The Poker Decision Matrix

Guest Post by Alex Rousso, May 22, 2014


Part 1 – How to use The Matrix

Click to Part 2


Poker has one of the longest learning curves of any game. Trying to learn the game can at first be bewildering. All the talk of odds and strategy seems like alchemy when you only know the basics.


poker matrix

But there’s a simple principle at the heart of the game which will govern 90% of what you need to know. From there, it’s just a question of playing the game, applying that principle and gaining experience.

I’m going to give you a simple tool – a representation of that principle – which will help make the right decisions in a hand of poker. Not just before the flop, but on every street and for pretty much any situation. Believe it or not, even high level pros are enacting an advanced form of what’s presented below; it’s that fundamental.


poker matrix

I’m going to assume you know the very basics of poker – hand values, how betting works, and so on. If you don’t know these things, most poker websites will have a beginners guide explaining them. The matrix below should then serve as your most fundamental learning tool in the game, something that you can keep coming back to.


The basic principle of money-making poker

The principle is this: the way to make money in poker is to lose less from the bad situations and gain more from the good situations than your opponents do. That’s it. That’s money-making poker.


make money in poker

This principle is based on a very important observation: in the long run, everyone gets dealt the same mix of cards – you’ll end up having the same situations as everyone else, in the same frequency. You simply make money in the game by playing each situation more profitably than your opponents do. To be explicit: your task when you get Aces and your opponent gets Kings is to make more money than you lose in the reverse situation, i.e. when you get Kings and your opponent gets Aces . . .

. . . and so on through all the possible permutations in poker. As I say, if you play poker for long enough, eventually all possibilities will befall you in roughly equal measures in comparison to your opponents.

Another way to put it is that poker is a game of mistakes, and the key is to make fewer mistakes than your opponents. This is where the poker decision matrix comes in.

poker decision making chart

The matrix sets your hand against your opponent’s in terms of good hand versus bad hand. This may seem overly simplified, but you can add complexity (e.g. against multiple opponents) as you gain experience. When you start out in poker, the very first distinction you have to make is simply to play the good hands and fold the bad hands.

Before the flop, that’s a question of knowing which are the good hands. Once again, an introductory poker text will explain these.

After the flop, the permutations increase, and that’s where it starts to get more complex. A second distinction arises here. Bad hands (tend to) remain bad hands, but good hands split into two broad categories: those that remain good on their inherent strength (hands like AA, KK, etc.), and those which can improve on the flop. We’ll call these hands “development hands”.


poker is a game of mistakes

Development hands are usually drawing hands such as suited cards, connected cards and low to medium pairs. They all have the potential to develop into major hands (i.e. flushes, straights and sets respectively). Once again, the simple approach at the beginning is to view these hands in a polarized manner. Either they do develop, in which case they are good hands, or they don’t, in which case they are bad. Play the good hands, fold the bad hands, add complexity as you become more experienced.

As I say, you can extrapolate to most eventualities in poker from the matrix. You may have heard, for example, that drawing hands are “semi-bluffing” hands. This simply means that until you hit them, you can assume it’s likely that your opponent has a better hand. If you bet your hand, it’s a bluff: to try to get your opponent to make a mistake by folding a better hand. However, if you hit your draw, you are subsequently betting for value: now you’re trying to get your opponent to call with a worse hand.


Classifying the situations

poker decision maker chart

The key to improving at poker is to get better at knowing whether the hand you hold is better or worse than your opponent’s. It follows that as you get better at the game, more and more of the situations you find yourself in can be pigeonholed as cell B or C in the matrix (see above), and fewer of them will be A and D. All the extra trickery such as reading tells, managing your emotions, understanding table dynamics, categorizing opponent playing styles, and so on, are simply augmentations of that basic approach.

In an ideal world, you’d like it to be clear whether you have the worse or better hand in all the situations you find yourself. That way, you know how you can get your opponent to make a mistake, which is how you make money from the game.

Cells A and D are essentially where you’re in the dark about your hand in comparison with your opponent’s. Those are the tough decisions. The key when you’re a beginner is to simplify your decisions by choosing hands which make it much more likely that you can identify the situation as either a “B” or a “C” rather than an “A” or a “D”.


Getting to intermediate

That covers basic strategy for the beginner. To become an intermediate player, you have to learn how to make more profit, more frequently from the times you find yourself in cells B and C. For the record, advanced players not only excel at these two basic strategies (getting to cells B or C and playing them profitably when you get there), they also excel at determining what to do in cells A and D. In part two, I’ll explain the intermediate strategy in more detail.

poker matrix

The Poker Decision Matrix – Part 2

The fundamental lesson from part 1 was this: beginners get better at poker by pushing more decisions away from cells A and D in the Matrix and towards cells B and C. The distinction we want to make is not between a good hand and a bad hand, but between knowing where we are in a hand versus not knowing where we are (regardless of whether we are ahead of or behind our opponent). Not knowing can be very costly.

So let’s reform the poker decision matrix to study which situations we are more likely to know where we are. This time, we’ll consider each situation in terms of how sensitive it is to information you have about your opponent’s hand:


Matrix 3: Sensitivity to information about your opponent’s hand

poker decision matrix - Sensitivity to information about your opponent’s hand


As you can see, I’ve discounted situations where we have a bad hand. Yes, for many people the appeal of poker is playing a big pot where their opponent finally folds and they get to show 7-3 offsuit proudly, but you rarely see how much money they blow trying to chase that glory. If you want to make money from the game as a beginner, best to keep it simple at first, and deny yourself this conceit.

I’ve also now split the hands we play into development and premium. Let’s consider the six relevant cells in turn, and the kind of things you need to look for to increase your chances of making a profit:


Premium Hand (You) v Premium Hand (Opponent) – Medium/High Sensitivity

This cell is quite high on information sensitivity. But don’t beat yourself up if you lose the lot with your KK against AA. The primary thing here is that by playing tighter, you’ll increase your wins in this cell because your opponents will be more likely to think that weaker hands are premium. For example, more often in a tournament they will go all in with AQ than you do. So you’ll find yourself in more AK v AQ match-ups than the reverse AQ v AK.

As time goes on, you will become more sensitive to the information that’s out there. Some players will only ever four-bet preflop with Aces. To them, you can fold your Kings. Some players will think that all sorts of rubbish is worth gambling with. Against them, you can happily call it all off with Jacks.


titan poker play poker decision matrix 1

Premium Hand (You) v Development Hand (Opponent) – High Sensitivity

To the beginner, and indeed the seasoned pro, this can be one of the trickiest situations to deal with. Is your opponent stubbornly calling with a great made hand, or a draw? When the draw hits and they start betting, are they bluffing or do they have it? This is why this cell is the most highly information sensitive. You can lose your stack here and feel justified in doing so, but will always wonder after the fact whether it was “obvious” that they had it.

Some tips: give more credit to tight players – if they bet, and keep betting, they probably do have it. Loose players come in different shapes and sizes. Some love drawing hands, some love any old trash and just try to represent that they’ve hit. Keep an eye on playing styles throughout the game. Sticking with your hand can be a risk, make sure it’s an informed one.


Premium Hand (You) v Bad Hand (Opponent) – Low sensitivity

This is one of the few areas in poker where ceding control of the hand to your opponent might be more profitable. Dan Harrington called it “rope a dope” because you’re trying to give the impression that you will let your hand go if only you are pushed enough. Sure, occasionally their 8-5 offsuit will hit two pair on the river and you’ll lose a big one, but overall, you’ll make more than you lose, and that’s the name of the game.


(Good) Development Hand (You) v Premium Hand (Opponent) – Low sensitivity

As mentioned in part 1, this is a relatively easy one. Of course, you won’t know that you’re up against a premium hand, but in some cases you can have a good idea. Tight players play premium hands straightforwardly, almost broadcasting how anxious they are not to get their Aces busted AGAIN. It’ll be hard to bluff any kind of opponent with this class of hand, but you can certainly get value from most of them if you hit.


(Good) Development Hand (You) v Development Hand (Opponent) – Medium/Low Sensitivity

This is a funny situation, reminiscent of the Seventies cartoon “Spy vs Spy” where two opponents try ever more to outgun each other. The key here is that your selection of these hands will be tighter than your opponents’. You are more likely to bet nut flush draws (i.e. A-6 suited rather than Q-6 suited) and high straight draws (J-T makes more nut straights than 7-6). If both you and your opponent hit a flush, you’ll have a big pay day.

The reason for the medium element of information sensitivity is because you’ll have a tough decision if you miss. Is your Ace high good anyway so you don’t need to bluff the river? If your opponent has hit, will they let go based on the betting line you’ve taken? Be sensitive to how you’ve bet during the hand and make sure a river bet makes sense to your opponent (as a value bet, I mean!). Players who look like they’ve been drawing for the whole hand and then suddenly bet on the river when the draw hasn’t come in are easy to pick off.

poker decision matrix - Sensitivity to information about your opponent’s hand

(Good) Development Hand (You) v Bad Hand (Opponent) – Medium Sensitivity

The fact that your opponent could have anything won’t help with your marginal hands. Of course, if you hit your draw, that’s the easy part. But if you miss it’s tough to know whether a bluff will get through in this situation. I think this is the most appropriate spot for a so-called “three barrel bluff” – i.e. if you’ve semi-bluffed the flop and the turn with your draw and you think your opponent has nothing brilliant, it’s probably profitable to fire the third barrel on the river. After all, they know you’re tight and probably wouldn’t go this far with nothing. However, at this point in the hand, you should be satisfied that your opponent does not hold a monster and is practising his own “rope-a-dope”.


Alex RoussoAlex Rousso is a food importer, journalist, poker player and coach with a PhD in Memetics - the study of cultural evolution. He has written extensively about winning psychology and risk in everyday life, on topics including financial risk management, game theory, statistical analysis, emotional discipline, and risk psychology. He has a BA from Nottingham University and MSc and PhD from the University of East Anglia. Alex is an Omaha/Omaha-8 specialist and a columnist for Bluff Europe and Titan Poker.


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