Which poker concepts are correct and which aren’t?

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

About a month ago, I wrote a column that consisted of two lists. Everything on the first list was true. Everything on the second list was false. Today, I’m presenting two new lists. But, instead of simply sorting the items into “true” and “false” lists, I’ve instead categorized everything as either “correct” or “incorrect,” just to try something completely different.

The Correct List:
The three things on this list are correct.

1. Assertion: Even experienced players make the following mistake: They raise with a very strong, but not invincible, hand on the final betting round with another player still to act.

No trick to this question. It’s correct that the strategy is usually a mistake. And it’s correct that experienced players often make that mistake. There are few advantages to raising in this common situation. Yet many professionals do it routinely. If you call, you will often be overcalled and win two bets. If you raise, you might win two bets, if the player behind you passes and the original bettor calls. The main risk of just calling is that you might have a superior hand that could have won two bets, but will now only win one bet.

But that risk is usually overshadowed by other factors. Your call often wins an overcall, and if the third player has a powerful hand, he’ll raise, anyway. Perhaps he’ll then get called by the original bettor and your overcall may win four betting units (two from each opponent). But if you raise and are reraised, the bettor will usually fold and you’re risking three bets without increasing your potential profit. Plus, the bettor might be bluffing and then you’ll have no advantage to raise; you’ll only lose a possible weak overcall from the player waiting to act. If you just call with your marginally strong hand, you’ll often win the overcall. If you raise, you’ll often chase the third player out, and win nothing more with a futile raise against a bettor who was bluffing..

All-in-all, you’ll seldom be making a big mistake by just calling, but you can cost yourself in the long run by raising with strong hands that are not cinches when a player remains to act behind you on the final round. If you’re almost certain that you have the best hand, it’s OK to raise. But in most other circumstances where you have a strong hand, but there’s some doubt about its superiority and you might get a weak overcall from the player behind you, it’s better to just call that bet in the middle position.

2. Assertion: If I give sophisticated poker advice that saves a player $20,000 next year, it may not be as good as if the player follows advice coming from a total novice who knows nothing about scientific poker.

How can that be correct? Let’s think about it together. Suppose Jack loses $25,000 a year, on average. But, he has poor observational skills and a habit of going on tilt. So, I sit down with him, and I tell him that he’s not raising often enough on the river and that he needs to play fewer small pairs from the start. He believes me (which makes sense, because I’m right), and he incorporates my advice into his game plan.

Fine. Next year he has perfectly average luck, but only loses $5,000, rather than the $25,000 he was expecting to lose with similar luck. So, I should be proud, right? I should prance around the casino smug as smug can be, knowing that I have saved Jack $20,000. Not only that, this $20,000 is entirely attributable to my most exacting research which I passed along to him. All year, Jack continued to be a victim of his own emotions and still wasn’t able to make quality observations about other players at the poker table. But, despite this, he was able to use my advice to dramatically cut his losses by 80 percent! Am I a great teacher, or what?

But, wait! Suppose he follows his girlfriend’s advice, instead. Jill doesn’t know anything about the complex strategies surrounding poker. All she knows is that Jack losses money every year. And her advice is just one word: “Quit.” Now, my friends, if Jack follows Jill’s advice – instead of mine – he saves $25,000. That’s $5,000 better than my advice, and it comes from someone who knows nothing about how to win at poker. I want you to think about that, because it underscores a powerful point. The point is, if poker advice doesn’t either (a) increase your winnings, or (b) move you from life as a loser to life as a winner, then it isn’t worth very much at all. It certainly isn’t worth as much as, “Quit.”

3. Assertion: Suppose you bet and get three calls. It’s more likely that the game is profitable if the second-best hand calls, followed by the third best, and finally followed by the fourth best than if the fourth-best hand calls first, followed by the third and finally the second best.

Correct. It tends to indicate a more lucrative game if the stronger hands call first. The weak overcalls are very good indicators of a profitable poker game. If you don’t know your opponents and want to judge whether you’re in a good spot to make money, watch the showdowns. If you see a lot of pots where the first caller is stronger than subsequent callers at the showdown, that’s a great sign. The poker theory here is that, on average, hands should get a little stronger with each overcall. If this isn’t the case, your opponents may be playing poker as if it were bingo, going by the strength of their own hands without regard to what others may hold. Of course, those really strong hands may raise, rather than call, but that’s another topic.

The Incorrect List:
Everything on this list is incorrect.

1. Assertion: The main reason you cannot profitably play as many hands against knowledgeable opponents is that they play too tight (conservatively).

You cannot profitably play as many hands against knowledgeable opponents – that’s correct. But the main reason you must be more selective is not that these opponents play too tight. Many knowledgeable players don’t use tight strategy at all. So why should you be more selective about the hands you play against them?

Simple. Against weak opponents, you don’t need to start with hands that should show a profit if everyone plays the way you think they should. You only need to start with hands that will show a profit if everyone plays the way you expect them to. This means, specifically, that you can enter pots against weak foes, with hands that would be theoretically losers against knowledgeable foes. And you’ll still make money. You can, as a matter of fact, play the same weak hands that destroy your opponents when they play them.

How come? Because, by playing hands that are substandard, you are gambling that your weak opponents will make enough mistakes on future betting rounds during the hand to make your initial investment worthwhile. You might stumble into a strong position, and your opponents won’t know whether to surrender. This powerful real-world occurrence makes it possible for you to sometimes play seemingly weak starting hands and still win consistently. However, when your opponents are not weak, you can’t do this, and that’s the main reason you need to restrict your starting hands against tight opponents. It’s not that they’re playing too cautiously (although, against some sophisticated opponents, that could be a factor in your hand selection); it’s that they aren’t apt to make the mistakes along the path to the showdown that mean your investment in weaker starting hands is profitable.

2. Assertion: It’s usually a good money-making practice to pool money to send a skilled representative into a game he otherwise couldn’t afford.

Incorrect. This is usually a poor practice. You often see medium limit players look to a nearby table and say, “Gee, you could make a lot of money at that game.” And then someone else suggests, “Let’s each put up $2,500 and one of us will go in there with $10,000. Maybe we’ll make a big score.”

Problem is this. Sometimes – in fact, this is an actual recent happening – four players may be in a decent $75/$150 game. The game they’re targeting for the big adventure may be $300/$600. What’s actually happening is each one of the four players will have a share equivalent to the $75/$150 game they’re already playing. And the game being targeted may be not just larger, but also tougher. This was the case in the recent real-life case that inspired this question. In short, this player “combine” wasn’t really destined to gamble any bigger than they already were; and they were getting a worse deal in terms of expected profit, because there were four fairly live opponents in their current game. The only thing I can think of that might have worked in their favor was that by sending a delegate to another game, there were only three of them left competing for the profits in their current game.

The point is that the bigger games are usually tougher, and the same amount of money can often be used more wisely if the shares are played individually in smaller games.

3. Assertion: Like all sophisticated poker strategy, bluffing is most profitable against the weakest opponents.

This is absolutely incorrect. There are experienced players out there right now who are lifelong losers, but who would have been lifelong winners if they had just gotten this concept right. You do not want to bluff weak opponents. Their main flaw is that they call too much. If they call too much, then obviously they will catch you more often than you would like if you attempt to bluff them. By trying to “bull” your way through a weak opponent, you’re playing right into their strategy – limited though it may be.

If you’re going to bluff anyone, pick a knowledgeable opponent, especially one who prides himself on making quality laydowns. Bluffing works best against sensible opponents. Much money is lost attempting to bluff weak foes. So, don’t. — 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.

5 thoughts on “Which poker concepts are correct and which aren’t?”

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  1. “If you’re going to bluff anyone, pick a knowledgeable opponent, especially one who prides himself on making quality laydowns. Bluffing works best against sensible opponents. Much money is lost attempting to bluff weak foes. So, don’t. — MC”

    If anyone is going to take ANYTHING away from this article or from Mike Caro, it should be this advice. Thank you Mike, we ALL as players need to keep this in mind when playing in our games.

    Two Pairs,
    Aaron Woelke

  2. Fantastic article. Thank you. One thing that I wish I knew earlier is your closing lines, “Much money is lost attempting to bluff weak foes. So, don’t.” – These should be bolded!

  3. I’m pretty sure I get everything you’re saying Mr.Caro, except the incorrect list.By calling it the incorrect list, does that mean everything that is right on the list is wrong, and everything that is wrong is actually right?

    1. Hi, Daniel —

      Welcome to Poker1.

      You actually have a point, even if you’re being funny. All the top-level assertions on the “incorrect list” are false. All of my explanatory comments that follow each assertion, however, are true.

      Wait, let me think… Oh, whatever.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. Hi Mike, I think I remember the same story from Doyle’s book about the guy who put a book on the table with the title of how to bluff all the time and win money or something like that and the inside of the entire book was blank except for the word “don’t” printed inside. And it is very true that you can’t bluff an idiot, so trying is usually not profitable.

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