On the Origin of Tightness

What is tightness? And where did it come from?

To find the answers, we have to travel back in time, to the birth of poker. I wasn’t actually there, but I can imagine how it happened…

Fred and Barney were playing cards for the very first time. “Let’s make up a game,” Fred said. “I’ll pick a card, then you pick a card, and whoever has the higher card wins.”

“Sounds fun,” said Barney, “but I know how we could make it funner.”

“I knew you were going to say that,” said Fred. “You always want to bet on everything. Can’t you just play a game just to play a game?”

“You mean a stupid game devoid of skill? If there was ever a game that needed to be made more interesting, you just invented it.”

“Have it your way,” Fred said. “I will agree to wager one dollar. Go ahead and draw a card.”

“It’s still just a crapshoot,” said Barney. “To really make it interesting, I should be able to look at my card, and if I think I have you beat, I can bet an additional dollar, and if you have a shitty card, you can throw it away, and I pocket your dollar. I like this game!”

“But what if I have an ace?” Fred said. “After you bet $2, I should be able to bet $3, and then it would be back on you. You would have to either match my bet, or—” Fred scratched his head. “What should we call it? When somebody gives up?”

“Surrendering?” said Barney.

“Too undignified,” said Fred. “How about resigning?”

“Too chess-like,” said Barney. Then he perked up. “Let’s get metaphoric. What do we do, really, when we give up for $1 more? We let go of an investment, we kiss that money goodbye, we pack up our tent, we fold under pressure, we give up the ghost, we twirl on a—”

“Back up,” said Fred. “Fold under pressure. I like that. After you raise the bet, I can fold.”

And thus tightness was born.

Luck and Skill and Folding

What do the great gambling games have in common? By gambling game I mean a game you play on a table, and you bet on who wins.

The great games — backgammon, bridge, poker, etc. — have just the right blend of luck and skill. If a game is all luck, like flipping coins or cutting cards, it’s too boring to satisfy us puzzle-solving gamester types. And if a game is all skill, like chess, it’s too predictable in that a great player will always beat a bad player. And in a game like that, underdogs won’t keep betting on themselves over and over, so there’s no game.

The sweet spot is somewhere in between, where skill looms large, but is still beatable by luck. Games with a seductive balance of luck and skill can catch fire and spread, and thereafter adapt to the changing whims of the gamesters. Just look at bridge tournaments and poker tournaments. For 50 years, the rules and structures have never stopped changing, driven by our communal desire to reward skill, but not all the time.

At poker, the luck factor varies among venues and is a function of these variables: blinds, antes, buy-ins, and bet sizes. For example, if everyone antes ten dollars, and the most anyone can bet is one penny, then everyone would take every hand to showdown. The game would be all luck and no skill. But as soon as we adjust the ratios so that folding is sometimes better than not folding, now we have a structure that allows for skill to exist.

Vegans and Pros and SWAGS

Let’s say the goal was to play as many hands as possible (because we love action), and still earn enough income year after year from playing poker to not have to work (because we hate work). What’s the highest VPIP (Voluntarily Put $ In Pot) we could get away with?

And let’s narrow the field to Vegas pros who play $5/10, $2/5, and $1/3 NLHE in games that are, for the most part, full. In that group, how high are the highest VPIPs?

Luckily, I have Vegans (the unhealthy kind) I can turn to for help with fruitless conjectures: Ross, Kat, Zach, and author Doug Hull, who even has an acronym for what I sought: SWAG. It means: Scientific Wild-Ass Guess.

To my panel of SWAGgers, I posed this question:

At live no-limit holdem, in a nine-handed game, what is the range of VPIPs among pros? In other words, how tight is the tightest pro, and how loose is the loosest?

15 to 30 percent. That’s the range they came up with. The tightest pros have a VPIP of 15 percent, and the laggiest LAGs top out at 30 percent. And those guesses matched mine, so they must be right.

What’s the least amount of preflop folding a Vegas grinder can get away with and survive? Survey says: 70 percent. Any less than that and they will turn into a dealer.

Chickens and Eggs and Buddha

Maybe the origin of tightness was driven by evolution. When random genetic mutations happen to increase reproductive success, those changes in the code get passed along. Maybe it’s the same with poker. Maybe the players who happened to increase their tightness happened to last longer, thereby propagating tightness within the population, where others saw its success, and mimicked it.

So, what is it? Is tightness a demonstration of mental strength? It can be. It can also be seen as a weakness.

Is a 33% VPIP tight or loose? Depends who you ask.

What do players want? Again, it depends. Some wish they had more tightness, while others want less.

Tightness is an opinion. A perception. A comparison. Tightness is a label that we subjectively apply to rates of folding. And folding, as you may recall, was the invention that allowed poker skill to exist in the first place. So it’s all interwoven: the folding, the skill, and the tightness. The origin of tightness is the story of poker itself.

To put it in Buddhist jargon: tightness and poker interdependently co-arose. They hatched as one. And that’s why folding is and forever shall be — metaphorically and in actuality — a measure of skill.

(This article first appeared at pokernews.com.)



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