Understanding one of poker’s most common tactics


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (1993) in Card Player magazine under the title “Do you really understand one of poker’s most common transactions?”


You’d think all experienced players would understand the important concepts that govern betting and calling in a poker game. They don’t.

Do they call too much? The main weakness unskilled players exhibit is that they call too often. Experience and dedication are needed to make profitable transactions in poker. It’s like shopping. Give an inexperienced shopper enough money and he’s likely to buy indiscriminately. Same with poker. Inexperienced players want to spend money. If you have a strong hand, you’re more apt to be able to “sell” it to an novice than to a pro. In fact, it’s hard to bluff beginners, who are eager to spend.

But wait! Many better-than-average players don’t call enough. That’s the opposite weakness.

Are you making money calling? Some can “prove” they make money calling, because they keep records. They tally total profit and divide by the number of times they called. “Look here,” they’ll boast, “I called 14 times last month and I’m $2,846 ahead. That’s over $200 a call!”

Big deal. The main reason to call isn’t to earn money directly. It’s to earn money indirectly. You do this by calling just often enough overall to minimize both the money an opponent can expect to earn by bluffing and the money he can expect to earn by betting reasonably strong hands.

How does it work? Let’s consider the last round of betting. In limit poker, where the pots are always many times as large as the bets, you should call many times more often than a reasonable opponent should bet. And that same reasonable opponent should win pots by betting many times more often than you should win by calling.

Let’s temporarily discard all the tricky factors about betting and calling and just look at the primal mechanics. If we do that, a bettor who holds suitably strong hands will break even on bets if he gets called and wins just half the time. Of course, a bettor who doesn’t hold a suitably strong hand and is bluffing does not need to win half the time that he’s called. Assume a pot of $100 and a bet of $10. The bettor, if the hand is hopeless in a showdown, will break even if an opponent passes just one time out of 11. That’s because on that one time the bettor will gain $100 he couldn’t have won by checking (ignoring a rare check-raise bluff). But on the 10 times he is called, he loses a total of $100 ($10 each) which balances the books.

In a perfectly played game, bettors usually win; callers usually lose. But overall, the caller wins just often enough to neutralize the advantage of the bettor. Sure, you can enhance your calling profit by adding tells and focusing on an opponent’s betting weaknesses. But, in a game among perfect players, calling is a break-even proposition — and you should think of it that way. Sorry. That’s 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.

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