Tuesday Sessions 23: Folding hands for extra profit

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The following lecture was the 23rd Tuesday Session, held March 2, 1999, and later appeared in Card Player magazine.

Folding for Profit – You Don’t Need to Win a Pot to Make Money!

If you walked up to almost any average poker player involved in a hand and asked what the goal is, the most likely answer you’d get is, “To win the pot.” But among my favorite poker lessons is: The object of poker isn’t to win pots.

I keep saying it and saying it and some people keep not getting it and not getting it. But it’s really very simple. If you wanted to win as many pots as possible, all you’d have to do is bet and raise at each opportunity. Then you’d either win the pot because everyone passed or you’d win in the showdown if you had the best hand. Every hand that could possible win would win.

While your money lasted, you’d be the world champion of winning pots, but how long would your money last? Probably not very long, because calling and raising all the time is a sure way to lose. Trying to win every pot is not profitable. In poker, you need to be selective about the hands you play and how you play them. The profit comes from making the right decisions. Each time you make the right decision, you earn money. Folding is often the right decision. So, when you fold correctly you earn money.

That doesn’t make sense to some people, because they figure, “How can I earn money if I throw my hand away? Doesn’t that mean I lost money?” No, not if you folded correctly. The profit is always the difference between the money you have now by making the right decisions and the money you would have had overall if you’d made the wrong decisions. That difference is real, and you can spend it. Folding is, therefore, potentially profitable.

And that’s what we’re going to think about today. This was the 23rd in my serious of Tuesday Session classroom lectures at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. It was delivered earlier this year and is specially enhanced for Card Player. The title was…

Folding Your Poker Hands for Extra Profit

  1. It’s not the absolute size of your hand that matters; it’s the relative size.
    Three of a kind is always a big hand in seven-card stud. Top two pair is always a big hand in hold ’em. Big hands are big hands, unless you know something about the opposing hands.

    And that’s where even experienced players make beginners’ mistakes. If the pot is $120 and it costs them $20 to call, they are very likely to make a poor call with a straight that only has one chance in 10 of winning (instead of the mathematically required one chance in seven – or anything fractionally more than one in six). However, they are very unlikely to call with an ace-high garbage hand that has one chance in 10 of winning. So, they play correctly with the garbage hand, but feel obligated to call with the “big” hand.

    They are making the common mistake of thinking in absolute values, rather than relative values. The only reason to call with a big hand in an unprofitable situation is if its strength is obvious to your opponent. Then folding might inspire the opponent to bluff more often than you expect in the future and cost you money overall. Often your biggest hands are the easiest and most profitable to fold, especially if they don’t look big and you’re sure an opponent can only bet a strong hand. It’s not the size of your hands that matters; it’s the size of the pot and the likelihood that you’ll win.

  2. Against a bet, whenever calling is unprofitable and raising is unprofitable, folding is profitable.
    What else would be possible? In other words, there is profit in losing a pot if it costs you money to pursue it. The profit is the difference between the amount you’d lose in the long run by continuing to play in thousands of similar situations and zero. You win the difference between nothing (which is what it costs you to fold) and what you would have lost.

    And please don’t think of that fold as costing you whatever you had already “invested” in the pot. What’s out there is out there. It belongs to nobody until the pot is awarded. Once you put money into the pot, it isn’t yours anymore and you have no investment to defend. Decisions must be made in conjunction with the size of the pot (independent of where that money came from) and the amount it will cost you to play.

  3. When folding a strong hand that looks weak, make your opponent think that you’re going to raise (or at least call) if you make something.
    This ploy always works. Squeeze out a card and pass unhappily and suddenly. The fact that you had two pair, rather than a missed flush, will not occur to your opponent. So, he won’t think you made a big laydown.

    Making it obvious that you are willing to laydown big hands is a sure way to encourage opponents to take shots at you at unexpected times. While you can adjust your strategy accordingly, it’s much easier to win if your opponents stay uninspired and predictable.

  4. Overcalling advice:
    (1) Never overcall on the river unless your hand is much stronger than what you would need to make the first call, and (2) Never make the second overcall on the river unless you have major strength.

    This is really a mathematical issue. Let’s say there’s a final-round bet and you have the same chance of winning as the first caller. Fine. In a $50/$100 limit game, if you’re last to act and the pot is $900 and it costs $100, you only need one chance in 10 of winning to make this a break-even call. (In a much smaller 50 cent/$1 game with a $10 pot and a $1 call, the reasoning is exactly the same.) Anything more and you’re expecting a profit if you could play this situation out thousands of times. Anything less, and you’re not.

    The math is easy: At one win in 10, you snag the $900 already in the pot once and lose $100 nine times. It comes to nothing. So, if you’re last to act, you could call if you have one chance in nine of winning, without losing money.

    But what if someone else beats you to the call? The pot now grows $100 to $1,000. Now your pot odds (the amount the pot offers versus the cost of your call) are even more attractive. Now, though, it’s time to fold. But wait! We said that your chance of winning is just as good as the first caller’s. So, why wouldn’t you call?

    You wouldn’t call because you earn money by folding. If you would have beat the original bettor once in 10 times, then you still will. Nothing changes. But you will only beat the first caller once in two times. This means that you will only win this pot by making that final call once in 20 times (half of the time for each of the one in 10 times you beat the original bettor). And, although your chances of winning fell to half, after that first call, the pot only grew from $900 to $1,000 – making your pot odds grow only from 9-to-1 to 10-to-1. That isn’t nearly enough to make the call. In fact a call now would cost you $45 on average. So, by folding, you earn $45!

  5. When to fold in hold ’em.
    You need to fold most hold ’em hands before the flop or on the flop. Seldom commit yourself further with defensive hands.

  6. The art of folding.
    The great art of folding profitably is to never let aggressive opponents know you folded a significant hand – something I mentioned earlier. If knowledgeable opponents know you have a strong hand, it’s often better to call, even if calling is slightly unprofitable right now. Experienced opponents can take advantage of you if they think you lay down big hands. And, finally…

  7. Try not to fold if folding will turn an opponent who never bluffs into an opponent who seldom bluffs.
    This will mean the opponent will steal a pot from you once in a while, but not often enough that you should call. A conspicuous fold can cost you whole pots later. – MC

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  1. Good article. It is really hard for most of us to view folding as gaining a profit. But in reality folding a hand that would cost you $100 to call is the exact same to your bankroll as calling a hand that earns you $100. The difference is that everyone sees that you won it, the chips get pushed your way, and you feel like a winner. Folding does not give you the same satisfaction but it should. You should celebrate the good play in your head just the same.

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