Notes on Lesson 1: Introduction to Poker Theory – MIT Poker Theory and Analytics with Kevin Desmond

Click here to see my notes on other lessons in this course.

Lecturer Kevin Desmond is a great lecturer (and just seems like a cool guy!), so while these notes cover all of the material discussed in the lecture, it’s still worth checking out some of the actual videos if you have the time or if you’re confused about a concept.

Now on to the content…


Learning Structure

Desmond recommends an obvious-but-worth-stating structure for learning poker.

  1. Learn basic techniques
  2. Practice a lot: apply the concepts in real-time, develop rules-of-thumb, identify factors impacting your live performance
  3. Learn advanced techniques
  4. More practice!

Then dives into some basic techniques, starting with…


Stack Size


Considering your effective stack size is crucial in deciding whether to play a hand, regardless of whether an opponent actually calls all-in.

If the effective stack size is large (relative to your stack), minimize the range of cards you’re willing to play and stick just to the strongest hands. Minimizing your range means you’ll only play your best hands. This is to minimize the risk of being pot-committed (when your stack is so small relative to the pot that the most logical way forward is to go all-in) on a mediocre hand.

If the effective stack size is small, however, be willing to play a wider range. This means you have lots of big blinds left in the event that you lose, so you can play riskier hands.


Different Playing Styles

Recognizing your opponents’ playing style can help you during decision points. (Decision points are when you are deciding to check forward, place a bet, call a bet, or fold.)

There are four main playing styles, determined by two factors: betting frequency and calling frequency.

There’s two main takeaways from knowing the various playing styles:

  1. Adjust your strategy based on your opponents’ playing style
  2. Improve your playing strategy by identifying where you stand


Know Thy Opponent

Use your knowledge of your opponents’ playing style to predict how they may respond to your playing behavior.

Desmond doesn’t go into too much further detail here, but I’ll share from my experience and other readings.

If you’re up against a calling station and can reasonably expect a showdown, avoid cold bluffs. If you cold bluff and get called to showdown, your opponent can beat you even with a marginal hand. But when you’re confident you’ve got the strongest hand at the table, then take as much from the calling station as you can by betting the biggest bets you’re confident they’ll call.

When against a tag (tight-aggressive) who is betting big, be more inclined to fold, especially in the later streets (the turn and river). This is because tags play for value and are less likely to bluff.

When against a lag (loose-aggressive), exploit their weakness (loose – playing too many hands) by letting them push forward with aggressive bets when you have a strong hand. This disguises your hand while increasing the pot size.


Know Thy Self

Either by playing online and checking your HUD stats or by tracking yourself using poker tracking software, get to know what category of player you are.

Passive players are the worst players. You want to be a tag or a lag. If you’re passive, focus on distinguishing between strong hands you can bet bigger with and weak hands you should fold pre-flop. If you’re a tag or lag, get to know the relative strengths and weaknesses of each strategy (which you can learn here and here).


The M Ratio

The M ratio makes it a lot easier to think about and talk about hands in tournaments.

If blinds are 50/100 and you have 1000 chips in your stack, thinking in M-ratios allows you to calculate decisions the same way as you would if you’re playing 5/10 with a stack of 100.

Here’s how it works.

M = {your effective stack} / {blinds + antes}

This shows you how many rounds of poker you can play if you fold every hand. (A round defined as how long it takes for big blind to go all of the way around the table. For example, at a ten-handed table, one round would be 10 hands.)

Your M-ratio can help you determine an “optimal” playing strategy. See the chart below from Wikipedia.

Click here to see my notes on other lessons in this course.