Running to Stand Still

Alex Rousso

If 2008 was the year of the four-bet shove light, it should be no surprise that 2009 became the year of the light call of the four-bet shove. Such is the nature of competition. Today’s clever new trick is yesterday’s cliché.

In business it’s assumed that if you do not go out there and secure more customers, your turnover will decrease. There’s a kind of entropy in the competitive world which means that if you stand still, everyone else’s striving for progress means that you actually go backwards. By extension, in order to stay where you are, you actually have to try to move forward.
In Evolutionary Theory, this phenomenon is known as an “arms race”. As foxes’ eyes get keener, so their prey’s camouflage gets better. As the trees on the Savannah plains get taller, so the giraffe’s neck gets longer. Each punch is met by a counterpunch. Each stratagem outwitted by counter-stratagem.

Does this continue ad infinitum? In the natural world, there are limits to how far things can go. Giraffe necks can only grow so long before the pressure required to pump blood up to the brain causes too many other complications. A peacock’s tail can only grow so showy and long before it becomes more of a hindrance than a help. This is referred to as hitting the wall – or reaching the limit of “progress” in a certain direction. Take for example the 100m Sprint world record. Sure, it keeps being broken as the years pass, but there is a notional limit to how low it can go. As we get nearer to that “wall” – just like a spaceship approaching light speed – the more and more effort put in will have lesser and lesser effect.

With some things in poker, the wall is easy to see. As four bet shoves become lighter, so some bright spark will actually find a situation – and a tournament deep enough – to perfect the correct time for a five-bet shove light. But take this particular stratagem to its logical conclusion and what do you have? In essence, it would be a glorified turbo tournament, with players just shoving all their chips in, turning over their cards, and seeing who’s winning.

In fact, I had a taste of that science fiction-like scenario in my most recent live tournament. I found myself playing on a table with a bunch of internet-honed young aggressors. Regardless of what stage of the tournament we were at, they three-bet the hell out of each other preflop. I found myself thinking “For God’s sake, can’t we see a flop? Can’t we play some poker?”

It cannot keep on getting more aggressive forever. Although as a general rule aggression is good for one’s style in poker, it does not follow that as poker evolves, the most successful styles will get ever more aggressive. If that were really true of poker, then sooner or later we would hit the wall: there would just be lots of hyper-aggressive players shoving their chips in and only the house would make money from the game.

No, the saving grace here is that different styles can be successful, and moreover, the success of each style is contingent on the mix of styles it finds itself up against. We see this in its barest form when we try to crunch some numbers in an ICM calculator. Most people know that if you’re up against a bunch of rocks towards the bubble of a tournament, it pays to become more aggressive. But by the same token, if you’re up against a bunch of hyper-aggressive opponents, it might be wiser to fold a few more hands and see if they take each other out. So the same is true in the parlance of game theory: a hawk does well in a population of doves, but so too does a dove do well in a population of hawks.

What does this mean for the future of poker? I’ve always felt that the best players of the game will be those that can adapt their styles more easily and fluently. It’s as if phase 1 of the evolution of poker was everyone learning that being aggressive is better than being passive. Phase 2 begins as the extent of that lesson reaches its logical conclusion and everyone learns that flexibility and variation of style is the most important skill. Think Roger Federer: good serve, good return, skilled at playing on the base line but also at the net.

In an environment where there are lots of skilled “phase 2” players, the hope is that there will always be enough play in tournaments that less skilful opponents can be outmanoeuvred. It may be my imagination, but I’m seeing a split in the tournaments being shown on TV and offered in casinos. On the one hand – and this is most welcome – we are getting deeper and deeper stacked tournaments with slower and better blind structures. In such tournaments, good players have plenty of opportunities to make their skills tell. On the other hand, it seems that certain TV tournaments are almost revelling in their crapshoot-ness.

For the latter of these two formats, eventually we will hit the wall. That doesn’t mean that these tournaments will stop existing. Some players like the gamble and evidently they still make good TV – perhaps for the less experienced poker player.

As for the first format, dare we ask for more? In evolutionary theoretical terms we have another arms race: on the players’ side, deeper tournaments will become more popular as players’ standards increase; on the casino’s side, deeper tournaments cost more money for them to host, being that they last longer, so the casinos will have to get more runners to ensure more profit. On both sides, striving for progress is ever necessary, even if it is only to stand still.