Understanding Your Style – What MMA Teaches Us About Poker

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I’ve been watching MMA for over 10 years at this point, and its been fascinating to watch its “meta game” evolve in similar ways to poker. At the beginning, true to its name, it started with each fighter focusing on their individual martial art; living and dying by its individual strengths and weaknesses.

This is exactly the way poker started, there was little math involved and each player focused on a strategy they believed in. There were no solvers telling us how to play, we simply tried strategies and judged how they performed over time. We watched the best players and tried to extrapolate what they were doing. Most players were easily categorized, I was able to be a serious winner by starting as a tight player and carefully adding as many bluffs as I could. A cautious player constantly adding moves was enough to dominate.

Players like durrrr would show up and demolish the field playing completely different than anyone else had done before, 3-betting wide, 4-betting wide and barreling off with seemingly reckless abandon. After that, CTS’s precise hand reading seemed to dominate for a time then jungleman came and showed up all the high stakes players dependent on the overly aggressive durrrr style with call down strategies based on frequencies.

Similarly, in MMA the strongest styles also became clear, early on Brazilian Jui Jitsu (BJJ) took a clear lead with Royce Gracie famously submitting much bigger and stronger fighters with apparent ease:

Eventually as the competitive meta progresses, with enough talent and time applied both in poker and MMA, the best strategies start to become more clear cut. However, I think in poker there’s an over emphasis on ideal strategy now, I know several very successful players who play completely different style in similarly tough games, with matching win rates. I think many players have abandoned the idea of styles because of the raw efficiency of the solver. There’s always a theoretically perfect play to check after the fact.

But jump back to MMA for a moment, while the strongest base strategies have become clear at this point (wrestling, BJJ, striking) fighters are limited in implementing these strategies by their physical capabilities. A completely smothering wrestler’s strategy like Khabib cannot be replicated in another fighter’s strategy simply because they might consider it to be ideal. I would follow bookmaker’s with their UFC bets and I can promise you the edges available were not easy to come by despite the increasing clarity in advantageous styles.

Despite poker’s apparent perfection, no human or even bot replicates this perfectly at the table yet. I can tell you from coaching, poker player’s have extremely different bases with which they can build winning strategies.

For example, I’ve never personally been tempted to play too many hands preflop. It’s just not something I’ve ever had to worry about, I always enjoyed the confidence in knowing I entered a pot correctly and thus the discipline there was never an issue. However, the overwhelming majority of poker players, play too many hands preflop (too passively) including many successful pros. If you were to try and replicate my GTO oriented aggressive style but without the preflop precision, you would likely struggle.

Similarly, I had a discussion with Red Chip coach weazel where he could recite the probabilities of folds on a wide variety of board textures based on millions of hands that he’d analyzed in databases. There would be no way I could replicate his depth of knowledge there with the same efficiency without dozens if not hundreds of hours of work. He likes to tell me with supreme confidence how he’s certain his exploitative focus is superior!

So that’s the case I would make, understanding your own style is critically important, building around the strength you currently have is an important part of poker, even in the era of “perfect solver plays”. Lastly, understanding your style lets you leverage the power of iterative improvement, you may still end up in the same solver oriented place but getting there profitably is also important!