Game theory in poker

Poker has long been regarded as one of the most popular of the games available at land-based and online casinos and it is a game where the players are constantly seeking ways of gaining an edge on one another so that they can come out on top in the majority of hands.

This article will look at one possible way that this objective can be achieved, by providing a guide to how game theory can be applied to winning at poker.

To begin with, you may be wondering exactly what ‘game theory’ actually is – well it essentially means the study of games from a maths perspective. It looks at those games that involve a minimum of two players and that feature clear rules governing what moves any player can make at each stage of a game. It is not to be confused with ‘gambling theory’ which applies to chance games, whereas games theory can only be used with games of skill – like poker. In terms of game theory, poker is considered to be a zero-sum game, as the amount won by the successful player is lost by the others and you give that every loss you make restricts your future ability to bet – even in situations where there is chance of greater winnings, simply because you have less money. Thus, game theory suggests that you should manage your resources carefully by limiting the bets you make based on the probability of your winning. Proponents of game theory, as applied to poker, argue that for every situation in which you find yourself during a game you can alter your approach for maximum success.

Another example of this is the optimal bluffing frequency strategy, which suggests that a bad hand should be used as the basis for a bluff on the river to the same degree as the pot odds you are offering the other player. Therefore, if these odds are 4/1, choosing to bluff 25 percent of the time ensures the other player loses exactly the same sum regardless of folding or calling. In games theory, this falls under the heading of the ‘unexploitable strategy’, as it lets you change how often you bluff based on how often your opponent folds or calls. Alternatively, there is the ‘exploitable’ games theory strategy of the gap concept. This argues that calling the bet of another player requires a better hand than is needed for raising yourself. Games theory suggests that exploitation of other players’ conception of this is possible by heavily re-raising against a player at points with shallow stacks when they have raised one pot in front of you. Should the other player grasp gap concept he might use a range of hands for open-raising – and the second gap could be extremely wide. This could see him fold when you re-raise on 75 percent of occasions, should he call with 5 percent of his hands and raise with 20 percent.

Of course, for all of the games theory you apply to poker, you also need to be aware of the psychological aspect of the game that will always be key to success.


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