Today's poker world looks much different than the one I entered in the late 90s before online poker existed. Back then I was one of a handful of young players playing the game. In fact, I remember watching an old WSOP video from the late 70s where they referred to Bobby Hoff as a "Young Wizard." I think he was in his 30s at the time! Aside from the game getting younger, there are also significant differences to the way people played the game. In this piece, I'm going to talk about the biggest difference: bet sizing.
Before the internet poker boom, when people raised before the flop, they came in for NO LESS than three times the blind, regardless of their stack size. Even short stacked, a player with 15 big blinds would either go all in or make it at least three big blinds. The most surprising part about that is you would often see a player make it "3x" with just 15 blinds and then fold to a raise. With so many young players breaking down short stack play to a science, we now know that this is a mathematical and fundamental mistake. Going all-in can certainly be correct in certain situations, a min-raise followed by a fold can be argued in other cases, but clearly making it 3x with 15 big blinds then folding to a re-raise is almost impossible to justify.
The bet sizing differences don't stop there. The term "clicking it back" has made it's way into the live poker arena, and obviously comes from the online world. Clicking it back just means that you are re-raising a player the minimum. I can't remember ever seeing this tactic used in the late 90s or any time before the poker boom. If a player 3-bet, the sizing was MUCH bigger. Today, a lot of young online players 3-bet sizing looks like this:
Player opens to 300 with 75-150 blinds and the the 3-bettor makes it 750 to 800. Pre-poker boom, those bets would likely look like: 500 from the original raiser, and 2500 from the 3 bettor! A 4-bet would then kick it up to about 10,000. This is one of the key reasons why people didn't 3 and 4-bet light (with a weaker hand) nearly as often as you see today.
Today it's not uncommon to see hands played this way preflop:
Min raise to 300
3-bet to 750
4-bet to 1950
5-bet to 4250
6-bet to 8600
Post flop, the differences continued.There has been a recent trend the past year or so to continuation bet about 35% of the pot. That was unheard of years ago. Regardless of board texture, in the "old days" it was rare to see anyone c-bet less than 80% of the pot. For example, on a K-7-3 rainbow flop, with 1150 in the pot, a c-bet usually came out to about 1000. Today, on that same flop, a bet of 550 is much more common.
In all those years I can only remember two exceptions to these rules. Two gentlemen who were ahead of their time: O'Neil Longston and Alan Goering. Both of these guys were min-raisers. I'd credit O'Neil specifically for shaping a betting system I refer to as "small ball." There was one hand I watched O'Neil play where I had an epiphany and a light bulb clicked.
O'Neil played A LOT of hands and min-raised when he did. If someone 3-bet him, he would just quickly fold and move on to the next hand where he would probably be raising again. Then this one hand came up with blinds at 50-100 and he opened to 200. A younger gentleman re-raised to 800, and O'Neil re-raised to 2,400. The kid went all in for about 9,000 and O'Neil quickly called with KK. The kid turned over 99 and was furious saying, "Geez how unlucky am I. This guy plays every single hand and then against me he finally has something."
I didn't say anything out loud, but I thought to myself, "Wow, O'Neil's chaotic play pre-flop has this kid totally fooled. Sure he raises every hand, but when he had nothing he'd just fold, and when he had the goods he'd play a big pot." So simple yet so genius!
This is one of the key principles behind my small ball approach and what made me so successful in the year 2004. I played a lot of hands for small amounts, but when there was a big pot being played, I simply had the goods. At the time, people just saw me as a young, aggressive, chaotic player, always in there with 3-5 suited and other trashy hands. That much was true. I was playing a lot of bad hands, but I didn't invest a lot of chips with them, and when I hit, my opponents never saw it coming. They didn't understand the difference between my pre-flop chaos (playing every hand) and the fact that post flop, if I missed I just folded. I really wasn't bluffing much at all.
Today, that approach would be considered unbalanced and relatively easy to exploit. Back then, there was simply no need to balance my range by adding bluffs because people hadn't caught on to what I was doing and they simply called me too often. For example: I raise with 6♥4♥ and a guy re-raises me with AA. Flop comes 4-4-2, I could check-raise the flop, bet the turn, and go all in on the river and get called virtually every time. Players today are just too smart for that!
There is no argument against the fact that there are more good players today than in any time in poker's history, and the key reason for that is obviously online poker. I enjoy the game more today because it's harder. This may sound pompous and a bit arrogant, but it's true: the game was just too easy for me back then! I wasn't forced into as many difficult situations, because I could rely solely on a system that was well ahead of it's time. Every great tournament player today incorporates small ball principals. Sure, they've added several new tactics to add to their arsenal, but in terms of bet sizing, virtually every successful tournament player today is doing exactly what I was doing ten years ago. In fact, they've taken it a step further by min-raising even with antes out there, and then lowering c-bets to less than 50% post flop.
I look forward to seeing what other evolutions will occur in this beautiful game, and it's far from solved. For every new tactic, there is a counter-tactic, and I enjoy the process of adapting to the changes and continuing to put up results year after year.