of person who’s checking too much, or folding too much, these rules will help you break that. Again it’s not that you’re never going to fold. It’s just simply that you’re going to have a little bit more refinement about when and why. Keeping on that mind, one of the biggest objections that people have when they read these rules is they think, okay well I’m just going to become a fish who never folds. Remember these rules do have you folding and removing hands on each street. If you’re usually continuing 70% of the time, 30% of your hands are still going away.

It’s not that you’re never folding. It’s not that you become a huge lag fish that everyone just drools over, rather you’re implementing precise aggression into your game and you’re being very focused on frequencies, rather than other things that are less important. You may be wondering which hands do I fold? Well we’re going to talk a lot about that as we go through this series, go through some examples, really show you how to start shaping those ranges. Keeping this in mind, this is something that Ed said directly in the book. You don’t fold hands just because they don’t meet some arbitrary hand strength standard. You choose your frequencies first and then find hands that fit.

Again, we’re going to talk a lot about that. Again, a default tag when they’re in a situation like this says, okay if I face a raise, I’m only going to continue post flop with top, or top kicker, or better. Notice that our continuance strategy is based on frequencies, not absolute hand strengths and that’s the biggest difference here. We are going to be frequency focused individuals from here on out. If you aren’t already, frequencies are going to be your best friend going forward, not just do I have top pay, or not just do I have a straight or better, but really thinking about frequencies, because poker at it’s core is frequencies and math.

All the math is doable, but it’s still stuff that you’re going to have spend time with to really get through, if you’ve been playing poker for a long time with just thinking about absolute hand strengths, building frequencies in to your strategy is going to take some time and effort, but I assure you the dividends are going to be huge.

Assuming you’re tracking with everything so far, let’s go to the second objection, which is commonly okay. How the heck do I do all this while playing. If you only have 15 second time bank online, or maybe a couple minutes live at most, you may be wondering how the heck do I do something this complex in such a small amount of time?

Well the honest truth is like most things in poker, you’re going to digest the series, you’re going to do exercises away from the table and you’re going to begin to develop an intuition that you can actually use in real time. Again, estimation in real time is totally fine. Perfection is not the goal here, it’s iterative improvement and making sure that you’re getting closer and closer to real answers and real time and once you can’t, okay you study off table so you get stronger in that spot in the future. All this is going to require a lot of time and effort, especially if you’re breaking through an old strategy that you’ve been using for a super long time.

This is going to take a little bit longer to kind of work through and wrap your head around, but I promise you if you put in the time and effort and you do the off table exploration, you will begin develop a usable intuition that you can really use. The third objection is variance. A lot of players look at this and say, “Wait, wait, wait, aren’t they just going to massively increase my variance? If we get involved in these bigger pots with these not super not ish hands, isn’t that going to increase my variance?” Well, three points to that. First and foremost, if you use this strategy against other one percenters, yep your variance is going to be huge, because you’re going to be creating more sizeable pots against these players with thinner edges.

But folding does not magically mitigate that variance. A lot of people feel like it does, because when you fold, you’re folding in these small to medium sized pots, so you’re not losing too much. You’re losing early on, but whatever, you didn’t invest all that much. You’re also not getting involved in large pots, because they’re not going to just magically give you action when you have a super strong hand. They’re smarter than that. Really at the end of the day, a lot of people feel like, okay if I’m just losing a bunch of small pots. My variance isn’t all that big. It just feels big when I lose big pots. That’s not what variance is and that’s to the right way to think about this.

Again folding doesn’t get you out of the variance. The variance is going to be there whether or not you like it, but if you just keep folding everything and hoping to catch monsters, that’s not a strategy that’s going to work well against other once percenters. Two, this model actually abuses players who fold too often. This allows you to win more small to medium size pots along the way. This is some of the lowest variance poker you can play. Lots and lots of small to medium wins. They’re not competing very often, which means they’re folding a ton, which means you’re just picking these pots uncontested a very large chunk of the time and you don’t have to show cards, which means your hand doesn’t really matter all that much.

You’re just taking advantage of a frequency issue in their game. That’s pretty awesome. That’s pretty low variance. Number three is that this strategy actually keeps your pre-flop ranges under control, which for a lot of players, most people honestly are simply too wide pre-flop, maybe a little, most a lot and honestly if you follow just the pre-flop stuff here, this can create immediate improvements to your game and obviously improve your win rate immediately. Again these are all things that are good for you. This isn’t going to explode your variance to some level that you can’t ever control. You’re going to actually understand how all this works and point two about picking up a lot of small to medium sized pots uncontested is super important.

I cannot stress that enough. That is some of the easiest money you can win and if you know what to look for and how to shape your ranges accordingly, your life can become much easier. Remember what’s one of the rules? If you bet and your opponent calls, you should typically bet the next card. That allows you to take advantage of those people who folding too much and you’re just picking up that small to medium sized pot quite often. Speaking of the rules, you can actually break them. Remember our rules are this. If your opponent bets or raises, you should usually continue. If you bet one streak and your opponent calls, you should usually bet again on the next card.

You can break those rules, but only when your opponent breaks them first. Say it with me now. We can only break the rules when our opponent breaks them first. Cannot stress that enough. Overall you never have to break the rules. You could strictly adhere to this strategy. We’re going to talk about the 70% model and pyramids and stuff going forward. You could strictly adhere to that and allow your opponents to beat themselves. Right, because your opponents have lots of frequency issues.

Some are more obvious than others, but all of the opponents you play against have frequency issues. If you can keep your frequencies pretty darn solid, they are going to make frequency mistakes and they’re going to beat themselves over time. If you never break from the rules, you may miss some optimized profit along the way, because there are certainly times where you could deviate from the rules and optimize profit, because you’re taking very clear advantage and exploiting in a very specific way with specific information. You could still not break the rules and still create a profitable situation for yourself.

If you’re able to keep your frequency solid and your opponents are keeping their frequencies less solid you make money in the long run. Again you never have to break the rules. If you default, say I’m going to follow the rules, you are going to save yourself a lot of heartache and a lot of just trying to justify things later by saying, I thought, I thought, I thought, or I knew, I knew, I knew. Chances are you didn’t. When you’re not going to show very often, you’re not getting the information to actually know things, it’s very easy to write yourself a new situation where you just say, “Well they have to have a better hand.” But you never actually force them to have a better hand, or get information proof that they actually had a better hand.

Which kind of leads us to the next point, which is sick reads. A lot of players solely rely on reads, as a way of circumventing the math. If you really think about it, a reed does not circumvent, or supersede the math. Reads influence the range that you assign. They don’t nullify the math. If you think about what it really is, this game at it’s very base, we have the odds that we’re getting. We have the ranges and the ranges give us the equities and the equities are what we compare to the math and say okay this is good or bad. Now, if we are looking at reads, all reads do is say, “Okay I’m making this … Based on the reed I want to make this specific range assessment.”

That just simply changes the equities which again get compared back to the math. They don’t nullify the math. You still need the math. You still need the basic odds. You still need the basic frequencies. You still need the equities. It’s not like reads supersede anything at all. You’re going to see throughout the series that the math is inescapable, try as you may. I promise you the math is very doable. It’s actually not very complex math. If you stick with this, I assure you it’s going to be digestible. It’s going to be a little tricky at first if you’ve never done work like this before, but I assure you it’s the work that is 100% worth doing and you’re going to want to make sure you put in the time and effort here.

All right, I know that was a lot. Hopefully that didn’t totally burn you out. If you’ve read the book before, you’ve kind of thought about stuff like this before. This is probably more of a breeze, but if this is the first time you’ve really been introduced to thinking about frequencies and thinking about a strategy based upon frequencies. This may have been a lot, but I assure you, we’re going to get through it together and things are going to make sense as we start going through this is really wrapping through some of the model stuff, some of the example stuff. This stuff will start to make sense, I assure you.

Showing 7 comments
  • Matt

    This podcast episode was fascinating. I have not yet read Poker’s 1%, and i think learning the concepts from Splitsuit might be easier. At the end of the Podcast, James alludes to working through more if it – will that be on future podcasts? Or is there a particular course on Red Chip somewhere?

    • James Sweeney

      Hey Matt. Glad you like the episode!

      We likely won’t cover much more of this on the podcast, but the entire series that uses this episode’s content as a jumping off point is included in the PRO Membership. Enjoy it!

  • itsgolden

    Great episode. Looking forward to the next one. Never really thought about how playing TAG is an upgraded version of the slot machine.

    • James Sweeney

      Cheers! It’s not that ALL TAGs are upgraded slot machines – rather that quite a few TAGs do act that way =)

  • Ken

    How do you think this concept translates to tournament play?

    It “feels” like Miller’s 1% strategy works much better in cash games than in tournaments. Knowing ranges is essential for both, but betting strategy in tournaments is different than betting strategy in cash games, due to the “chip preservation” concept and the idea that a chip lost in a tournament is quite valuable. I am not saying that betting more in tournaments is a bad idea, I am only suggesting that you may not be able to take this concept as far in a tournament. What do you think?

    • James Sweeney

      You are on the right track Ken. One of the constraints we discuss in the book/series is how frequencies and ratios shift as effective stacks get smaller. Since tournaments are usually played at a smaller stack depth, there is an inherent shift in earlier ranges to accommodate that =)

  • David Patteson

    there a several words that are incorrect. It looks like your auto speller guessed your words incorrectly, so you may want to disable it. People are easily confused.