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Poker Hand Analysis: Vacuum vs. Balance


In the previous article, I discussed what hand analysis is, why you should be practicing it, how to find hands for analysis, and how to generally approach hand analysis. In this article I want to discuss two different approaches to thinking about a hand, depending mostly on the type of player that you are up against. The first approach is for dealing with bad opponents that are unlikely to notice any leaks you expose. The second approach is for dealing with tougher opponents against whom you need to approximate a balanced inexploitable strategy.

Analyzing Your Hand in a Vacuum

Vacuum means we look at our specific hole cards and make what would be the most +EV play with them in the short-term. We just look at the hand like this is the last hand we will ever play and we don’t care about how this play fits into our long-term strategy, or how it affects how our stats will eventually appear in the rest of the players’ HUDs. Vacuum analysis is simple and if you are new to this whole hand analysis business you should start there. Chances are that if this is the case then you are also playing against incompetent players against whom balance isn’t important, which is just the right situation to be using vacuum analysis anyway!

So now that we know what vacuum means, how do we analyze hands in a vacuum?

This is simple! We should look at our specific hand and ask if we played it for the most positive short-term EV.

When we bet we should ask:

  • Is this bet for value?
  • Is it a bluff?
  • Is it for protection?

If you can’t justify the bet using any of these reasons, betting is most likely a mistake.

When we bluff we should ask:

  • Do we have the required fold equity according to our sizing? (for example, if we bet pot on the river – we need villain to fold 50% of the time).
  • Do we have any additional pot equity to help make the bluff +EV? (when bluffing where there are more streets to come)

When we defend we should ask:

  • Do we have the required equity to call? (If villain bets pot on the river we need 33% vs his range)
  • Do we have any implied odds / reverse implied odds / fold-equity on a later street? (when calling with a non made hand where there are more streets to come)

Analyzing Your Range For Balance

Now things start to get interesting! If villain is a competent reg or unknown, we should play a balanced strategy against him, which means our analysis should look at our entire range for each spot, and then check if the specific hand we played fits in the final range or not.

We should look at our range in each decision point and ask what parts of this range we are taking this action with as part of a strategy for maximizing long-term EV.

When we bet we should ask:

  • Should I have any checking range here?
  • Should I have any betting range here?
  • Should I have a polarized cbetting range here, and check some good hands to protect my checking range?

When we bluff we should ask:

  • How many bluff combos do we need to make villain indifferent to calling with marginal bluff-catchers? (for example, if we bet pot on the river – we need 1 bluff combo for each 2 value combos)
  • What are the best combos to bluff?

When we defend we should ask:

  • How many combos do I need to defend to make villain unable to exploit us by bluffing more often than balanced? (for example, if he bets pot on the river – we need to defend 50% of our range)
  • What are the best combos to defend?
  • Should I have any raising range here? (it is hard to balance a raise on a flop where the preflop caller’s range has either many more draws than nutted hands like Q52, or very few possible draws like 996).

Here is a good article that explains the math principles behind hand analysis in situations where balance is important. Please note that the author does not necessarily agree with the specific attack strategy taken in the example in the article (basically either betting 75% pot on all three streets, or giving up), which seems super polarized. But this isn’t the point, the article really highlights the basic math principles for balanced bluffing and bluff-catching on all streets, and so I recommend reading it.

Example of Vacuum vs. Balance

This is not a complete hand analysis, just a simple spot to demonstrate vacuum analysis vs. balanced analysis. In this example Villain is a 30/15 fish, Fold to steal = 60, Fold to F CBet = 60 and generally plays bad.

Hero opens A3 in the CO and Villain calls in the BB.
Flop: A22
Villain checks. Hero?

Hero should check-behind because villain will probably fold almost anything worse than Ax and we have the worst Ax hand. Checking behind may also induce loose calls on later streets.

Now, if this was a competent player we would want to cbet! Why? In order to protect our range! Because this is a bone-dry flop on which we have range advantage (We have strong hands in our range, which villain would usually 3bet or fold preflop: AA, AQ+, A2o, 32s, K2s) and we have position – we would want to bluff a lot on this flop! In fact a good strategy in this spot would be to bet small with our entire range (a.k.a “range cbet”), and villain would have a hard time doing anything better than folding a lot, which is exactly what we want with the majority of our range. So what would happen if we cbet almost our entire range and then we suddenly checked back? This would turn our hand face-up! If villain is competent he will realize that our checking-back range is unbalanced, contains a defined range of stable showdown-value hands like A9-A3, KK-TT, and he could easily exploit this (for example with 99 he might find an exploitative check-fold to our delayed cbet on the turn, and he will avoid leading turn with a backdoor draw because he knows we are calling, but he might check-raise turn and overbet river to put big pressure on our capped range). In addition checking-back only medium made hands in a prime light-cbet spot leaves our cbet-range very weak and imbalanced because now it contains only few strong hands and a huge portion of it is air.

So the conclusion is although there is no good vacuum reason to cbet this hand, we should still do so for balance, but only when playing vs. a competent reg (or an unknown player).

Vacuum vs Balance – Final Thoughts

Next time you analyze a hand, first decide what is the correct approach you should be taking: analyzing this specific hand in a vacuum or analyzing the entire spot for balance. Then follow through with your analysis plan and try to incorporate the relevant principles.

In the following articles I intend to give complete examples of analyzing hands, both in a vacuum and for balance.

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