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“Offensive vs. Defensive Thinking” by Alan25main

April 10, 2019

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When you play poker, do you keep both offense and defense in mind? In today’s article, player Alan25main shares his thoughts on the importance of thinking defensively at the tables.

“Most football or poker players make a choice early in their careers whether to be offensive or defensive players. Neither is “better” than the other, and in fact, both skill sets are needed to win games/chips. This stark specialization applies in other areas, too.

Both George Patton and Douglas MacArthur were wonderful offensive tacticians. The defensive laurels go to Oliver Smith for the fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. The first two helped make the Second World War shorter and less costly of American lives than might have been the case, otherwise. The third kept the United Nations forces and us from losing in Korea. Without any one of them, our world might be very different today.

Offense gets more attention in our games. Quarterbacks and raisers are the ones praised and feared in these games because they beat up on defending opponents who aren’t up to the job. Defenders only “win games” rarely, but they can and do regularly lose them with poor play.

I’m a defensive player. I claim no special expertise or talent for poker. I have very few true talents: patience in abundance, an acute awareness of and an ability to use the “fold” button, and I can usually read the board, and sometimes, the situation. Beyond that, I’ve learned (painfully) which opponents to respect. That’s the extent of my “talents.” Not terribly impressive, I admit.

As a defensive player, in my mind the correct question isn’t “Am I being paranoid?” it’s “Am I being paranoid enough and about the right things?” That’s a tough balancing act that the greats somehow master. Poor mortals like me have to content ourselves with doing the best we can. The following are the thoughts of a defensive player.

Every player has to assume their opponent has a reason for what they do. We play against other live humans, after all, not cardboard cutouts with a computer dictating to them when to bet, call, raise, or fold. Being human, some of those reasons may not make sense to you or me, but they made sense to that opponent, and that was all the reason the opponent needed.

It doesn’t take a genius to read the board possibilities after a flop, turn, or river. If two or three cards to a straight or flush are showing in a flop, our top pair-top kicker combination isn’t as strong as it might’ve been on a dry board. We MUST take that into consideration when we size our bet. Likewise, top and bottom two pair combinations also have to be treated cautiously, and the more numerous our callers pre-flop, the more dangerous to us they are post flop. Those possible hands may exist only in our fevered minds, but when we’re wrong, we stand to lose a lot, not just a few chips. So, the cost of being wrong is high enough for us to be concerned.

Let’s apply this. You are the big blind at a 9-seat table with one seat vacant. You have an average chip stack. Your hand is K-3 off suit. Six players call your blind, but no one raises. Being a defensive player holding only K-rag against six callers, you check your option.

The flop is K-3-8 with the 3 and 8 suited. Your first thought is likely to be “Hot dog, I’ve got two pairs.” This should NOT be your last thought. You also need to wonder what all SIX of those callers were playing. One or two likely have small pairs (8-8? 3-3?). Another one or two may be playing suited connectors. What do the other two, three, or four have? Aces and high cards (A-8 or K-8, perhaps?).     

There’s a real chance you’re already beaten by either a better two pairs or trips, though the straight chances seem slim, even as you ponder what to bet. Even if you have the best hand now, those two suited cards on board have to be a little concerning. If another of that suit turns, a flush is possible and if the river brings a fourth, it’s likely.

If you check or bet too little, everybody that has a draw will call. If you bet too much, no one will call unless they can already beat you. So, you need to bet enough to make it “wrong” to draw to a straight, and a poor bet to draw to a flush, or lower pair, but not much more in case you get a huge raise from a respected opponent and have to fold. That sounds like a pot-sized bet.

Suppose you go all-in instead. The first caller must now calculate how many other callers there are likely to be as well as how lucky he/she feels. If that first potential caller with a four flush thinks four or more additional players may call that bet, the call is justified (fewer is gambling). Each subsequent potential caller will make the same mental calculation, but with the knowledge of what all the intervening players have already done. In practice, each additional caller also ought to be a larger warning sign to subsequent players (if the first is representing a flush draw, the second has to be representing a high pair or two, the third, a set, and so on).

If you’ve sized your bet correctly, you’ll eliminate some of those opponents. Which ones will call your bet? The ones you need to fear, the ones with an Ace or a K and a good kicker, the ones with a made two pairs, or a set.

A purely offensive player would look at those same cards and situation and see only that he/she has K-K-3-3 and go all in. And, about half of the time (or, perhaps a touch more), they’ll be right to do so. The rest of the time, they’ll lose much–or all–of their stack to what they will regard as a bad beat.

The defensive player may also lose, but at least he’ll have given himself the opportunity to make a good fold and survive to win another day. This makes a good illustration of the difference between offensive and defensive thinking in poker. Both attitudes and skill sets need to be in your repertoire.”