Dan O’Callaghan: Evolution of a poker player

The poker world is adapting and if you don’t go with it you’re going to pay the price. Join Dan ‘danshreddies’ O’Callaghan and make sure you’re fit enough to survive

I’m going to start this article with a Darwin quote. Why? Well, mainly because of its relevance, but also because clever quotation helps me convince myself my English degree wasn’t a complete waste of money.

‘In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment’ Origin of Species, 1859.

Since I’m pretty sure rakeback isn’t a type of long lost vertebrae, it might seem bizarre to link a book about the evolution of animals with a gambling pastime, but the truth is I love this quote – especially from a poker perspective because it sums up the modern ecosystem perfectly.

Now, more than ever, with HUDs commonplace and the ‘basics’ becoming far more advanced than they have been before, players are being chewed up and spat out by those that have the ability to adjust and evolve so effortlessly at the tables.

As Darwin clarifies, ‘survival’ depends on being able to excel at this adaptation which means that thriving in the poker world is the equivalent of giving everyone at your table a sharp stick and loincloth, throwing them into the jungle, and acclimatising better than everyone else does. There are just some playing cards involved here too.


So there we have it, my main man Charlie D unintentionally defined the key to poker survival over 150 years ago, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the only poker I’ve ever known him linked to was the one he used to gauge worms’ reactions during an experiment (and I’m not even really sure how credible that source was!). Genius confirmed!

However, understanding the key to poker success is only one part of the puzzle, because unless we know how to make these adjustments, this knowledge is about as useful as knowing that the trick to working the stock market is buying the right stocks. It’s pretty useless.

Now, an inner monologue of a non-thinking poker player stealing the blinds would probably sound something along the lines of: ‘I haven’t won a pot for a while. I want to steal the blinds. I raise.’ Shortly followed by either a fist pump or a face-palm. Let’s just say this depth of thought wouldn’t make it into the Darwin Poker School of adaptation syllabus.

Look to the left

Someone a little closer to the mark might consider factors such as hand strength, effective stack sizes, positions, game-flow etc, but I’d still say this isn’t quite there.

In fact, I would argue that in order to ‘succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment’, players must discover how to adjust their approach in ways above and beyond that which is considered ‘standard’. This is because ‘standard’ exploitation only sets us on par with our rivals and, as Darwin explains, we must adapt more successfully than them if we are to ‘win at [their] expense’.

To my mind, this means super fine- tuning our adjustments in order to maximise their effectiveness. Let me explain what I mean, sticking with the blind stealing angle.

You’re on the small blind, pre-antes, with 12 bigs and haven’t looked at your hand yet (you’re one of these super humans that can resist the urge to look at their hand as soon as they get it). This is where the planning starts and the best players begin to adapt. What is our stack size, our default game plan, who’s on the big blind and how does he think?

A standard approach to this spot might be to shove or fold your entire range, always moving in when you have a profitable shove, and always folding if you don’t. And this is perfectly fine – it’s standard after all!

Let’s finally look at our hand to see we have A-To. Against any opponent, moving in here is considered ‘standard’ since it enables you to realise your equity with a hand that is strong enough to guarantee a long term profit. The big blind simply won’t find a stronger hand often enough to counter this strategy.

However, our new-fangled, Darwinian approach to poker means that we should adjust our ‘standard’ strategy based on the player in the big blind if it leads to us making better decisions than our ‘rivals’ would in the same situation.

With this in mind, I would suggest that there are times we should take the non-standard route of raising with the intention of folding to further action. Yes, I am suggesting we can raise/fold from 12 big blinds. Don’t get your knickers in a twist just yet, let me explain.

Let’s say the big blind is a super nit and will always move all-in or fold with a super-tight, inelastic range, meaning they will only play a set number of super-strong hands that doesn’t change based on our action (I’ve noticed these kinds of players are more prevalent in the latter stages of live tournaments).

This means that the range of hands our opponent calls our shove with is identical to the range that they will shove themselves. If we can be confident that they are never calling (not too unrealistic 12 big blinds deep) then I’d argue that we should raise our entire small blind range with the intention of folding if our hand performs too poorly against our opponent’s value range. (We can also take this line with a wider value range with the intention of calling against opponents that reshove too wide in this spot.)

Fantasy poker

This is pretty effective when we are on the rob as it enables us to steal the blinds with the exact same success rate as when we shove, but with none of the risk. If we raise trash and he moves all in, we can just fold confident that we have simply run into a monster. Missing value isn’t a concern either because when we do have a monster, our opponent is going to move all in with the hands he was going to call our shove with anyway and we still (hopefully) double up!

So yes, the idea of raise-folding a hand as strong as A-To might seem a pretty ludicrous prospect since we can profitably shove this hand in this spot against any opponent. However, if we are confident that our opponent only shoves a range of something like T-T+ and A-K, then we only have 26% equity when he continues which means raise-folding becomes more profitable than the unexploitable ‘standard’ of open shoving. We simply don’t get stacked as often.

Of course, this is a pretty rare example, but it’s definitely a spot where we can we find unorthodox ways of maximising an edge, and that’s precisely my point.

If there’s one thing you should take from this article (other than the knowledge that Darwin threatened worms with a poker), it’s that you need to find ways to stay ahead of everyone else; you need to challenge the standard and strive to be the best at adapting to your environment. Then, and only then, will you be able to survive in the ever evolving world of poker.

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