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Published Friday, January 8th, 2016 in

What is meta-game in poker?

This week we’re discussing ‘meta-game’ in poker (specifically texas hold’em). You’ve probably heard this term thrown around, whether it’s around the poker table or through online chat; it’s often used tongue-in-cheek and shortened to ‘meta’, but this term is a legitimate style of play in poker that can have extremely positive returns when applied correctly.

How did meta-game first start?

Meta-game has been around since cognition first evolved, it is a form of deception that relies on your understanding of how another individual might react i.e. “you wouldn’t expect me to do that, so I’ll do it and you won’t expect it”. The fundamentals of meta-game are explained through the economic theory ‘game theory’, a theory that describes how individuals can make optimal/rational decisions under a set of circumstances. If you are not familiar with game theory, you should watch the short video below on The Prisoner’s Dilemma which shows eloquently just how game theory is applied:

Game theory and meta-game

The problem with game theory is that it makes a number of assumptions that do not apply in the real world. For example, game theory assumes perfect information, and that everyone acts rationally with no other influencing factors. For example, what would happen if the same game was played over and over? The answer (when considering a poker hand) is that both players will begin to understand how the other plays, and both will begin making seemingly irrational decisions that are indeed rational based on the history between the two. This is where meta-game comes in – or simply put, the double, triple, quadruple (and so on) bluff.

One of the more famous examples of meta-game being applied at the poker table is this hand between high-stakes cash game players, Tom Dwan and Barry Greenstein. Both players have played thousands of hours against each other, and both have a very good understanding of how the other plays. The decision making process for both is fascinating to watch, but had this been the first time the two had played each other, the result would have likely been very different. The reason the hand plays out in this way is because Dwan chooses to play an extremely aggressive meta-game, resulting in Greenstein having enormous difficulty placing Dwan on a particularly hand or range of hands.

Why meta-game works

Dwan is a notoriously loose/aggressive player, regularly bluffing with less than a pair. For this reason, Greenstein cannot possibly put Dwan on a specific enough range. For example, Dwan could be playing trip 2’s, a full house, or nothing at all. All three of those possibilities are absolutely plausible because Dwan has a history of playing in such a loose style. Dwan knows this, and despite being behind, is able to put enough doubt in Greenstein’s mind that he’s able to win an enormous pot with a far worse hand.

Meta-game becomes most important when the two or more players in a hand are aware of the other player’s strengths and understanding of poker i.e. “this bluff is obvious, therefore you won’t think I’m bluffing”. Where meta-game falls down is when playing inexperienced poker players who have little knowledge of how others play and therefore meta-game becomes largely redundant i.e. “this bluff is obvious, so I’m calling you down”. In these instances, it is best to play a standard tight/aggressive game and waiting for low risk opportunities.

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