Poker’s most underrated tactic


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Casino Player.


It was the mid-1960’s and I was eking out a living in Gardena, California. At the time, Gardena was advertised as the “The Poker Capital of the World,” because – as a suburb of Los Angeles – it was the only city in the area where you could legally play poker.

Well, actually, you could only play forms of five-card draw poker – meaning conventional high-hand-wins and lowball. So, as the poker “capital,” it was somewhat disappointing. Seven-card stud, hold ’em, and many other traditional forms of poker were missing from the tables.

This was before I’d begun my lifelong obsession with analyzing the game. Poker analysis at the time was primitive and unreliable. It largely consisted of a smattering of published, error-prone calculations and home-spun wisdom.

I had been winning an average of about $7 an hour in the $2/$4 limit draw poker games by playing conservatively. That was one sure way to beat the games – just play more selectively than your carefree opponents. But it wasn’t a way to win very much.

Adding finesse

Still, I was gradually adding finesse to my game. All was going fine until one day I had a conversation with an “advanced” player who told me that “professionals” tended seldom to check and then call. “They either check and fold or check and raise,” he contended. “Checking and calling is for sissies. If you’re going to call, you might as well bet and take the initiative.”

Well, I immediately consulted with several other players I respected and, indeed, this seemed to be the strong consensus: Accomplished poker players seldom checked and then called if bet into.

I had been doing a lot of checking and calling. Could this be one of my major shortcomings as an aspiring world-class player? I sat myself down for a solo conference and thought and thought. I decided to give it a try.

It quickly became apparent that this bet-rather-than-check philosophy of poker was uncomfortable. Yes, it helped me establish a more vibrant image and to have more control over my opponents. But often the tactic would backfire.

After a few sessions, I had another sit-down with myself. It was there that I began to formulate a theory that would become the cornerstone of my teachings today – 40 years later.

Spectrum

Let’s reason this out together. In poker, there is the entire spectrum of hands you can play, each attached to a precise situation.

It turns out that most of these hands are neither very strong nor very weak for the circumstances. The majority falls somewhere in the middle.  Fine. And there’s another apparent truth about poker — especially in limit games where the size of your bet is predetermined by the rules and in no-limit games against small and moderate wagers..

The pot is almost always many times as large as the amount it will cost you to bet or call. And that means you really need to call often, so an opponent can’t take a pot away from you every time you think you’re probably beat – which is precisely what will happen if you fold whenever you think you have the worst of it.

Doubtful hands

So, clearly, if you check and an opponent bets, there are a huge number of times when it’s correct to call with doubtful hands, just because the pot is many times larger than what it costs to call. You only need to win once in a while to make the decision profitable. You should only fold if your chances are puny – the precise determination being governed in large part by your prospects, your exact hand, your opponent’s most probable hands, and the amount in the pot.

Usually, if you have a reasonable hand, you should call. But, should you check in the first place? The argument is that you might as well bet, rather than check and call.

But this doesn’t make sense. Most of your hands aren’t strong enough to bet. They’re too close to the middle ground.

Most reasonable

Years later I was able to prove with actual computerized game simulation that the most reasonable thing to do with the majority of medium hands was to check. And if I were subsequently bet into, the most reasonable response was to call.

That seemed obvious. And it is.

Accepting the common pro-level advice that checking and calling is a weak play would stand poker logic upside-down. Checking is the most natural thing in the world for most poker hands in most situations. When you have a mid-range hand and check, subsequently calling is also a natural decision.

Common keys

If you throw checking and calling out of your poker playbook, you’re eliminating one of the most common keys to winning. Yet, even today, many players still believe that checking and calling is weak. It’s remarkable how this bad bit of wisdom, spread years ago by overly aggressive players, continues to plague poker today.

Another thing: Checking and calling is the perfect way to trap opponents who overbet their hands. But that’s another lesson for another day.

Today, I want you to disregard the common advice that checking and then calling is a mistake. Go ahead. Check and call often — whenever your hand isn’t strong enough to bet and isn’t weak enough to fold. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

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  1. You wrote about this many long years ago Mike, and I’ve kept it close to my heart every since. One other thing that checking and calling, a lot, brings to the table. My opponents see me do that and then, when I check raise I tend to get a lot more respect. They will even say something like “look out,” when I do it. They often lay down better hands to me. However, like bluffing, I don’t do it too often unless I’m sure I have the best hand. Getting caught can ruin a carefully developed table image.

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