Poker Schooling

How Bad Players Play Less Bad

Poker Schooling Morton's TheoremďOut for summer, out till fall, we may never come back at allĒ -- Alice Cooper

Schooling is a belittling term used to describe what weak-loose poker players do as a defense mechanism. (Sheep flock; fish school.) If a pot is fairly small on the turn in Holdem, and the player with the best hand bets, any single player with only a gutshot draw will be making a significant mistake by calling. But now suppose several other people call too, with different gutshot draws. Because these other players are playing bad also, now the pot has grown to the point where the gutshot draws are getting better pot odds on their calls. These bad calls "school" together and miraculously become not-so-bad calls!

Schooling is part of the reason many reasonable players complain that they are unable to beat loose games. Everybody going to the river, sucking out every possible draw, how can a sensible player make a hand "hold up" and beat such a game? Well, itís not hard really. A winning player merely wins money differently (and with higher variance) in these games. Schooling is actually profitable to good, winning players, but it does take a little analysis to see why. One column can't do justice to this topic, but maybe an example will help some people start having the right idea on how to view schooling.

Suppose you are playing $10/20 Holdem. In the big blind you have A9 (suits donít matter here). Six people limp in, you check. The flop is AT5. Not so great, but you bet to see what happens.  All six of your opponents call. Uh-oh, you start thinking about checking and mucking on the turn. But the turn card miraculously comes another Ace! You bet $20 into the $140 pot.

Via the magic of being able to make this stuff up, it turns out our six opponents have KQ, KJ, QJ, 43, 42, and 32. Of the 34 possible remaining cards in the deck, only 2 make a winner for each individual opponent. Thatís 16-1 against them. When it comes to the first player, letís say the KQ, he has to put in $20 at $160. Heís only getting 8-to-1 on a 16-to-1 draw. Bad call. But now as each subsequent player also calls, when it gets around to the 32, he has to put in $20 at a $260 pot. Heís getting 13-to-1 on his 16-to-1 draw. His call is not nearly so bad as the KQís call! Thatís schooling, but the schooling of the other players has now also turned the KQís call into not nearly so bad a call -- likewise for all the other players.

But we donít care about them, we care about our A9. If everybody had folded when we bet the turn, we get the $140. After 100 times, weíd be $14,000 ahead. But now what about when they all call? It turns out that A9 will end up winning about 65% of the time. So, after a hundred times, 65 times we get another $120 (six turn calls of $20 each), assuming nobody ever tries to bluff or calls a bet by us on the river. The 35% of the time we lose, we lose our $20 turn bet, plus any action on the river. Just to pick some numbers, I suggest we lose one bet on the river 50% of the time (when the river card is a king, queen or jack) and two bets the other 50% of the time (when the river card comes a four, three or deuce). So we lose an average of $30 on the river -- $50 total that 35% of the time the school draws out on us. What this works out to be is a decent extra profit per hand for the A9. The schooling helped our opponents, but it is still more profitable for us for them all to call -- to the tune of about $11.50 a hand. (65 wins of $260 = $16,900. 35 losses of $50 = $1750. Total profit = $15,150, or $1150 more than the $14,000. Also note that the 35 times we lose, we lose the $20 we invested in the pot to that point, or $700. However, that is not what we are analyzing here. We are looking at our situation on the turn. That $20 is already in the pot. It isnít ours anymore. The before the flop action and flop calls by the other players have their own schooling ramifications.)

Now some people might prefer getting the $14,000 profit after 100 incidents of hands like this with everybody folding when our A9 bets the turn -- zero variance, win 100% of the time. It is about $1150 more profitable though for the A9 to live with the variance of having everybody calling. Most important, the fact that all these folks are calling/schooling is not a dramatically bad thing. A good player playing properly will do just fine against schooling opponents.

But itís not that simple. If we change the 43 and 42 to 77 and 66, now we are going to win only 59% of the time, with that other 6% (the difference between our 65% and 59%) of the wins going to the 32. The 32 now snares a bunch of the profit in the hand, to the point that we would prefer that everybody would fold, and we just take the $140 each time. However, the A9 is still making money from people playing poorly by calling the turn bet, it just so happens that sometimes the main beneficiary of schooling is the best draw out there (the 32), not the best hand. Sometimes the second best hand benefits the most (in this case the 32 goes from a losing hand to a profitable one when everybody else calls), it all depends on the actual hands and how good their draws are, and how strong the best/most-likely-to-win hand is.

Schooling games give good players two main ways to win -- by either playing the best made hand or the best draw. There is more money to be made overall, but you have to make sure your game adapts to get the profit from both these ways.

You beat a schooling game the same way you beat any other game -- play smart, appropriate poker.

See also The Battle for the Blinds and other Texas Hold'em Basics