Hand Histories: Why and How

the mistress of hand histories

Hand histories are both overrated and underrated, but if done correctly, can be entirely useful for the writer, reader, and all participants. Critics of hand histories or of poker forums, such as Matt Berkey, and no doubt others, have suggested, correctly, that concepts and questions are more important, but what that side of the argument can miss is a deeper truth in their desire to rise above the x’s and o’s:

A hand history is never about the hand itself.

What hand histories ultimately reveal are what players think about. They are samples, and who cares about the sample on its own? Does any one hand ultimately matter, even if the poster thinks it does? (And who cares about that guy.) Why would you obsess over one hand if you played it, and why would you criticize one play in a million if you read about it? You don’t cover your house with the swatch.

The idea is bigger: Every hand you play intertwines with every other hand you play.bedtime

Therefore hand histories, however petty and dismissable by the Big Picture Pandas, are a key, a clue, a window into the mind of a player. Hand histories are the tip of the iceberg, the exposed part of the important, deeper layers worth pondering. That’s why good players and good commenters rarely say things like “I don’t mind”… “Your line isn’t terrible, bro,” “I like a,” “____ing is fine…” etc, etc., because those types, who think they have just been (happily) called by a pollster, the Armchair Quarterback Signal shining above their Poker Gotham, miss the point: hand histories are a biopsy, not a Hot Topic which requires their imperial thumbs up or down.

Even faux scientific poker questions shouldn’t be settled by a vote, and neither should your poker thought process.

The most common lesson learned from a hand history has nothing to do with the poster’s stated question. He or she writes up a hand, wondering about some spot or how they got there. Then it is revealed by commentators that the problem came much earlier, or somewhere else. New ideas emerge, a reference is made, connections form. Perhaps, even, a pattern begins to emerge between hand histories. That’s important and telling.

So hand histories, at heart, really can be about the big questions and concepts, all triggered by the mundane details of a single hand.

That’s why Hand histories remain a powerful learning tool. To reach their full potential, however, the recapitulation has to be done well. How do we (because it’s not just about you) get the most out of your hand history? Well, let’s back up and set expectations more realistically: to even just avoid getting poor feedback (including no feedback), there is important information that is necessary as well as certain standards of content that are required. Let’s go through the most relevant stuff and then look at some examples.

Hand History Guide

  1. Background.
    1. Stakes and type of game. This, combined with something pertinent, often work well as a title.
    2. Gameflow is the trump card of information and necessary for dealing with ambiguous, marginal situations like the ones most of you want to post. What is Gameflow? It is the intersection of the strategic and tactical styles of the players with what has been happening at the table, and further, with what everyone involves thinks about it. It is the game beyond your boring +EV line, and where all the above the rim stuff happens.
    3. Villain description(s). Getting past the generalities of gameflow, our villain is the opponent and deserves special attention. While he may be a crusher or a donator– these and all others are generalities – we need to move past high concept information and now get specific. So say you want to call someone a fish. What does this player do to make you think he is a fish, or a LAG or a pro, or a _____? Answering that question, using this answer as a description, and then removing the general label that created it is the nut high of hand history writing.
  2. The Basics.
    1. Effective stacks if not complete stacks, especially for multiway hands, are the most decisive aspect of a poker hand. Also, it is best to be consistent: if you put one effective stack in the Background, why are you putting another in the Action? That’s just not good organization and makes the reader go back and forth. At heart, NL is all about stack size, and if you blow this one, what does anything else matter? Your cards are just pieces of equity which relate to the stack sizes, yet posters again and again prove they think this is an afterthought by omitting them, all or in part. Try this: run a hand history with cards but no stacks, then stacks but no cards. Which one is much more interesting? Which handicap is worse?
    2. Positions. This one seems obvious right? But EP is less informative than UTG, and CO is more helpful than LP. Can you think of why that is? And don’t forget what position Hero is (besides the center of the universe). Buried in this one should get us Number of Opponents – a small but sometimes vital fact that you need to include if your formatting doesn’t cover it.
    3. Yes, Cards. However, if you don’t include the suits, players can’t think through all the possibilities of the hand. You’re asking them to think like you do and then want them to give a differing opinion. See the problem? (Actually some of you don’t want a differing opinion. Oy.)
  3. Action
    1. There are various ways to do this, but just like a poker hand, the action will be easiest to understand if you got the earlier streets, what I called the Basics, right. So however you list the action, whether you put comments between the streets or make asides, get this stuff right.
      1. List Pot size on every street. We didn’t come to do arithmetic for you, that’s your job. Are you one of those kitchens that gets a salad order and then puts the dressing on the side? The reader should be focusing on patterns and gleaning information, but then you make him figure out, and often worse, correct your addition.
      2. Clear sequence of actions. You can do this various ways but consistency and simplicity are the watchwords. List each street separated by a space, or, in other words, consider a street analogous to a paragraph.
      3. While listing the community cards on each street, suits are not optional they must be there!
    2. Text
      1. Short paragraphs. There is more than one way to scratch this cat (felines should not be skinned, flayed, or dismembered in any way), but it seems that some people just can’t organize a half-page driblet of information. If people want walls of insane text, they can read this blog. If you have a clear sequence of actions followed by a space, you will have room for pertinent commentary, and your reader will naturally pause to reflect.
      2. English only at the table. Your garbled internetese may work for you and your friends, but you are communicating with people across the planet. Like, literally, man. Some of them are using English as a second or third language. So write coherently with words that are words or expect only feedback from people like yourself. (As as side note, if you spell losing with a word for releasing an arrow I do assume you are a complete idiot.)
      3. Hand Receipts are not Hand Histories. If you’re fortunate enough to be playing online, where everything except your cursing in the chat box is automated, your site or client or HUD will spit out a pile of numbers and names which give a complete overview of the situation. In general you’ll have to clean up this poker shopping data, as it’s more of a receipt than a story, heavy on unimportant information, unclear positional distinctions, and obviously, no metagame info at all.
  4. A note on Results:
    1. Giving the result of the hand prematurely is a gigantic error and pours water on the fire. I recommend an arbitrary waiting period of one week – this may be too long but it’s better than the opposite. Hidden spoilers are not a good idea.
    2. That said it is also error to think that you should never post the results. Learning about what Villain showed up with and reworking his logic is just another aspect of the hand and useful to the people who took their time to help you. (Plus it’s fun to know.)
    3. Results also point to the give and take nature of the hand history: it’s not all about you, and if you spoil the result immediately, we see through your reason for posting.

Hand History Examples

Simple hand history that works well.

No background, missing basic information (suits) make this one less effective than it could be.the mistress

Multistreet hand with exceedingly clear action.

Great hand made harder to read than necessary.

Mixing Background with Action made this one a little hard to follow.

Very clear but note how you have to go to two places to find (only some of) the effective stacks. Also note staggered action sequence instead of linear description; that works.

Disaster

Tying It All Together

Now we can complete our argument. If hand histories are really not about the hand, we should see evidence of this and in fact learn much about a player by looking at multiple hand histories from one poster. While we do this, consider how valueless the single hand sometimes is. Here are two recent and prime examples of how strung together, hand histories are shown to really be about concepts and questions.

These two hands reveal much about the OP. Separately, we see a prudent decision making process. We can focus on some preflop things or tweak some other marginalia… but something else is going on that is ten times bigger. Can you figure out what it is and how it influences OP’s poker future? Taken separately we might never deduce it, passing over two hands awash in the forum debris.

After a long buckshot series of RC posts, poster Kagey nails down rabid poster Austin as a “Hammer”: together the two players go on to quite the dialogue. This appellation for Austin is useful, because Kagey has used a series of separately uninformative hands to learn something profound about Austin’s game. This, in turn, should allow deeper questions to be asked. How should Austin be playing this short stacked game? Is Austin even wrong to try to eat up equity in a game structure where hands want to fight back by felting themselves lightly? In other words, is being a Hammer in fact right? How is such a game beaten? Separately, Austin’s posts are less valuable, often featuring low information (villian=fish, etc.) and a confirmatory bias, yet taken as a whole a bigger picture emerges. Austin produces a body of work. See how one hand leads into the next. For example, consider a very important one among all these posts, the 98 hand; can you think of why a lead there is not only best, it is fundamentally sound? Clue: Ask yourself what the purpose of a x/r is. And then connect it to this hand, where Austin gives away the game by being indifferent to the options: deep insight into his game and how he might improve it.

Conclusion

Every poker forum is full of these opportunities to get the most out of your single hand history, provided you think beyond the one hand you are posting or responding to, and instead think of a body of poker work. It’s true that with a lack of focus and attention, there is nothing more dull or uninteresting than a hand history; just clicking on a poker forum makes me want to throw up sometimes. Yet with proper formatting and detail, just one hand, and certainly the intersection of multiple hands – can help produce as deep an insight as any other form of poker learning,

The body of work I referenced was not a casual phrase. When you take all these factors, your whole history combined with the history of who you play with, you can begin to find answers that elude you, and more importantly, open up questions you were not even thinking of asking. You can develop a personal style from examining and being examined, one that will lead you well past the shackles of static ranges, “right” play, or whatever has been troubling you. It is from here that you can answer tough questions, even (recent) concrete ones such as when to limp, or when to bet your underpair and why. It is in this way that a seemingly dull hand history, one that on the surface seems undynamic and hopelessly specific, can become the beginning of an insight that will change your whole game and be the difference between long-term winning and losing.

sexy 8

 

This post was shared on Alec Torelli’s Best of Poker Series

 

Nice Hand

15 thoughts on “Hand Histories: Why and How

  1. You had mentioned at the RCP luncheon that this would be coming, and I said then I sure hoped so. This far exceeds my expectations. A tremendous amount of thought and work has obviously gone into it. I have spent all morning on it, going through the various hands, not only to see your points on presentation, but to also to gain from these terrific hands. This is one of the best posts I have ever seen ANYWHERE! Thank you very much! — Bill Conklin

  2. This was a fantastic post. Very thoughtful. Very helpful. Is there a way for people to post hand histories and get critique on you blog?

  3. Glad to be helpful on all accounts. As for getting critiques, I’ll have to think about how to best handle that, but for now posting on Red Chip and asking for my feedback makes the most sense and I already do it. They have all the cool suit and rank thingamajiggies… I think I need to get some for myself!

  4. As a fanboy I’m honored to have been made a part of the post. May my incompetence serve as a lesson to others.

    — Monad/John

    1. No incompetence there at all, just particular qualities, as with each of us. You bring a high level of competence to the forums.

      1. Thanks 🙂 (1) BTW are you responsible for the creation of all these wonderfully crude back-of-the-napkin doodles? (2) Possible to sum up what stands out to you most in my posts? (I have my own ideas about what “unites them” thematically, but we all have obvious blind-spots when thinking about our own games)

        – Monad

        1. (1) Yes, they are all mine. (2) Off the top of my head, sage, measured play stands out, probably conditioned by what appears to be absurdly loose, occasionally erratic, somewhat face up opposition. In the hands referenced above, your instinct to recognize and respect conditions against you, rather focusing on attempting to overcome them, seems key.

  5. Love it! Thanks for posting. Any chance this could be posted as a FAQ on RCP? Would make a great reference tool when posting a hand history.

    1. Thanks! I don’t write for them so it will stay here, but I think I will take your suggestion and sticky it in some way.

  6. Thanks for loosing this post on us. lt’s great advice for anyone posting or responding to a hand history. Would love for this to be a sticky on RCP (including the MS paints, of course).

    Very persuasive regarding the merits of hand histories. In isolation, I think the big picture approach to learning is more efficient, but BP and HH can work in conjunction- there’s no reason to choose one approach exclusively.

    Many would improve their game just by reading your post. They fail to gather and consider all relevant info in the first place (most often, 1B, 1C, and 2A). Even when game flow and villain description are included, they are often (for various reasons) misinterpreted by the poster.

    I’m skeptical when someone is just blasting the forum with careless, rushed HH. They don’t want to improve, they want a pat on the back. I suppose they can’t be helped but perhaps it’s still worth trying.

    I’m going to try to implement your approach to responding to HH and considering the poster’s body of work, when possible. The implications for how this can improve my own game seem clear.

  7. Great comments. Yes, some posters are going to be helped more easily and/or contribute more than others, for sure. I think we sense who they are and avoid them, at least in part.

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