If you’ve been tuning in to PokerGO over the summer period, you’ll have heard – alongside the usual mainstream WSOP commentary from Norman Chad, Lon McEachern and Antonio Esfandiari – some stellar contributions to the commentary booth from analysts such as Nick Schulman, Matt Berkey, Doug Polk and others.
These commentators brought a somewhat more in-depth approach to their analysis, going beyond the entertaining, yet rudimentary and results-oriented comments usually offered by the ESPN team. Schulman, in particular, brought a balanced and accessible approach that should see him occupy a spot in the commentary booth for many years to come.
If you were paying attention to Schulman’s strategic insights, you’ll have heard him mention the same phrase on many an occasion – ‘equity denial’. Since this particular piece of terminology is fast becoming a crucial part of the poker strategy lexicon, let’s unpack what exactly it means.
What is equity denial?
Equity denial is, quite simply, the act of forcing your opponent to fold a hand that has a reasonable amount of equity against your current holding, or your current range. This is frequently a benefit to the betting player, rather than a detriment – while we do like it when our opponents call our bets with hands that don’t have enough equity to justify a call, this is less so when we have a marginal or middle-strength hand.
Imagine a scenario where the flop comes T-8-4 with a flush draw. With a hand like, say, pocket sixes on that board, you rate to have the best hand with a fairly high frequency, and a continuation bet might be termed a value bet, simply because your opponent is unlikely to fold anything better
On the other hand, though, even the weakest part of your opponent’s calling range is likely to have two overcards to your sixes, giving it around 25% equity, and villain’s flush draws will probably also have overcards to your pair at this point, giving them more than 50% equity against you, so is this hand really strong enough to bet?
Well, yes, in many cases it is. The reason is fairly simple – if you have a marginal hand on a somewhat dynamic board, you stand to lose the pot fairly often by the river, either through your opponent making a stronger hand, or through lack of visibility and being forced to fold the best hand. Betting for equity denial on the flop, particularly on dynamic boards, forces your opponent to fold many hands that have both a combination of some equity, and the opportunity to bluff you out of the pot on future streets.
Generally, it’s a good idea to bet for equity denial if your hand is vulnerable against your opponent’s check-folding range. That means, if you can make them fold two overcards when you have bottom pair, that’s not a bad result. Even if you can make them fold K-Q on a T-high flop, that’s not the worst result – they have some backdoors as well as overs. In some cases, villains will comfortably fold hands that actually have upwards of 35% equity, which is a great result when we have a marginal hand.
Why has it suddenly become popular?
A number of reasons. Firstly, the commentary of players like Schulman has alerted some low-stakes players to the existence of the concept. Secondly, books like Matthew Janda’s excellent Applications of No-Limit Hold’em have explored the concept in some detail, and given players a solid grounding in how to approach the concept. Finally, and most importantly, players have begun running extensive calculations with GTO solvers, and noticing specific patterns on a regular basis.
These patterns are easily recognizable to anyone who does a lot of solver work. Solvers will frequently recommend turning middle-pair or bottom-pair hands into bluffs on many boards, and they will rarely recommend doing frequent bluff-catching when the board is more dynamic – indeed, the act of playing marginal made hands passively is something solvers actively seem to avoid. This tendency among almost all solver technology has convinced players that equity denial is much more important than was previously thought – and they’re right.
When should we pay attention to it?
Equity denial is most important on more dynamic boards. That is to say, boards with lower cards, straight draws, and flush draws on them. This is simply because there are a greater number of hands in players’ ranges on these boards that can draw out to a particularly strong hand – for example, on a flop of 2-2-2, any two overcards have six outs to a full house, and any Ace-high has three outs to the near-nuts. On an Ace-high or King-high board, however, many hands will be drawing dead against top pair, and thus there are far fewer hands that benefit from denying equity to weak hands – maybe only middle-pair type hands which might lose to two overcards, such as 8-7 wanting to get K-Q to fold on a flop of A-8-3 rainbow.
Denial is also a lot more important on the flop than on the turn, simply because equities begin to diverge on the turn. However, that doesn’t mean its importance disappears on the turn – if our opponent calls the flop with a draw and bricks the turn, giving them a free second chance on the river can be disastrous. On boards with many draws, we should be prepared to barrel the turn for value fairly thinly, in order to prevent giving free cards to marginal hands, or putting ourselves in an awkward bluff-catching spot.
There is some ambiguity as to whether it really exists as a concept preflop. Obviously the ability to exert fold equity over our opponents with a preflop raise or a 3-bet is an important concept, but because the board is not yet established, we’re not so much denying equity as we are simply looking to construct a balanced 3-betting range, with a view forward to what might happen postflop. There are some hands, like middle pocket pairs and Ace-King, where we might be tempted to think that equity denial (in the form of a larger preflop raise) might be a more appropriate strategy, but this will only end up with our ranges face-up – keeping our range disguised preflop is very important.
Beware of the ‘hive mind’
Finally, when you’re considering issues of equity denial in analyzing a hand, remember that as this concept becomes more and more well-known, it’s going to become something that everyone focuses on way too much. Players are going to start c-betting the flop with entirely depolarized ranges in about a year or two from now, and eventually their checking-back ranges in certain spots will become extremely weak.
Whenever you’re incorporating a new concept into your game at the same time as a lot of other players are doing, ask yourself how you yourself might exploit that specific tendency, because the chances are that that knowledge will come in handy down the line. In this specific case, you might consider doing a lot more check-raising on certain boards, or adopting more frequent leading ranges – there are a number of options. As long as you’re willing to consider carefully how to put your opponents in tough spots, those solutions will become clearer and clearer over time.