Though Will Tipton may not be the most well-known name in online poker, he’s certainly achieved a great deal of success at the virtual felt. More than good luck and positive variance, however, Tipton’s success can be said to have come from a precise, well-thought out expert mathematical approach to the game, that game being heads up no limit hold’em. A recent graduate of Cornell University and software engineer at Google, Tipton boasts degrees in Physics and Mathematical Computer Science. No doubt this academic prowess has assisted him in his online poker pursuits, which saw him grinding out six figures per year prior to Black Friday. So well has Tipton mastered his particular poker discipline that he’s penned an instructional series of books titled Expert Heads Up No Limit Hold’em. Volume 1 of the series focused on optimal and exploitative strategies while Volume 2, just released, focuses on applying the ideas developed in the first volume to many practical and multi-street situations.
We spoke to Tipton about how the concepts he discusses in his books might be able to benefit others who want to improve their poker game. In particular, we asked how the theoretical mathematical concepts can best be applied to real life situations. We hope you enjoy this interview:
When starting out in online poker, what made you gravitate towards heads up no limit hold’em tournament tables? What would you say is so unique about that specific form of poker that other types of poker or cash games don’t have?
Will Tipton: Well, in my case, I guess it was just an accident. However, knowing what I know now, I still recommend heads up play to beginners – it’s a great format for learning the game and building a bankroll. It’s good for learning since you have to play lots of hands. Additionally, you can focus on identifying the tendencies of just one opponent instead of a whole table full of them, which can be overwhelming. I say the game is good for building a bankroll since it has low variance relative to other tournament formats, and the bankroll requirements and skill level of the opposition are both quite low at small stakes.
Later on in your poker career, the exploitative techniques you learn as a heads up player will serve you well. Of course, sticking to HU play is also a good option – some of the most profitable players these days focus on the format. Perhaps MTTs are the only no limit heads up game with higher expected return for a strong players, but MTTs have a few large downsides. They’re very high variance, and you really have to plan your life around the tourney schedule to be a MTT player. Of course, you can load up a few heads up sit n’ gos (HUSNGs) for a 20-minute session whenever you want.
It’s well-known that over the past couple of years in particular, online poker as a whole has gotten much tougher. Quite a few pros have taken the route of specializing in heads up no limit hold’em. What general approach should a non-pro who wants to play these types of games take when faced with today’s much tougher opposition?
Will Tipton: Well, there’s no easy answer here. You’re correct that the games have gotten harder. The popularity of the game has led to lots of work on how to play it, and people understand heads up no limit (HUNL) much better than they did only a few years ago.
People have all sorts of different reasons for wanting to play this game, and if recreational players want to jump into the mid- and high-stakes games for the entertainment factor with money they can afford to lose, I certainly don’t want to discourage that. However, my honest advice to new players who want to be winning right away is to start out at low stakes and move up gradually.
Practice at heads up no limit hold’em tournament play can certainly prepare someone for big money action in multi-table tournaments (MTTs). What ratio would you recommend players play the former versus the latter?
Will Tipton: Yes, MTTs are weird in that playing them doesn’t actually give you much practice in some of the most important skills for your bottom line (short-handed and HU play). So, you are correct that practicing those formats on the side can be very helpful.
I’d say that the appropriate amount of practice depends strongly on the format of your MTTs. If HU play usually begins with 50 BB stacks, and blind increases are slow, then maximizing your MTT winnings will probably require quite a lot of work on your HU game. On the other hand, if HU play begins 7 BB deep, it’s easy to learn a simple, effective shove-or-fold-based strategy, and the edges you can gain by deviating from that are likely not be worth the effort.
It’s also worth mentioning that, although “ICM effects” (Independent Chip Model) aren’t relevant in HU play, there are other reasons that maximizing profit might not be the same as maximizing one’s chip stack. These can be very important in MTTs, but they’re poorly understood and not often talked about. There is a whole chapter dedicated to this topic in Volume 2 of my book.
Every poker player has their particular talents, style of play, and ability to shift gears. There’s no form of poker in which this becomes most apparent than heads up no limit hold’em. How can someone be properly prepared for every conceivable style of poker play that any random opponent might have?
Will Tipton: Well, there are sort of two answers to this question: the easy (but ultimately unsatisfying) theoretical answer, and the practical answer. In theory, there exists an “unexploitable” or “GTO” strategy (Game Theory Optimal). Playing this strategy guarantees that we have non-negative expected profit neglecting rake (note that this is not true in non-heads up games!).
A guarantee that we can’t lose in the long term sounds pretty good, but, unfortunately, that strategy is currently unknown, and it probably always will be. However, there’s a lot we can do to approximate it, and playing an approximately-GTO strategy is a reasonable opponent-agnostic approach.
Practically-speaking, however, a lot of our money is going to come from playing different strategies against different opponents. We want to pay attention to what other players are doing and adjust our play to take advantage of it. (By the way, I talk a lot in the books about why the GTO and the exploitative approaches to the game are not in conflict.) Properly exploiting different sorts of opponents takes experience. Put in a lot of volume and think carefully about how to deal with each player you encounter.
One more observation, though perhaps counterintuitive, is that a static, unchanging approach to the game can actually become more appropriate the higher you move up in stakes. If your opponents are all pretty good, then the standard, solid play will be the best one in many spots. However, opponents found at low stakes often have such wild strategies that massive adjustments in our strategy are necessary to take full advantage of them.
To what extent do you feel the concepts you’ve written about in your books apply to players playing on sites operating in the newly emerging legal U.S. online poker market, which doesn’t offer the same liquidity and stakes as the rest of the world?
Will Tipton: Well, I’m an American player, though I haven’t played on any of the single-state sites that have opened under recent legislation. In any case, a lot of the book is fairly theoretical. Although I do talk about lots of specific spots, my real goal is to show how to think about the game and work out solutions to situations by oneself.
For this reason, a lot of the content in the book is broadly applicable. Many non-heads up and even non-hold’em players have told me they learned a lot from Volume 1. I don’t know of any reason that the books wouldn’t apply just as well to American as to rest-of-world games.
Is it critical to have already read through volume 1 of Expert Heads Up No Limit Hold’em to be able to correctly grasp the concepts you discuss in of volume 2?
Will Tipton: Yes, probably. Volume 1 ended with chapter 8, and Volume 2 starts with chapter 9 – they are essentially two halves of a single work. In the second book, I generally assume knowledge of the contents of the first, and I often refer back to topics discussed in the first.
I can sort of see the temptation – Volume 1 is largely fundamentals, while Volume 2 contains more sexy applications as well as results and charts that will be practically useful for many players. Volume 2 does start out with a refresher where I briefly recount many of the important lessons from Volume 1. That chapter is freely available on the book’s website, so it’s conceivable that a reader could check it out and decide that he/she is already comfortable with the material. However, a solid understanding of the basics is crucial for understanding more complex material, and there’s tons of mis-information and misunderstanding about the application of game theory to poker, so most players will want to read Volume 1.
Heads up no limit hold’em situations are naturally far rarer in live poker than online poker. What concepts from your books could be adapted most easily and would be most critical to study for live play?
Will Tipton: I’m reminded of something a reader told me once – he said that he didn’t think of Volume 1 as a book on heads up play, but rather as a book on poker (theory) that just happened to use heads up no limit as a running example. I think that’s fair. For example, early in the first book, we show how to calculate the single most profitable strategy against any opponent strategy. That discussion is almost all in the abstract – none of the essentials are HU- or hold’em-specific.
The thing is, I almost never just tell readers how to play in a specific spot. Rather, I tell readers how to figure out how to play. It’s the search for the “how” and “why” that really drives the books. If my approach were simply to give the answers to HUNL situations, then the books would not be useful to players of other games. However, the process of figuring out correct strategies on your own is broadly applicable.
Now, certainly there are some complications in 3+ player (and live!) spots that don’t arise in HUNL, and those issues will need to be studied separately. However, the reverse isn’t really true – almost all HU situations have analogues in full ring games.
Finally, not every poker player is blessed with your mathematical aptitude or with the opportunity to be academically trained at Ivy League institutions, as you have. Do you honestly feel as though any player can, in principle, master no limit heads up hold’em if they put in enough time and study of books like yours?
Will Tipton: Haha! Well, unfortunately I never did get a chance to study poker in school. My approach to learning the game involved many, many hands and lots of work away from the tables.
You mentioned earlier that the games have gotten harder recently, and that’s true, but the quality of educational resources available to new players has grown as well. Learning the game used to be a long, lonely process of trial-and-error. Now, resources like Expert Heads Up No Limit Hold’em: Volumes 1 and 2 teach powerful tools to shape your entire strategy and reason about its correctness.
I’d agree that the situation isn’t looking very good for players who just jump into the games and hope for the best, but for players willing to put in the work, a higher level of mastery is possible now than ever before, and there’s still plenty of money to be made.
Thanks for joining us Will and good luck to you in your pursuits both at and away from the virtual felt.
Thanks! Great speaking with you.