How many opponents should play against your hand?


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


One of the weirdest impromptu poker lectures I ever witnessed happened in the player’s lounge near a poker room about 1986. Ralph was about 30, married, a father and the poster child for “Parents for Penny Pinching.” I mean, this guy actually grimaced if he had to buy his own cup of coffee. At poker, you could see him agonize before making every call.

Ralph was an accountant and looked the part. But unlike other number-oriented people I hung out with, he had no social talents whatsoever. It was a mystery to us how he managed to marry his beautiful wife. I’ve never met a man more analytical in my life, and his poker fortunes lately had been amazing. He couldn’t lose. His skill was based solely on dull, boring, hand analysis. His table image was that of a tree stump. He never chatted, never smiled, couldn’t read the most obvious tells, and didn’t think psychology was a worthy poker topic. It was all bland and all business when Ralph played poker.

And now he sits down unexpectedly beside me on a sofa and begins to speak. “The reason I like poker,” he says, “is because you can control your own destiny.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I counter. “The cards control your destiny in the short run. There’s nothing you can do about that.”

Aces

He uses this question to launch his lecture: “What do you do when you’re first to act in a limit hold ’em game and you have a pair of aces?”

I explain: “I don’t always do the same thing. Usually I’ll raise, but if there are some particularly aggressive players at the end of the line, I’ll just call the big blind, hoping that others will build the pot for me. Also, if it’s a table full of players who call with weak hands, I might just call, instead of raise, so as not to chase away their loose money.”

“That’s incorrect,” Ralph says, leaving me somewhat startled, because I’m sure I’ve done far more research on hold ’em than he has. And even though he’s analytical, I doubt that he has tools equal to the ones I’d developed to appropriately investigate how aces fare against various types of opponents. Nevertheless, I keep quiet as he attempts to make his case.

“Remember the key to poker is controlling your destiny,” Ralph asserts again. “The more opponents you play against, the more likely you are to get any hand beat, even aces. If you want to control your own destiny, you need to drive as many players out of the pot as possible when you have an advantage. That’s my secret.” Then he tediously details three illustrative hands he’s played.

When he finally finishes, looking smug and humorless and obviously certain he’s made his point, I stand up, stretch and say I must return to my game. “Sometimes I like to just call with aces,” I counter, leaving Ralph wondering if I’ve completely missed the force of his argument.

Risk

Ralph was wrong. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with just calling with aces before the flop in hold ’em. It’s true that you increase your risk of losing by inviting more opponents into the pot. But poker isn’t about winning pots; it’s about making the most long-term profit.

On average, when holding aces before the flop, you’ll make more profit in hold ’em against four or five opponents. Trying to cut your risk by playing against just one or two opponents is called “thinning the field.” It’s probably the most misunderstood and misused tactic in poker. Listen closely: Usually you shouldn’t try to thin the field.

Often players raise with strong hands hoping to thin the field and they fail. Then what? Then they succeeded in building a bigger pot. And that’s good. Their raise was right. But they did it for the wrong reason. The bad thing about “thin the field” strategy is that it tends to chase out the players with the weakest hands. That’s exactly what you don’t what to do if you’re hoping to maximize profit with a strong hand.

So, the sad part about thinning the field is that you often chase away the wrong opponents — the ones with the bad cards. And you end up stranded with the players with the good cards.

Time to thin

Oddly, though, there exists a good time for thinning the field. It’s when weak players have already committed to the pot and strong players remain to act after you. Then, when you raise, you’re likely to chase strong players out and play against a reduced field of weak opponents. That’s the perfect fit for thin-the-field strategy.

However, if strong players are already in the pot and weak ones remain to act after you, it makes more sense to just call as an invitation to those weak players. Raising to thin the field would merely case away the profit. Think about these concepts next time you’re tempted to thin the field.

Oh, and about Ralph. He went broke and quit poker. — MC

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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.

18 thoughts on “How many opponents should play against your hand?”

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  1. again REAL LIFE ante 25 BB 200, UTG raises to 600, utg+1 calls, pot = 1700 I bet 2000 on AA utg calls with JQ off, and gets 2 pair – yes their mistake but it wins , its not CASH its a TOURNAMENT even if Itry to thin it doenst work

  2. So Mike, I’ve always said “play em slow, get em cracked.” I still believe that to be true in most cases. I do see your point with weak players behind you but I seem to get em cracked often if I slow play. I’ll have to rethink that.

    1. Hi, Jackie —

      In proportional-payout tournaments, when you often are playing for most profit from close finishes and not specifically for first place, you should sometimes decide to take less risk with aces and chase opponents away. However, doing that is tricky, because you’re actually risking more money by big raises, hoping to limit the field. So, you might get beat less often, but you will lose more money when you do get beat.

      Put everything together and — with aces — I would tend to raise more often and for bigger amounts and to trap less often in a tournament, even though I am trying to survive.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  3. I prefer not to see a flop with AK! I wait for stupid re- straddles with several calls, then figure out what they are willing to pay….then double it. I know it is not a professional approach, but it works for me.

  4. I always go allin with AA.I get called 40% of the time.Anybody not prepared to risk all when 80/20 against an other pair or 90/10 against AK should gie the game away.

    1. I got AA cracked with a 2/5 suited in a big pot. Villain called a large pre flop raise. He hit an A 3 x 4 on the turn. I had put him all in on the flop, and he bit. Holdem on the river settled it. What are you gonna do?

  5. While holding AK, do you also want to invite as many opponents as possible into the pot or does it work better against one or two opponents?

    1. According to “Caro’s Official Hold ’em Rankings,” A-K of mixed suits is ranks 7th of the 169 starting hands, in general. But against many opponents, it ranks 8th, while against few opponents, it ranks 6th.

      That would suggest that there’s slightly more profit in raising and playing against few opponents. But, that depends on whom you chase away and many other factors. So, mix it up, but lean toward preferring fewer opponents when in doubt.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. A-K, suited or no, scare the hell out of me. That’s because I’ve barely won with them. But I don’t all-in with them either. Maybe that’s my problem. But remember, all pairs down to 10’s are better than the big slick. Personally, I won’t go cold all-in without a high pair. But I’m still learning, after 2 years and will continue to do so forever. Thanks for your great articles.

        1. Hi, Dom — I’m not suggesting that you should usually move all-in with A-K. I’m just saying that you have the option. Remember, you won’t be much of an underdog, even if that player with 10-10 does call. If he folds, you take the pot instantly. It’s A-A and K-K you need to worry about mostly. — Mike Caro

  6. Is that the main goal of raising preflop? Chasing out the strong players, keeping the weak ones in? Raising for value doesn’t make complete sense to me because you don’t know how strong your hand is before the first three cards come out. So what are you trying to accomplish before your hand is defined?

    1. Hi, Nicky —

      Generally, you should try to chase strong players out by raising when loose players, who are likely to call, are already in the pot.. If weak players are waiting to act behind you, you should lean more toward calling.

      The time to raise for value is when you’re pretty sure you have an advantage. Value betting or raising usually can’t be done successfully unless you have a solid suspicion, based on evaluation and not a hunch, that your marginally strong hand is superior to opponents’ hands.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  7. The guy under the gun limped with Aces and every body folded to me in the big blind with 23. I checked and the flop came 223, giving me a full house. I check and he bet and I raised and he went all-in. I always enter with a min raise with aces because of that.

  8. This is why so many people go broke with AA. If you don’t thin the field pre-flop, your opponents could be on anything. It becomes near impossible to put them on a hand. AA in a multi-way pot has a much tougher time holding up and most people have a hard time folding AA, so they end up getting crushed with someone holding 65. By not thinning the field, you aren’t maximizing anything. You are allowing a lot of people to see a cheap flop that otherwise wouldn’t. Big hands, big pots, small hands, small pots. Remember that?

  9. Sometimes when I slow play aces I allow my opponent to get there ,,just like this guy who had pocket sixes and hit his set on the turn and pushed,I did raise preflop the blinds were 100/200 and I made it 500.he called,The turn I checked ,he checked ,6 ,I bet 500 ,he pushed.I called .river a blank,,,,,Im on the rail..

    1. Lesson #2: Don't overplay overpairs at microstakes and play within your bankroll so you can get busted on any one hand and still stay in the game.

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