Unsorted advice for poker success

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Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (1996) in Card Player magazine.

Rediscovered and added to Poker1 in 2014. Heavily enhanced.


No matter how much I try to organize my research and writing, there always are things that I leave out. Today’s discussions could easily have been included in previous columns, but I either overlooked this possibility, or ran short of space.

Changing my selective-but-aggressive advice. As you know, I often advise a non-aggressive approach in hold ’em. This is in spite of the fact that my basic philosophy for poker in general is to be selective about the hands you choose to play, but to be very aggressive when you have even a small edge.

I could say those words to somebody — “Be selective, but aggressive” — but it wouldn’t work for them, unless they knew when they had an edge and when they didn’t. The “be selective” part of that advice would be straightforward. You’d simply refuse to enter pots unless you had high-quality hands or you found yourself in a late position with a medium-strong hand, without anyone else having entered the pot.

However, the “but aggressive” part of that advice is not so easy to follow. That’s due to the fact that when you tell an inexperienced player to take charge by betting and raising, he’s apt to do it at all the wrong times, for all the wrong reasons. A skilled, experienced player can use the selective-but-aggressive approach because he understands when he has an edge and when he doesn’t, and — therefore — he can seek every penny’s worth of advantage.

But if you don’t know when you have a small edge — if you’re just guessing — sometimes you’ll be betting with much the worst of it. If you try this — as thousands of failed poker players will attest — you’ll get pummeled into poverty.

So, my first advice today: For players who are not skilled, a selective-but-passive strategy probably is better.

When you shouldn’t slow-play in hold ’em. Even for expert players, I often suggest a hold ’em strategy that seems timid to many professionals who make money terrorizing opponents. Specifically, I say to stop raising routinely before the flop with medium-strong or even with very strong hands.

The reason for this is so that you can see the flop cheaply. Unlike seven-card stud, where your hand unfolds gradually, the personality of a hold ’em hand is largely defined all at once on the flop. The advantages of a wait-and-see approach are: You can get out cheaply if you don’t help, and you can profit from the deception if you just call with a better-than-expected hand.

But a deeper, often-overlooked, truth is that you can’t bet every edge in poker. That’s because opponents can play back at you by raising. So, tiny advantages don’t usually compute. You need a significant edge to bet in many cases. It’s often been argued that you need a 2-to-1 edge, based on the assumption that if you’re against a better hand, you’ll be raised and will have to call. That means (at least in a limit game) you “gain” one unit if you bet and are right and “lose” two units if you’re wrong.

That reasoning falls apart for several reasons, the main one being that you won’t necessarily be raised, even if you are beat. It turns out that a three-to-two advantage (60 percent likely to have the best hand) is a good guideline for determining whether to bet — other factors not considered. But, here’s the deal. In hold ’em, there are very few hands where you have a three-to-two advantage pre-flop. The flop will often eat everything and swallow your perceived advantage.

Fine. You’ve heard me say before that you need to be cautious about raising before the flop. And I even suggested in my last column that you should often sit back and “collect bullets” by letting opponents bet into you round after round while you simply call. But here’s my second advice today: You usually should act aggressively with top pair or an overpair after seeing a small flop — unless your pair is kings or aces.

That’s important, and I’ll repeat it: Almost never slow-play any pair smaller than kings in hold’em, when the flop shows no higher cards than your pair.

Example 1:

You hold Q♥ J♦ and the flop is Q♦ 4♥ 2♥

Example 2:

You hold 10♠ 10♦ and the flop is 9♦ 8♥ 4♣

In both examples, you usually should opt to play your hand very aggressively — meaning that you should bet or even try for a check-raise if you’re first to act, or raise if someone else already has bet. In no-limit games, you should make certain your bets and raises are within the norm. Don’t wager too much, because the penalty for being beat can overwhelm the rewards of having an advantage. And it’s often hard for opponents to have weaker hands than yours that they can justify calling with. So, keep your bets and raises reasonable — but do go on offense.

How come? Because it’s too likely that opponents hold higher ranks, and if one of those hits the board, you’re doomed. It’s usually better to chase these players holding high cards out of the pot. There is another powerful hidden advantage to taking an aggressive stance with top pair or an overpair when the board is small. That advantage is in saving a bet.

If you’ve been the aggressor with your pair of tens, many opponents habitually check even if they’ve made a pair of kings, either out of respect for your hand, or in an attempt to get you to bet. It generally is an excellent play to check along if fourth street (a,k.a., the turn) is a big card. If your opponent checks again on the river, then you often can bet safely. Whether your river bet actually is safe, of course, depends on your opponent’s style of play.

Shifting gears. Poker is, after all, a game in which switching tactics earns huge profits when done correctly. Sometimes you should be the aggressor, sometimes the aggressee. Just shifting gears, by itself, makes you less predictable and may augment your bankroll — or maybe not. Final advice today: Shifting gears at whim is not nearly as effective as shifting gears with a purpose. If you don’t know why you’re shifting, usually don’t. — MC


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Mike Caro

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mikecaro FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/caro.mike Known as the "Mad Genius of Poker," Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority of poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full biography at Poker1.com.

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