Changing Gears, or What The Top Pros Know That You Don’t

Poker Concepts

March 17, 2008

If you ask top poker pros what distinguishes them from merely good players, they very often say the same thing: “changing gears”. So what exactly are they talking about?

To understand what changing gears is, the effect it has, and why you should or shouldn’t do it, we need to refer back to my article on poker strategy in terms of rhos. If you haven’t read that article and the previous ones on rhos, I suggest you do so now. Here’s the diagram of poker strategies from the rho article:

Now, the heart of “changing gears” is ridiculously simple in theory: always select the strategy that’s best against the strategy your opponent has selected. Seems almost too easy, right? Well, that’s about right – it’s not particularly hard. Read on.

Playing Against Weak Opponents

Weak opponents tend to select their strategy in a vacuum and don’t change it except under extreme stress. That means to beat them for the maximum amount, you need to do 3 things:

  1. Figure out what their strategy is – it will usually be some variation of the maniac, the calling station, or the rock. Calling stations are far more prevalent than the other two.
  2. Figure out which strategy best counters what they’re doing. The diagram above should help. See the “rhos” article for explanations of strategies A, B, and C. For example, if your opponent is a calling station, strategy B (tight play with value bets and few/no bluffs) is the best option.
  3. Implement the strategy selected in 2 and stick with it.

Notice that you are NOT going to change gears here – your opponent is adopting a single fixed strategy, so you should as well. Occasionally “changing gears” and adopting a different strategy is counterproductive – bluffing a calling station or calling down a rock doesn’t work. If you make such a change, you will reduce your expectation or even start loosing against your less skilled opponents. Don’t do it.

Now, to be clear, weak players do occasionally change strategy. However, they do it in a very specific way and for a specific reason. Usually it happens when they become badly stuck or suffer a big beat and go on tilt. At that point they often switch styles completely. Rocks and calling stations usually become maniacs. Maniacs sometimes become calling stations if they have a big bluff snapped off. When this happens, you too should switch to the appropriate counter. This, however, is not “changing gears” in the classical sense – usually it happens only once per session, and the fish stays with the new style until he goes broke and goes home. Thankfully, it’s often pretty obvious when you should switch your strategy, as most fish make no efforts to hide their psychological distress when things are going badly for them. Realize, however, that the vast majority of the time the fish will just be their usual reliable selves – it’s only when they go on tilt or otherwise experience a change of psychology that you need to adapt.

A More Typical Game

In most games some of your better opponents are going to be a little more savvy than what I’ve described above. Generally speaking, they still play somewhat too loose. But unlike really weak opponents, they are capable of adapting to some degree. In particular, they tighten up around tight opponents. Notice, this is NOT the right way for them to adapt. The correct change is to become selectively aggressive (strategy C) against tight opponents. However, that’s not what the majority of opponents do when they encounter strategy B. Instead they stop giving action, and in essence also adopt strategy B. Since the two players are now playing more or less the same strategy, they break even against each other. This behavior often creates a steady state in medium limit games, where there are a population of overly loose fish, and a population of better players playing tight against each other and somewhat looser against the fish. This scenario leads to the better players slowly taking money from the fish, but it’s very inefficient because the better players are too passive against each other, and too loose against the fish.

So what do you do when you find yourself in such a game? Well, to start you’re probably best off playing strategy B because even the better players will initially be playing somewhat loose against you. Then, as your session progresses, you’ll notice that you stop getting action from some of your opponents. If this doesn’t happen, you’re in the “weak opponents” situation above, and don’t need to change a thing. You’ll probably play strategy B against everyone the entire session. However, in a lot of games some of your opponents will tighten up and stop giving you action. When this happens they are in essence now playing strategy B and you’re now breaking even against that particular opponent. That’s bad – you want to make money against everyone if possible. The solution, once it’s obvious you’re not getting action, is to switch to strategy C, but only in hands played against the opponent(s) you can’t get action from. This is the best way to exploit their newly tight behavior. It’s very important to only switch against the players who have adapted and stopped giving you action – the others are still calling too much, and thus strategy C is counterproductive.

Of course, this can’t last forever. Your better opponents will notice you’re suddenly in (and betting at) a lot more pots, and they’ll go back to their original looser selves which is the correct counter to what you’re doing. For this reason, it’s usually best spend only a short time in strategy C and then go back to B. Ideally you would like to switch back to B just at the point where your opponents have decided you’re actually a very aggressive player and loosen up. If you do this correctly, your opponents are continually out of sync employing the worst possible strategy against you.

This pattern of usually playing strategy B but playing strategy C when you can’t get action on your good hands is what is usually referred to as “changing gears” in the poker literature. Doyle called strategy B “first gear” and strategy C “third gear”. The point is that you switch suddenly and decisively between them, and do so on the basis of your opponent’s actions and reactions. As Doyle put it, there is no “second gear” – the goal is to shock your opponents rather than giving them a steady, gradual change that they can react to.

Perception vs. Reality

Be aware that how you view your play and how your opponents view you play may be totally different. Imagine you get split aces in seven card stud 5 hands in a row. Each time you raise, and each time the table folds. Now from you’re perspective you’re playing your normal tight game and having a hard time getting action on your strong hands. But from the table’s perspective, you’re bullying them unmercifully by raising every time you have high board. So even though the “am I getting action?” test says you should switch to strategy C, in reality this is the wrong time to do so because from your opponent’s perspective you’ve already been there for several hands and they’re about ready to try to snap you off. You’re better off waiting for a good hand, because if you do get one soon, you’ll likely get plenty of action on it.

Difficult Games

The “typical game” scenario described above occurs frequently in games at a variety of stakes – it’s more or less the SOP of a poker table until you start playing very high. However, in certain circumstances you may end up playing against substantially more savvy opponents who fully understand the implications of the strategy rho. Issues of game selection aside, you’re going to see very different behavior from them. Rather than having slightly loose behavior as their norm, with tight behavior as an alternative, they’ll be capable of and willing to use all three good strategies and will change between them based on their perceptions of your play. Your only real solution is to do the same and try to outguess them. This is more than a feel thing than anything, and is perhaps the most advanced general poker skill. I don’t know of any way to teach the skill per se, but if you want to read about an algorithmic approach that’s very clever which was developed for another game with a 3-strategy rho, check this and this out.  There are some good ideas that could be adapted to poker buried in there.

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