Keeping poker bullies broke

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Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. Originally published (2006) in Bluff magazine. Actual title used in print was Mike Caro’s suggested preference: “Poker bullies — how to bust their balls.” The title used here was submitted as an alternative choice for the editors.


When a poker bully enters my game, it spoils everything. My mood changes. Other players stop giggling. The party is over; the bully has come to push us around. Yawn. Don’t worry.

You see, there’s an easy way to keep poker bullies from ruining your game and decreasing your profit. You can quickly send these guys home crying to their mommies, and today I’m going to tell you how.

About Edward

Let’s talk about Edward. He used to come into my games in Gardena, California. Back then the small suburb of Los Angeles billed itself as “the poker capitol of the world” and you could play legally. I spent 14 years there as a professional player. It was like the Wild West. Cheaters everywhere. You had to try to dance around the stampede of scammers, but sometimes you got trampled. I’m sure I would have won many times as much as I did had I not been cheated constantly in those years. Sometimes, the crooks were three to five deep. And it wasn’t just partnerships you had to look out for. There were no dealers furnished by the six casinos devoted to poker. You took turns dealing your own cards, honest players and card mechanics alike.

But once again, I have wandered off the path. Edward. We were talking about Edward. He was a poker bully and looked the part. He was a bit overweight and extremely muscular. He always wore a beard stubble in those years before it was fashionable. At about six-three and 270 pounds or so, he just wasn’t someone you wanted to mess with. Often tough-looking guys like this have the nicest, most hospitable personalities when sitting at the poker tables. Not Edward. He was just plain mean, and he played an aggressive brand of poker that was in harmony with his disposition. Now, I’ve learned that belligerent players like this often have two personalities. One they bring to the poker tables and the other is the real them in the real world. Usually that “real them” is a courteous, easy-going person that you’re proud to know. At the table they’re tigers, but get them alone away from the game and they’re pussycats. Not Edward.

Making peace

He was mean and unapproachable on the table or off. I remember the one and only day I tried to make peace with him. An hour earlier, this had happened…

I’m playing five-card draw poker at the Horseshoe Club. In case you’re wondering, that Gardena poker casino wasn’t related in any way to Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. You should know that only two main types of poker were allowed in Gardena, traditional high-hand-wins draw poker and low-hand-wins draw poker. This was because casinos owners and city government had decided that an eighty-or-so-year-old ruling by a California attorney general had decreed draw to be a form of skill, whereas any “open faced” poker, such as stud or hold ’em, was illegal because state statute specifically forbade “stud horse” poker. Of course, to this day nobody knows for certain what stud horse poker was, and there’s evidence to suggest it wasn’t poker at all, but rather a casino game of pure chance. I ended up deeply involved in the effort to bring stud poker and hold ’em to California – and we won! But that’s another story for another time.

Back to my draw poker table in Gardena. It was 1974 — or maybe it was some other year thereabout, but naming years makes stuff seem more credible. Anyway, I’ve got the game under control. We’re all laughing and they’re throwing chips my way on the worst possible hands. Everything is as I want it – just so. And then a lady goes broke and into that empty seat plops Edward. He calls over a chip girl, as they were then called, and buys several stacks. He doesn’t say “hi” to anyone. Right away, he starts betting and raising. That’s fine, but he isn’t the least bit playful about it. He is a war machine, an angry one.

And now the casual conversation among the other players dries up and a somber fog rolls in, bringing gloom to our table. It was entertainment before. Now it’s agony. Hang on to your chips! The big mean monster’s out to get them! Of course, I was out to get their chips before Edward sat down, but they didn’t seem to mind, because my mission has always been to make losing to me as painless as possible. Remind me to write a column about that technique some other time. It’s really important. But, let’s move on with today’s lesson. The game has been ruined. The bully has made it unpleasant.

Not calling enough

Time and again, Edward says things like, “Bad call, sucker!” and, when showing a bluff, “What’s the matter, you li’l sissy. Don’t you have the balls to make a call?” And I notice something phenomenal occurring. Opponents are letting him dominate the table. They’re afraid to confront him. They’re not calling enough. Sometimes they’re trying to counter his aggressiveness by making a big splash and wagering even more recklessly than he does. This fails. I’ll tell you why it fails in a minute.

When Edward takes a break to go to the bathroom, I follow him. “Wait up,” I holler. He turns and grimaces. There is not the slightest hint of congeniality.

“Can I make a suggestion?” I begin.

“Last I heard, it’s a free country,” he sighs in exasperation, his muscles tensed as if he’s trying to scare me away.

“We’ll both make more money by not insulting the weaker players.”

He glares. No nod of agreement, no argument. Just a glare. Then he spins around and disappears into the men’s room. When he returns to the table, it’s the same old, same old. So, I escalate my bully-defense strategy. It instinctively worked for me back then, and later it became a key part of my poker teaching.

In order to defeat a poker bully, you first need to understand a fundamental truth. That bully is doing something wrong! I’ve analyzed thousands of key situations and used my own proprietary computer programs to simulate billions of hands. And I can tell you one thing for certain: There’s a specific amount of bets and raises a player should make in accordance with a perfect strategy. The number is based on the long-term distribution of cards and how rare your hand is at the moment. You can adjust that number somewhat to fit the traits of your opponents, but you can’t stretch it far. Make too many bets or raises or not enough and your strategy snaps. Then you’re not playing to your own advantage, you’re playing to your opponent’s advantage.

The winning formula

Now, listen up. A poker bully is by definition too aggressive. In order to be a bully, he must make a fundamental mistake – he must bet and raise too often. When an opponent makes a mistake, there’s always a way to take advantage. Here’s how to take advantage of a poker bully:

  1. Call more often. Because a bully is betting more hands, it’s obvious that he must be betting more than just the ones you would normally bet. This means you can relax your calling standards and still make a profit.
  2. Bet less often. A key to defeating a poker bully is to let him hang himself. Since his major mistake is betting too liberally, you should give him every opportunity to defeat himself by repeating that mistake. You should check and call frequently. You should also bet less often when a poker bully checks into you, because a bully likes to check-raise a lot. Therefore when he foregoes the opportunity to be a betting bully, you should be wary of a check-raising bully. Just check along.

When you do these two simple things, the bully has a losing expectation against you. And, in the long run, he cannot win. Sometimes it’s tempting to “out bull” the bully by being even more aggressive than he is. That’s the wrong answer. You can’t win at poker by exaggerating the same mistake an opponent is making. Stick to the one-two formula I just presented.

Want to know what happened to Edward? He ran into a month of bad luck and went broke. One day he walked up to me and asked to borrow $20. I gave it to him. He seemed humble and thanked me with genuine warmth.

And there it was – the flipside of Edward. Deep, deep in the core of his conscience there survived a bit of civility. But he had to be broke for you to see it. — 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.

47 thoughts on “Keeping poker bullies broke”

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  1. Hi Mike, I was playing 1-2 NL heads-up against a bully recently out of position. He bets $16 and I call. I had A-10 and flop was 3-8-10. I check he checks. Turn is a Q. I check, he bets $90. I go for chips and he says “really”. Was that a ‘tell’ and what did I do wrong? Thanks!

  2. i’ve been playing with bullies lately and i love your advice. Sometimes these bullies are really lucky though and kill you on the river. Any ideas. should i just avoid when hes’ in a hand?

    1. Hi, Joey — No, you shouldn’t avoid a bully. Whenever possible, let him do the betting. And stay in with strong or medium-strong hands, depending on the situation. Eventually, that player will lose money to you by betting too often or too much or both. Meanwhile, he may get lucky or may hold his stronger hands, by coincidence, when you confront him. That’s the chance you take in poker. But if your decisions are profitable, what happens today or this week won’t change that long-range outcome. However, luck can run bad for a long time, so feel successful whenever you play correctly. Eventually, those theoretical dollars will be real. — Mike Caro

  3. Hi Mike, Would you recommend this strategy for dealing with online bullies as well? In live games I have been fairly successful when dealing with bullies. However online it seems they irritate me much more. How about tournaments? Its seems to me this article was mostly from the perspective of a cash game.
    I look forward to reading many more of your articles. I giggled when your story was set in 74 I was just born so I’m looking at this advise like it is age old wisdom.
    Have a great day!
    Nadine

    1. Hi, Nadine —

      Thanks for joining our Poker1 family. Yes, you should lean toward handling bullies the same way in tournaments. However, keep in mind that the most profitable way to play in a proportional-payout tournament is to sacrifice some of your marginal edges to survive into the money. So, in those tournaments, try not to get trapped by a bully who actually might have a strong hand when you’re targeting only tiny profit on average.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  4. I’ve spent the last few days getting slowly beaten down by aggressive players while I’ve tried to flop something (anything) against them. Haven’t flopped a pair in days. How would you suggest playing against them when you’re not running well enough to call their bets?

    1. Just keep folding and wait. You can’t manufacture cards that fate hasn’t dealt you. Trying to invent hands against aggressive opponents is usually not a good idea. — Mike Caro

        1. That’s right. You can do that occasionally, but the trick is to keep taking advantage of their habit of betting too often by just calling. On the final betting round, you can raise with strong hands and sometimes even raise with very weak hands in attempt to steal the pot. — Mike Caro

          1. Would you do the same in a short handed game? One or two opponents? That can be hard to combat at times.

  5. If a certain player won’t let you see a cheap flop and always has to get the last bet in before the flop, do you ever stoop to their level and indulge them in a raising war?

    1. Hi, Nicky —

      Usually, you just let him continue to do that, as explained in the entry above. He’s making a costly mistake by being too aggressive, so take advantage by surrendering the lead. However, if you have a very strong hand, you sometimes can leverage that immediate advantage by raising. Even then, unless it’s the final betting round, you’re sacrificing hope of letting him hang himself with future bets. So, calling is often the better choice, but raising is sometimes okay, too.

      Your goal should never be to incite a raising war, though. That might motivate him to behave in the future, and if he behaves, he stops over-betting and you lose that advantage.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  6. What if those same people who bet too often, also made the mistake of calling too much? Which mistake would be better to capitalize on?

    1. Hi, Brian —

      Great question! It would depend on the degrees of each tendency — calling too often or betting too often. Generally, habitual callers are more profitable opponents than bullies. Into the rare hybrids you describe, I would tend to bet marginally strong hands more often, while checking super strong ones and letting the “bully” part of the opponent’s personality self-destruct.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  7. Mike,

    Love your advice. You’re usually the first person I look up when I’m pondering poker and some solid insight would be helpful. You’ve already been extremely helpful with the wide range of topics that you’ve covered in the past. I thank you for that!

    When it comes to letting the bullies hang themselves, what’s your position on giving them free cards? Do you just check and call (within reason) knowing that he’s going to bet the scare card on wet boards anyway?

    (Sorry if this question is a repost, I couldn’t tell if it went through)

  8. Mike,

    What’s your position on giving the bullies free cards? Do you just check and call (within reason) knowing that he’s going to bet the scare card anyway?

  9.  
    At one of my regular games we had a new player who showed up and he was, by Mike’s definition, a bully. He over bet, raised a lot and just generally tried to push the table around. I sat out several hands to try to get a feel for the guy and realized, just as Mike said, that playing my regular game and not reacting to his over bets and out of position raises gave me a distinct advantage. I almost never raised when he was in the pot and called only when I felt my hand/draws/potential was correct. He ended the night down, a lot, and I, who had been behind the whole night before he showed up, ended up a marginal winner. The guy bluffed a lot of chips my way and now I rather like it when he is in the game. The banter that normally accompanies our game died that first night but, as the others have caught on to his style, has returned and for all intents and purposes we just ignore him. A bully can, I believe, be very good for your bottom line.   

  10. I'm so very glad I ran across this article while perusing your site…you have addressed a fundimental flaw in my game that has been incredibly frustrating.  Finally!  It makes perfect sense, too. Like a few of the other commenters, I often found myself folding after making a large bet in an attempt to "out-bully" the bully at the table.  Thank you for your great advice.  I can't wait to try this!

  11. Very interesting information. I play a regular Friday night game, one with a bully that wins a lot of chips and another player that is not as good, but tries to emulate the first player. He ends up losing a lot, but in the process creates some unwarranted action. I am going to remember these two tips, to see if I can take more of their money that I already do:) Love your site, by the way! Sincerely, Terry

  12. Very good article. The formula is simple but you can get away from it because of emotions. And love the side stories in this one, interesting read.

  13. Thank you, again, Mr. Caro!
    I sure was headed off to the casino with yet another flaw in my thinking! Out the window went the knowledge you have given us that winning at poker is a long term accomplishment~replaced with my instict to “decimate the bully”. Glad I checked in before I left!
    At the risk of sounding like a starstruck fan,(and really, what’s so bad about that?) I want to thank you for providing serious students of poker with a lifetime of information. You certainly are appreciated and , as far as I am concerned, the best there is! I look forward to participating and being a part of the Poker1 family. Sincerely,
    Lori Kolstad

    1. I think you will do well Lori. Women are some of the most cunning players I’ve run into. In fact, I hate it and I also love it when female sits to my direct left. I have seen that the women I have played with are much sharper than the testosterone sitting around the table and they have the ability to read what’s going on. Their ability to react to me going first gives them a large amount of ammo. This is why when a woman is to my left I find myself playing basic fundamental poker. I actually play better but I think my bluffing element goes down tremendously, which in the long run keeps me from digging my own hole. Keep the bullies in line and do well

  14. Wow, Mr. Caro! Thank you! As a female player I seem to run into bullies a lot, especialy playing live games in the deep south where I sometimes sit at tables where the prevalent overall feeling is that ” The poker table is no place for women”. When a real bully (name witheld to protect the bully) joins he seems to pick up on that underlying feeling and becomes some kind of super bully! I have been guilty of having to fold to him repeatedly after betting post flop to his check. I can’t believe that I have overlooked all this time the basic fact that as long as I am making better decisions than him, I will defeat him . I will be putting the ole’ 1-2 to him this weekend!
    Kindest Regards,
    Lori Kolstad

    1. Hi, Lori —

      Thanks for posting your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      Keep in mind that you’ll be using tactics that will beat a poker bully in the long term, by taking advantage of his biggest mistakes. However, that doesn’t mean short-term luck won’t mean he actually holds a lot of big hands. You’re playing the long-term percentages.

      Don’t put too much emphasis on the weekend’s results, whether they’re good or bad.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  15. Mr. Caro
    MCU Tip #43 from Super/System2 works for me every time.
    And I enjoyed reading every line of this “extended” version.
    Can’t wait to read a column on how make your foes comfortable with losing their money to you.

    King Regards
    John Ryder

  16. This is a great tip mike. You are 100% right. When facing that kind of player you have to keep cool and wait for your moment. Great advise!

    1. Thanks, Greg. I hope it works to your benefit.

      Also, thanks for leaving your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  17. I do alright at my regular 1-2 game but I do run into Bullies all the time there (I assume that they do not live long at higher limit games against a more skilled group of players) and I had before in the past just sat around waiting for strong hands to go over the top with them. But I do see how just calling them over and over with Medium hands such as top pair would break them over the long haul.

    I tend to think of Bullies as a train wreck waiting to happen. It’s just a matter of if they destroy your chips or if you clean up their afterword.

    By the way I love your site, and as a big student of the game (read over 40 poker books and tons of sites) and I keep finding new gems of knowledge that is not the same recycled stuff.

  18. I change gears all the time when playing. Yes, one of the gears is the loose agressive bully. When I notice this defence being deployed, I’ll know to change gears again. Thanks You for all your great work. Now reading my 3rd book by you. Thanks again.

    GOOD LUCK Poker1.com

  19. really great advice..cant wait to take it to the casinos..i love cracking bullies hahaha

  20. Sorry about the typos.(periods instead of commas) I hit submit before I proof read my reply

    Gary Hoger

  21. I started playing poker (no limit texas holdem) in Oct 2009. I was 51 at the time. I love playing on line and in person. I tell you this because I have read a lot of books. Taped and watch all the poker on tv. Looked at hundreds of sites. Yours by far is the best I have seen.

    Looking forward to the completed site!

    Royal Flushes

    Gary Hoger

    1. Hi, Gary —

      Thanks for the supportive words. I hope Poker1 lives up to your expectations in the future.

      Now that you’ve made your first comment, I officially welcome you to our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

    1. Thanks, Kris. Remember, we opened the new Poker1 to early visitors so they can monitor the progress. But we’re only about 50 percent functional as of May 1, 2010.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

    1. Thanks for contributing to our Poker1 family, Kris.

      I see what you mean. We’ll leave the link to that site up for now and see if functionality returns. Visitors will see your advisory.

      (If any reader is confused, Kris is responding to my reply to James Tomshay. Scroll up.)

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  22. Thanks for the advice. I could have used it last night. In a league tourney I was seated to the left of a bully with a better personality than Edward. He would bet big, make a joke, laugh at his own joke but be the only one laughing. He had a huge lead when I joined the table. He ended up just distributing the stack around the table when some good hands showed up including one of mine. I just stumbled into my win but now I will know what to do.

  23. Very good advice. Thank’s Mike. I’ve been to tons of poker sites. Other than my own of course I must say yours is my favorite :). All of your posts are very interesting! Feel free to stop by my site sometime. It’s brand new, but I’d love to hear what you think.

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