Wrong and right things to do in poker

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

Today's "right and wrong" poker list is chosen from among thousands of items that could have been included. These four tips are quite profitable, but, remember, there are others equally profitable that we won't cover today. In other words, this isn't a top-four tip list. It's just a here's-four tips list. Anyway, let's get started.

Wrong attitude:
Entering a poker game hoping to get lucky and win your opponents' money.

Right attitude:
Entering a poker game and realizing that your opponents are holding your money, and they will need to be very lucky to keep it. If you're a skillful poker player, then you should enter a game expecting to win. All those chips and all that cash, all the money hidden in purses and wallets is yours. You want it. You deserve it. It is a crime against nature that those people are fondling your money. They have no right to it. It is yours, and you intend to play the best poker possible in an effort to bring justice to your bankroll.

Wrong image:
Making sure that opponents respect you as a player and that they know you're an analytical, winning competitor whose strategy they should fear.

Right image:
Making sure your opponents think you are error-prone, often on tilt, and unstable. One thing's for sure – people are going to give you their money a lot more willingly if they think you're incompetent than they will if they think you're trying to hustle them. My main goal image wise when I'm in a poker game is to convince opponents that I'm playing much, much worse than I really am. I can't always do this, because too many players know me. So, sometimes I'll try an opposite approach, using good-natured conversation to impress them, explaining what cards they're holding and what options they have. While doing this, I'll play a few hands in a bewildering and seemingly weak way. This is a compromise game plan. The image comes off (when done correctly) as that of a player who has incredible knowledge but who is having too much fun to use it.

If I were coming into a game as a stranger, I would try to act as clueless as possible. I would never try to impress anyone with what I know. I would want to be known as "that idiot who keeps winning." In poker, your hand is your secret. One of the worst things you can do is to inadvertently expose your hand. Well, another one of the worst things you can do is to inadvertently expose your skills.

Wrong tactic:
Check-raising loose, recreational players.

Right tactic:
Betting into or check-calling loose, recreational players. I've played in home games where check-raising (a.k.a., sandbagging) is forbidden. Even in casual games where it is not forbidden, it is often considered bad manners. You and I both know this attitude is pretty silly. Check-raising is a powerful strategy when used wisely. It is a tactic that affords a bit of compensation to a player suffering the positional disadvantage of acting first. But that's not the point.

We need to talk about why this bias against sandbagging survives. I think I know. The bias survives because casual players, especially ones playing loose (i.e., liberally and recklessly), hate the injection of tension to their game. And yes, my friends, "tension" is exactly the right word for it. When you choose to check-raise against a loose and friendly player destined to give you his money, you are increasing the tension. You are making your opponent uncomfortable.

What I'm about to tell you is very important. OK, I know – some of you are of the opinion that I'm an egomaniac who thinks that everything he says is very important. I assure you, nothing could be farther from the truth. It's just that I'm so consistently right about so many things, it gets scary after awhile. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah – that very important thing I was going to tell you about. My theory has always been that you never want to make opponents uncomfortable if they are currently comfortable about giving you their money. In that case, they are your most cherished customers, and you want to make their experience pleasant. When you check-raise, you are apt to make them less giddy about gambling. They will possibly begin to play better or more cautiously. They may begin to use sandbagging themselves in ways that will interfere with your strategy. Worst of all they may either quit or not seek you out again as a fun opponent.

Put it all together and it's clear that the small at-that-moment tactical advantage you may gain by sandbagging a loose, recreation opponent is overwhelmed by the long-term cost. Lean toward betting or check-calling most of the time, instead.

Wrong way to treat a bankroll:
Spending pieces of your wins so that you have something to "show for it" even if you go broke.

Right way to treat a bankroll:
Refusing to spend any part of your growing bankroll on your kids, your wife, your rent, your health, yourself, or your dog. The first thing you have to understand is that this advice only applies to skillful players who are capable of winning in the long term. Additionally, they must have not yet acquired a worry-free bankroll (or accessibility to funds).

If you're not yet a winning player, then this advice should be ignored. That's because, no matter how much losing players may wish to manage their money correctly and build a bankroll, they can't. When the odds are against you at anything, the best you can do is quit. In poker, though, you may not want to quit. You may want to improve, or you may be perfectly content to play recreationally forever. But, if you don't have that expectation of profit, managing a bankroll is not a concept that is meaningful to you.

If you are a winner, though, you can easily go broke by spending your bankroll. A middle-limit player (call him Player A) could start with, say, $2,000, win $20,000 over perhaps two months, spend $14,000, lose $8,000 and find himself broke and miserable. He is busted, failed. And you better believe his friends and family will see his poker escapades as a failure, even though he won. In the hypothetical case just described, the player won $12,000. But he is a bustout, a broke, a railbird, a wannabe. A less fortunate player of equal skill may have started with $2,000, won $15,000 over two months, refused to spent anything, lost the same $8,000 when the cards turned bad, and still had a $9,000 bankroll for recovery.

That second player (Player B) could have kept right on playing, building his bankroll. $15,000, $25,000, $50,000, $100,000, $500,000 – never spending a dime (or spending only meagerly, if he had no other income source), moving up to more profitable games as his skill increased. So, there they are my friends, player A and Player B. Same skill. Potentially about the same luck in the long run. Player A, a failure, broke and battered. Player B, a big-name success. How much did spending that $14,000 actually cost Player A? Whatever he bought with it could easily cost him much more that $10 for every $1 he spent. In this case, much more. How can you afford needlessly to spend pieces of a building bankroll? You can't afford it. Yet the majority of potential pros fail for precisely that reason.

It's hard to convince girlfriends, boyfriends, brothers, and mothers that you shouldn't spend gambling money when you win. But winners need to stick to their convictions. If you owned an auto supply shop and were starting to expand the business, they wouldn't say, "Hey, you're doing really good. Let's sell the cash register and a bunch of the inventory so you'll have something to show for it if you go broke." And you wouldn't think of doing that yourself, either.

Well, a growing business and a growing poker bankroll are the same thing. The bankroll is the tool you need to run your business. Trifle with it, if you will. Abuse it, if you must. But don't say I didn't warn you. — 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.

17 thoughts on “Wrong and right things to do in poker”

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  1. “Let’s sell the cash register and a bunch of the inventory so you’ll have something to show for it if you go broke.”

    Genius.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I have read your advice for a while now and I have taken some good points from you, but I have to say that many players, at least the ones who are making a living at the smaller and mid stakes are going to be wasting their time setting up a loose image.

    Here’s why:

    1) No one cares. In most of the games I play, no one gives a shit what my image is. They see suited cards or 2 high cards and they play them. They hit a draw or top pair and they go broke. They simply don’t take the time to even think about what I have or how I’m playing. It’s not hard to get calls with big hands. Why waste money setting up an image if no one cares?

    2) Time. How long are you sitting in a game where you can set up an image then profit from it? It’s not like great cards come so often. Most of my sessions are about 6 hours. In that time I usually see most pairs once. It’s not like I can magically start collecting on those hands at will. They take time to come and in that time are the same players that I spent time convincing I’m a loose bad player even there? Over a session people come and go.

    3) Lose the ability to bluff. To me, this to me is the most compelling reason NOT to set up a loose, bad player image. Like you have said, people are looking to call. Why would I want to lose my most important tool, my ability to find good situations to bluff? It’s not like in these games you can bluff much anyway (back to 1), but if you set up a loose image, you really don’t have any chance. With a nice tight image against a sharp player, a good bluff might make a session for me. If that same player things I’m a loose cannon, he might make that call on me taking away a lot of profit.

    I have been a recreational profiting player for the last 5 years, at times playing to pay the rent and these are just my observations on the games I’ve been playing.

    Care to address?

    Thanks,

    TJ

    1. Hi, Johnny —

      Your first comment is live now. In rushing to officially open Poker1, I’ve sometimes delayed approving first-time comments. After your first one is approved (and it is now), you don’t have to wait for future ones to be moderated.

      Thanks for leaving your first message and joining our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  3. Great advise Mike! I have had this same check-raising arguement with some of my friends many times. I feel it is NOT ok to do it to a new player in any game, for many of the reasons you have already stated, but mainly because you want a new player to feel like they are “one of the guys” and not just a new live one. Emotions are always more powerful than reason, and why bring negative emotions out of a new player, no matter the reason?! One day I may get them to stop doing it.
    Another thing they always are doing lately is leaving all of their chips at the table when they leave. Late at night, with no one on the board for the game, they reason this will help keep the game together as it appears there is still a player in that seat. The problem is most people are wise to this and it really is just an insult to their intelligence, as well as does not allow them to make proper decisions about how long they are going to play, as well as being just plain rude (how about just saying goodnight?). I work in a ten table room, where everyone really knows each other and it is a very friendly place, even for new players, so this move is especially rude to me. What do you think?

  4. Excellent article Mike. Particularly the way you frame a winning Attitude. Its definitely going up on the mirror. It can be easy to give into the grind and become apathetic.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and your encouraging words.

    Abrazo,
    Joe

  5. I will use anything i can, if it be chat, or reading other people and their cards, it makes them mad as hell..
    Tho some Forum sites out there don’t like it, all i have to say is boohoo for them.
    Poker is just as much as a mind set as it is a game of skill, getting into someones head is great.

  6. Hi Mike,

    I’m just starting showing profits on my game, and i’m also bussy with building a bankroll.

    I’m just on de mid 20’s, so i supose that I belong to that new group of online-players :P. Anyway i just want to say how important is to read articles from such rich experience people like you. I’m really amazed every time i read something at this site and i want to thank you for the effort you put on this.

    “Teaching somebody to catch a fish is a lot more usefull than just inviting him to eat some fish”, thank you MC.

  7. Hi Mike,

    Thank you so much for your articles, they are such a pleasure to read, and one of my favourite resources. And thank you so much for gems like these!…

    “In poker, your hand is your secret. One of the worst things you can do is to inadvertently expose your hand. Well, another one of the worst things you can do is to inadvertently expose your skills.”

  8. Hi Mike – I enjoy your comments – How about writing something about players who throw in their hands when there is no bet to them. They just give up because they think they can’t win. Often this is silly, as runner runner can do wonders. It is very inconsiderate and does not protect other players hands. It gives information that the player will NOT RERAISE if a player bets or bluffs. Perhaps it also gives info to a pal who is still in the pot. Cheating? Advantage? Unfair? Dumb? Just plain lazy or bored? What do you think?

  9. You said:
    Making sure that opponents respect you as a player and that they know you’re an analytical, winning competitor whose strategy they should fear.

    That’s interesting I’m just getting back into poker after a longish voluntary absence. I’ve been driving myself silly by worrying when I make a dumb move or a mistake that “the other players will think I’m worthless”. Clearly, I don’t want to keep making dumb moves, but your insight makes me realize that I’m over-thinking the relationship with other players.

    1. Hi, Nigel —

      Welcome to our Poker1 family, and thanks for posting your first comment.

      Good luck with your return to poker. In case anyone is confused, the “Making sure that opponents respect…” advice quoted by Nigel was listed in the entry above as a WRONG image.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  10. I loved the part about check-raising, and will definitely apply that to my future rec games. Thanks Mike!

  11. Very wise info and for me it is the way I feel about poker. Of course it will take me a long time to build my bankroll but look out when I do. It is a business that has it’s ups and downs but over the long run I want to come out ahead showing a profit. If I could stay in the restaurant business for 25 years and not go broke I can do it with poker. Larry

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