What Is “Balance” And How to Use It at The Poker Table
By Bob Garcia
If you’ve listened to a live poker broadcast anytime over the past 5 years you’ve likely heard poker’s latest buzzword ‘balance’ thrown around as if it had been part of the poker lexicon since its inception. But the truth is that as it relates to the game of poker, balance is a new concept that’s revolutionized the game quicker, and more deeply, than any other strategy since the invention of the checkraise. But what is Balance exactly? And how can we use this strategy to help our bottom-line at the poker table? Well, let’s have a look.
What Is Balance?
Simply stated, being perfectly balanced at the poker table means having an equal number of bluffs and value-bets in each scenario. Want to checkraise the river with your strongest hands? Need to balance by adding in some bluffs as well. Want to be able to check-call your middle and bottom pairs without getting exploited on the river? Better start checking your top and middle sets as well to balance out your range.
Think of balance as your offensive line in football, or your goalie in hockey, with it you’re doomed to fail no matter how good the remainder of your team – or game – is. That’s because just like a professional sports-team trying to play without those position-players, playing poker without a balanced strategy leaves you far too exposed to ever be a real threat. In fact, when facing strong opponents, a lack of balance arms your opponent with the exact information they need to pinpoint your weakness and exploit you quicker than you can call out ‘CHIPS!’ So just like you wouldn’t want the opposing defense to know your plays before the snap, your poker opponent should never be able to decipher whether you’re making a play with a weak or strong hand either, because you’d play both the exact same way.
Balancing Your Ranges
The first step in balancing your ranges is ensuring you’re thinking about a hand congruently from start to end, meaning that once a hand has begun you keep in mind every other hand you’d play in this same way (known as a ‘range’) and don’t try to represent a hand that falls outside that range at any point. For example, if you check your option when the small-blind limps in in a heads-up pot, the odds you have a top 15% hand is incredibly low considering we’d expect most players to raise their value hands in such a spot. Therefore, against thinking opponents, it would be ill-advised to try to bluff a turned or rivered ace and then get frustrated when you get called down by middle-pair. In these situations, it’s important to return to your very first action in the hand (checking from the BB against a SB limp), picturing the entire collection of hands you would play in this way, and continuously trimming away at that image as each progressive decision eliminates more possibilities. Remaining congruent with your ranges in this way will increase the likelihood you and your opponent are on the same page as it relates to your perceive range (the collection of hands your opponent thinks you have), which you can use to your advantage based on your opponent’s specific tendencies.
Once you’re thinking of your ranges congruently, the next step is to ask yourself one simple question each and every time the action is on you: which hands of the opposite strength (bluffs when waiting to value-bet and value-bets when waiting to bluff) would I play in this exact same way? If you can list enough “opposite-hands” to even out all the ones with a similar value to the one you’re currently holding, then you have yourself a balanced range and can proceed as intended. If, however, you find yourself thinking ‘I wouldn’t play any of my big hands the way I’m trying to bluff here’, you may want to let the spot go and review the hand after the fact to figure out whether the mistake was not having enough value hands in the range (an easy fix through off-the-table studying) or whether it was in fact not a smart place for a bluff due to a sensible lack of value-bets within that range.
Of course, as we saw earlier this goes for any and every situation you can find at the poker table. Checkraising, checking-back, three-betting, continuation betting; each one of these actions needs to be balanced out with hands of the opposite strength. Because nothing is easier than playing someone who only takes one type of action with an entire collection of hands. We’ve all played against the stereo-typical ‘nit’ who would never even dream of raising the flop without a monster, or the maniac who bets so often they can’t possibly have enough combinations of value-hands, and while it might not be the most exciting of games against the former, neither opponent is very tough to handle once you learn the handful of adjustments necessary to exploit unbalanced opponents (such as, in the cases of the opponents above, bluffing relentlessly against the nit while avoiding pay them off when they suddenly spring back to life and employing a constant barrage of checkraises and floats against the loose-aggressive opponent).
By understanding the reason for balancing your ranges at the poker table, as well how to accomplish doing so while remaining congruent with your analysis, you will instill an proverbial offensive-line so great you’ll finally be able turn your attention away from the onslaught of blood-thirsty opponents and look for your receivers downfield.
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