ok so interesting topic and I've seen so many people throw the word around and they have no understanding of what it really means. So first let me define how it is used in the most basic sense:
Balancing is the act of taking a line that will be sub-optimal in one spot to increase our expectation in other spots.
One example is preflop raise sizes. Say we're on the button everyone folds to us in an nlhe game and we have AA. Obviously we're going to raise for value. How much do we want to raise though? Hold that thought. Same situation, only now we have 34s. It's strong enough that we can raise and have some postflop value, but the raise is essentially a bluff. So against somewhat normal thinking opponents we can minraise the 34s to give us a cheap bluff and raise to 5x with AA for max value. Right?
Wrong, and this is the essence of balance. Even the most unobservent opponents will pick up if you raise to different sizes based on hand strength, and they can adjust to this and play better against you. Even though if you are an unknown and the first hand you sit down at the table you probably would be more profitable with a raise to 4 or 5 BBs because they'd assume it was your normal raise size. So you give up the value or give yourself worse odds
on the bluff and take the action that allows you to take the best line with your overall range while not giving away information. This is the basics of balancing.
First thing, there is no point to balancing against unobservent opponents. If you're in a live game and everyone is absolutely horrible and drunk out of their minds not paying attention to anything but their own cards (sometimes) then why not raise to 5 BBs with AA and 2 with 34s? If your opponent will not notice or will not adjust to you taking an unbalanced line, there is no reason to balance.
Now everything up to this point I consider pretty basic and everyone I believe has at least a decent understanding of this. I just wanted to set the framework for when other balancing spots happen that are much more interesting. Say the flop comes JT9 rainbow. Even without flush draws there are a lot of hands that cbet this flop for value. QJ/KJ/AJ/JT/T9/J9/99/TT/JJ/QQ/KK/AA all bet this flop for value most likely. Why? Because they believe a worse hand will call them a lot. Keep that last sentence in your brain and see if you can spot the contradiction before I point it out. Then they think since their value range is so large they must have to bluff it a lot too. You see the contradiction? We value bet a lot of hands because we think there are a lot of hands they will call us with that are worse. Now when we bluff a lot we totally contradict the point of what our value bets accomplish. All of a sudden calling this flop very wide is not all that bad and it's no longer a mistake. Not to say you should never bluff this, just that if you balance your range perfectly on this board, it basically makes it impossible to make a mistake.
It may not be clear so let's go completely away from poker, to rock paper siscors. Now you're going to play this guy for a few hours. For whatever reason you know he is going to start out playing rock 100% of the time. What would you do? Well you could perfectly balance your range and go rock 33% paper 33% and siscors 33%. But then no matter what he does he's not making a mistake and his 100% rock strategy still wins the same amount as it loses. What about a 100% paper strategy? That's similar to cbetting the above board for value all the time and never as a bluff. It will probably work a few times, then he'll realize what you're doing and adjust. Playing 100% rock in RPS is a pretty big mistake so allowing him to realize it and correct it is definitely not good for us.
So what can we do? Seems like I'm saying balancing is bad but also playing unbalanced is bad, so which is it? Allow me to present an alternative. Against his 100% rock we instead play a 40% paper 30% rock and 30% siscoors strategy. All of a sudden we're still exploiting his mistake, but he may not realize it. He'll do thousands of matches, keep losing slowly and keep blaming the site for being rigged or think he just runs so bad when in reality he's being slowly exploited yet doesn't even realize how. This is how we want to play. We still want to be capable of cbetting a wet flop like that with air and we want our opponents to think we do it far more often than we do, because our exploitation comes when we bet and they call.
In fact here's a little something I read by a high-stakes HU player recently. He said that he will take a sub-optimal line some small percentage of the time and do his very best to show it down. So if he 3-bets 38o in the blinds and flops an 8 and thinks he has the best hand on the river, he may decide not to go for thin value because he thinks not many other worse hands will call but worse that most hands, better or worse, will fold. And after he has taken the slightly -ev play, he wants to make it pay off with the image/balance. For example who saw the Dwan hand where he 5-bet Howard Lederer with 68o? He certainly doesn't do that often but say you're playing him with a hand like 99 and he 5-bets you deep. Your thought process may be something like "**** it I have a good hand I know he can do this with 68o so his range is really wide I'm all-in". And even someone that aggressive is likely to have a hand the majority of the time he 5-bets, and you'll curse that he had the top of his range with AA and that most of the time you're good there.
So I guess these are the points to be made about balancing:
1. There is no use in balancing something against an unthinking opponent. If an opponent doesn't understand wet/dry flops there is no need to balance against him. If an opponent just plays his own cards there's no reason to balance cbets. We know he'll miss most of the time and he won't adjust so we can cbet 100% against this player.
2. The more observant/good an opponent is, the more spots we do have to somewhat balance. We just need to realize that if we balance 100% in a certain spot our edge in that spot is 0. Of course there are certain spots where this is fine but if our overall gameplan has an edge of 0 than we may as well quit.
3. While balancing is indeed used to avoid from being exploited, more specifically it's to disguise how we are exploiting another player. It is meant to make our opponent specifically make a mistake in estimating our range and thus allow him to think he's playing against one range when he's really playing against another which his strategy does not work so well against.
So this has mostly been theoretical up to this point, let's get into some situations:
The following is a hand posted on 2p2 that sparked a debate that actually got me thinking more about balancing in the first place:
Hand was posted by a pretty solid reg who said opponent was also a solid reg who was a bit on the aggro side:
$600.00 No Limit Hold'em - 8 players
($9.00) Hero is BTN with 7
, Hero raises to $12
, SB calls $9, 1 fold
($30.00) J[image: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/images/smilies/heart.gif] 7[image: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/images/smilies/club.gif] 7[image: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/images/smilies/spade.gif] (2 players)
SB checks, Hero bets $18.00
, SB calls $18
($66.00) 3[image: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/images/smilies/heart.gif] (2 players)
SB checks, Hero bets $42.00
, SB raises to $174
, Hero calls $132
($414.00) 8[image: http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/images/smilies/spade.gif] (2 players)
SB bets $396.00
, Hero ???
Now here's the thing, hero has a pretty strong absolute hand in trips here but not a very good relative one. We need to think of the hands villain in this hand could have. He calls a minraise preflop which means his range is still pretty wide. Then he calls the flop bet oop which most likely eliminates all total air out of his range. He could possibly have a straight draw, a 7, a J, or even any pocket pair that doesn't raise preflop because he thinks it's good. Then we see a turn check/raise. Hero has bet twice when he could have basically all the nut hands including a ton of trips as we have in this spot along with jacks full, overpairs, Jx, etc. Yet he still decides to raise. We have trips so we call. Then an 8 rivers, hitting one of the gutshots. He then nearly pots it basically for basically his stack (think he had like a few bucks behind).
Anyway without going too far into it I think this is a river fold, as did the hero in this hand. There are not enough hands he bluffs with and no hand bets for value that is worse than hero's hand. But some people said this is super-exploitable, which is a code term for it's not balanced. If we bet a wide range on the flop/turn and then fold all but basically the nuts on the river, he can do this nearly 100% of the time profitably right? But that doesn't matter. What really matters is does he do it 100%? How often exactly does he bluff here? Unless he knows for a fact that we fold trips (and if we fold here it still doesn't give him that info, for all he knows we had QJ), he can't possibly expect us to fold them. This is an example of a spot that rarely comes up. He's not going to have thousands of hands like this to see what range we call with and what range we fold, so there is no need to balance in this spot just because all it does is spew money. Sure I agree he has a non-zero bluffing
frequency here. But I don't think he is bluffing enough for us to have odds to call here. We beat 0 of his bluffing range.
I also mentioned and most people agreed, that if we have J2 in this spot we have the exact same hand. He never does this with a better jack or overpair and never has a worse kicker based on preflop. So people brought up this idea, that we can't be folding too much here, that J2 is the same as 47 here, so we call some percentage of the time with the hands between J2 and 47 just to counter being able to be bluffed all over the place, and what better way to do this by just picking the top of your range and calling with that? I certainly think this idea has merit and if your opponent is picking up on your tendencies and forcing you to balance these spots it is definitely the way to go. Even though J2 and 47 have the same equity maybe in this spot you call with QQ+/7x and fold all jacks. Maybe call with AJ too. It doesn't matter but it's a decent way to balance without worrying about actually staying balanced. But I still believe in this hand that balance is over-rated and that our opponent will never see how we act in this situation enough to realize we're actually able to lay down trips.
Which brings up another important point. When we make a river fold, what exactly are we exploiting? His range beats our hand, so we fold. So if he knows this it's not the end of the world he'll just start bluffing more and we can in turn adjust by calling more again. Basically I'm trying to say it's different from the 100% rock scenario because even if he does think we call with a wider range and not bluff enough against us it's not a huge mistake that's easy to exploit like the 100% rock was.
So basically my overall point is that balance is over-rated, and that many midstakes players do it way too much. Most likely they just want to make an action (most of the time bet or raise), so they do and they need an excuse so they use balance. Like I said, balance, especially against tough opponents, is certainly important, but some people go too far and strive to play a theoretically perfect game. And who can blame them for thinking it's good? It has the word perfect in it. You can't be exploited. The only problem is the reason your opponent can not exploit you is because all decisions are neutral. This means that your opponent can not make a mistake either and as a corolary you can't be exploiting them. No exploitation means no money, and this means you will lose to rake. So next time you're in a spot where you are tempted to make a play for balance and so you'll get paid off later, think about maybe passing on it and taking the sub-optimal play a bit less than you normally would. It doesn't mean you should start playing all hands in a vacuum, but it does mean you should think about what the best play is in a vacuum and attempt to take that line more often and only occasionally the other line. You want it in your opponents' minds that every time you 3-bet you could have 39o, but against opponents who call too many 3-bets and stack off too lightly 39o should be the exception rather than the rule. Because even if you 3-bet 39o and flop 2 pair to stack top pair only once, they will remember it for a long time and thus assign way too large a weight to you having it. You could do that once and then 3-bet only AA for the rest of the month and near the end of the month they'd still probably stack JJ off against you just because they think you could have 39o.
And that is how we profit from balance, not from taking a perfect GTO approach and adjusting our bluff percentage to the odds we offer our opponents so they can never make a mistake. But from taking a sub-optimal line a few times to convince our opponent we have a completely different hand range than we actually have and then using that to exploit them.