Decoding the poker metagame

Have you heard people talking about metagame and wondered what the hell they were on about? Relax, we’re here to help…

People love to give fancy-sounding names to simple concepts: companies don’t fire people, they downsize and lazy people are said to be motivationally challenged.

Well, as you have might have noticed, poker is no different. The term ‘metagame’ is bandied around a lot, and despite sounding like something only a chess grandmaster could get his head around, it’s actually a pretty simple concept. In a poker sense, the metagame is everything you can’t quantify, everything you can’t assign a percentage to. It means going beyond the simple mechanics of the game – the bets, chips and cards – to take in things like physical tells, your opponent’s emotional state, your history with a particular opponent, and how you are perceived at the table.

An example of a situation where you might think about the metagame is when you’re in late position in a no-limit hold’em tournament and the action is folded to you. In the absence of all other information, the usual play is to raise, hoping that everybody will fold and you’ll win the blinds.

However, the metagame may influence your decision in a number of ways. Maybe you’ve just raised five times in a row and shown a weak hand each time, but now you have a monster. You may want to make the same play of raising and hope your opponents perceive you as weak, and get involved when they shouldn’t.

Alternatively, maybe you have a fairly good but not great hand this time (like A-5 offsuit or K-J). You might choose to fold this hand, simply because you don’t want to steal too many pots in a single orbit and encourage your opponents to play back at you. You’re making a slightly less profitable play in the short-term, hoping to reap the benefits in the long-term.

How important is it?

The metagame is an important part of a well-balanced approach to poker. After all, if you focus only on the cards on the table and the maths, you’re no better than a robot. However, the metagame should rarely be used as an excuse for a play that doesn’t make any sense in normal strategic terms. For example, you wouldn’t fold pocket Aces before the flop because of metagame factors! Instead, it should help you to choose between two or more close decisions.

Let’s say you have top pair, top kicker on the river and your opponent has bet into you. This is rarely a raising situation, so you need to know whether your opponent is making a value bet (meaning you should fold) or a bluff (so you should call). Let’s put aside the usual strategy concerns for a second and focus on the metagame.

First of all, is your opponent giving off any physical tells? An opponent who is acting weak or disinterested, or who looks particularly alert, is often strong. An opponent who has frozen still, or an opponent who is staring intently at you, is often weak. Next, is your opponent playing their best game? If your opponent is drunk, tired or emotional (perhaps due to tilt or problems outside the game), the chances are they are playing differently from usual. A player on tilt might see the river with hands they would normally fold, or might be desperately trying to win their money back by bluffing heavily.

What is your image at the table? If you’ve been showing down weak hands and making loose calls, you probably have a wild image. Your opponent might be betting with a marginal holding, expecting you to pay him off lightly. If you have such an image it’s also less likely that your opponent is trying to bluff you. Conversely, if you have a very tight image, your opponent will probably try to bluff you more often.

Lastly, think about your history with this opponent, both throughout this session and previous ones. Are there any memorable hands where your opponent bet into you on the river? If so, what did they show? All of these factors may help to tip your decision one way or the other.

When should you use it?

The metagame isn’t just for people playing at an EPT final table, or playing in the Big Game in Vegas. It can be important in low stakes games too, as long as the players are taking the game seriously. If the players aren’t taking the game seriously, they will often play in an unpredictable fashion and won’t pay much attention.

The metagame requires a long-term outlook in order to be useful. For example, if you make a play in order to build a specific image in your opponents’ minds, you should be sure you’re going to be playing more hands with those players. Otherwise, you’re making a sub-optimal play for no future benefit. Similarly, there’s no point in carefully observing your opponents’ tendencies if you will never play another hand with them. The metagame becomes a more important consideration when you’re playing against the same players day in, day out.

For those reasons, metagame considerations are much more valuable if you play in the same poker club each week or in an online game where the player pool is small. There’s not much point in constantly thinking about the metagame if you play $0.25/$0.50 NLHE at a big site, where there are hundreds of tables running simultaneously and millions of players – although you should still make an effort to identify other regulars and their tendencies where you can.

Downsides

If you read the online poker forums, you’ll most commonly see the term metagame associated with tricky or unconventional plays. For example, ‘I raised the river with 6-3 and showed it for metagame purposes. The guy went nuts’. However, you have to be careful not to fall into the mindset of ‘tricky plays are glamorous and fun’, justifying those plays as metagame considerations. Every play you make should follow sound reasoning, and there should be another reason to make that play besides the metagame.

Another potential pitfall is out-thinking yourself, or making up metagame considerations that don’t exist. A very common example of this is an otherwise good player giving a weak opponent too much credit for sophisticated thinking. The weak opponent bets all-in, and the player dwells for a long time, thinking about whether the all-in bet is actually a bluff, because the big bet could actually mean weakness. Or maybe it’s a subtle double-bluff, feigning weakness with a big bet to encourage a call?

In reality, this is just over-thinking the situation and wasting time. Weak players usually fold awful hands, check and call medium hands, and bet or raise good hands. The decision is a simple strategic one, and the metagame doesn’t really come into it. The message here is not to get carried away. Metagame is a tiny weight that tips the scales between close decisions – not a ten-tonne anvil that makes the decisions for you.


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