Sunday, June 2, 2013

Why are there blinds in poker?

If you found yourself asking this question, I congratulate you on thinking about the fundamental theory of poker. This shows that you are approaching the game with an eye towards “why” instead of “how.” Of course the “whys” are usually much harder to figure out. This question isn’t too hard, though.

Blinds are what creates the incentive for action in a poker game. If there were no blinds, it would be correct to play only pocket aces and there would be no monetary incentive to do otherwise.

In fact, in a raked game where all the players played a game theory optimal strategy, the equilibrium strategy would be to fold 100% of hands. If you played pocket aces one of two things would happen. You would bet and no one would call and you win nothing. Or you would run into the other combination of pocket aces and split the pot, but lose money to the rake. Folding every hand would be unexploitable.

Conversely folding every hand at a six max no limit hold’em game with small blind of X and big blind of 2X would lose at a catastrophic rate of 50bb per 100 hands. Even a very small blind (remember that everything is relative to stack sizes, not monetary value) changes the very simple and boring game of folding every hand to a very complicated and unsolved game.

Once that first player has enough of a reason to play more than pocket aces, the floodgates open. That first raise induces the possibility of reraising and representing a stronger hand or calling with implied odds to create a stronger, but disguised hand. Or it could simply be a bluff like in a blind stealing attempt. All types of consideration come into play now, such as position and table image.

Then you get to a flop and the number of variables to consider multiply even more. The turn and the river make everything each time an order of magnitude more difficult to find an optimal solution for. The complexity of poker is also highly correlated with stack depth relative to the blinds, but we will leave that for another time.

In essence the blinds means there is money to take and someone has to act to get that money. Even if everyone folds to the small blind, he has to call (add money), just to claim the pot. Otherwise the big blind is the winner, as he pockets the small blind when every player has folded. Next time you are having fun playing poker, don’t forget to thank the blinds for their role in making this an awesome game.