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Understanding the Basics of ABC Poker Strategy

Friday, October 15, 2010
By ContraSol
PS Members

You hear the term everywhere: "you can't just play ABC poker and expect to win" or "start with ABC poker then, as you get better, expand your game". Both pieces of advice have their merits, but to understand them, you have to know what ABC poker really is. So what is ABC poker?

By definition, ABC is playing every single hand optimally, with no historical or future considerations. Let's look at an example:

100NL, 6max. Effective stacks = 100bb.

Dealt to hero: (UTG)
hero raises $3, 2 folds, BU calls, 2 folds.

Flop: ($7.50)
hero bets $6, BU calls

Turn: ($19.50)
hero bets $15, BU calls

River: ($49.50)
hero bets $38, BU folds

This is a pure example of ABC poker. Hero has a premium hand in early position, and makes a standard raise. He hits a good flop, and bets his hand for value. The turn is a blank, and hero value bets again. The river doesn't change anything, so hero makes another VB. Standard.

Now let's change up the example. Imagine we have a read that the player on the button likes to call in position and float flops (call with the intention of bluffing later) with a wide range, but will fold to most turn bets. Given this historical information, the best way to play the hand changes dramatically.

100NL, 6max. Effective stacks = 100bb.

Dealt to hero: (UTG)
hero raises $3, 2 folds, BU calls, 2 folds.

Flop: ($7.50)
hero bets $6, BU calls

Turn: ($19.50)
hero checks, BU bets $14, hero calls

River: ($49.50)
hero checks, BU bets $40, hero calls

Because the hero knew something about the villain's tendencies, he had a very good reason to divert from ABC play. Since he knew villain had a history of bluffing vs. perceived weakness, hero could check the best hand in order to induce bluffs.

ABC poker has nothing to do with playing just premium hands. On the button, it is completely ABC to raise about 35% of your starting hands. Let's look at another example:

100NL, 6max. Effective stacks = 100bb.

Dealt to hero: (BU)
2 folds, CO raises $3, hero folds

This is standard ABC. CO is likely to have a better hand, K6s just doesn't flop well enough to make it worth playing here. But, what if we had a read that villain raises lots of hands from the cutoff?

100NL, 6max. Effective stacks = 100bb.

Dealt to hero: (BU)
2 folds, CO raises $3, hero raises $9

3betting does two things here that make it worth deviating from ABC: it exploits someone who is raising too much, and it helps to create a very aggressive image. Deviating from ABC play here is both a reaction to the historical play of the cutoff and a consideration of the implications of raising in the future. If the villain gets the idea that you're raising light in this spot, it's going to make your premium hands that much more profitable, because he's going to adjust and start playing back more. But it only works if you're going to regularly play against that player. Otherwise, there is no future.

There are plenty of good reasons not to play ABC all the time. Opportunities present themselves that allow for creative play, and that's the beauty of this game. That said, most situations call for ABC play. If you have a good hand and you suspect your opponent has a second best hand, 95% of the time the best play is to bet. If you have a weak hand and your opponent is betting, 95% of the time the best play is to fold. So learn your ABC's before you start trying to write poetry. Most players make enough mistakes themselves that you don't need to do anything funky to put yourself into good situations.

One last example:

Dealt to hero: (BU)
2 folds, CO raises $3, hero calls

Flop: ($7.50)
CO bets $6, hero raises $18

This hand is 100% ABC. Even though it's "just" a draw, the % of the time that villain folds (fold equity) + the % of the time that he calls and you hit makes it a profitable play, especially on this board, since most villains will cbet it and there are way more weak hands in their range than strong hands. ABC play is about finding the best possible way to play a hand in a vacuum, not about dumbing your game down to playing premium hands and playing fit or fold on the flop.

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