Loose wiring: Why poker isn’t chess


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Bluff magazine.


“You teach poker strange, compared to everyone else,” a student told me. I acknowledged the comment in the only way that immediately seemed natural to me.

“Thanks,” I said. I believe the biggest profit comes from understanding the poker universe. Some people try to analyze poker as if it were chess. If an opponent does that, then it means this. But if he does this, then it means that.

Caro’s Law of Loose Wiring applies to both real life and poker. It explains why people and players do things unexpectedly. My complete, original Law of Loose Wiring states: “If choices are not clearly connected to their benefits, people usually interact in ways that make outcomes unpredictable. If choices are clearly connected to their benefits, people sometimes interact in ways that make outcomes unpredictable.”

Another poker universe

Sometimes you’ll see it shortened and presented for poker specifically: If choices are not clearly connected to their benefits, poker players usually interact in ways that make outcomes unpredictable.

Envision two hypothetical poker hands played in almost parallel universes. The same hands are dealt simultaneously to the same players, all having the same moods. But in one universe, the pot turns out to be huge and, in the other, tiny – and a completely different set of players reaches the showdown! Same players, same cards, same moods, same everything. Why? It’s because most poker decisions aren’t obvious. You can call or fold, raise or call, but the best choice isn’t clear.

A waitress clanking a coffee cup can cause the loose wires in an opponent’s brain to dance randomly and connect briefly – and the decision ends up being call, instead of fold. And then, everyone else relates to that action, often facing new borderline decisions themselves. In this environment – whether at a poker table or out in the real world – anything is possible.

But even if players are faced with clearly superior choices, they sometimes choose to act contrary to their better judgment. (That’s the second part of the Law.) And that’s why poker can’t be beaten easily if you assume you’re in a match with opponents who are following a logical path consistently. They aren’t.

Poker logic

In 1980, a poker expert posed a jacks-or-better draw poker question. “Suppose you open with a pair of aces in last position and everyone folds, except a solid, sensible player to your right. He calls and draws one card. You draw two cards and make four aces. You check, he bets, you raise, and he re-raises. Assuming he didn’t know you would open, what should you do?”

“Just call,” I said, stating what I thought was obvious.

“No!” he contradicted, seeming disappointed in my answer. “You must fold!”

His point was that if my opponent checked in second-to-last position, he must not have had the legal requirements to open – a pair of jacks or better. So, when he came into the pot calling after I opened with my aces, his one-card draw indicated an attempt to make a straight or a flush.

So far, so good. When I checked my three-card draw and the player bet, it meant he had either connected and made his hand or he was bluffing. Since I had made a miracle, best-possible draw and now held four aces, I could raise, trying to extract an extra bet from the opponent. But, then, when my opponent responded to my check-raise with a re-raise, he had to realize that I can beat a straight or flush. A raise wouldn’t make any sense unless I had at least a full house. Since I was against a specified “sensible player,” his re-raise could only mean that he could beat a full house or four-of-a-kind. And the only hand that could do that was a straight flush.

Thus, knowing I was against a straight flush, I must fold. Let’s think. Even if this opponent were analyzing the play in accordance with the chain of logic implied, why wouldn’t he simply fold if he bet a straight or flush and I raised? After all, it should be clear to him that I could only raise with a full house, minimum. So, if I give him credit for that fold, I should only call with four aces, knowing that he would never call my raise, except in the unlikely circumstance that he had drawn to a straight flush and then made it.

But, obviously, the correct play isn’t to just call with four-of-a-kind, because you and I both know that any straight or flush is going to call a raise most of the time, whether the call is sensible or not. And, there’s another big tactical concept at work here. If players did reason plays through in that manner, wouldn’t it be appropriate to always bluff when raised in key situations? It would mean skillful opponents would always use logic to fold. But folding would then become illogical, because the other players’ best response would be to raise no matter what in those situations. You see what I’m getting at?

Not chess

You can’t play poker like chess. Furthermore, you can’t depend on even the most stable-seeming opponents to play logically at all times. Emotions get in the way and color their judgment.

Additionally, borderline decisions, such as to call or fold, aren’t clearly linked to their benefits. So, in accordance with Caro’s Law of Loose Wiring, you should expect anything to happen. And you shouldn’t expect consistently reasonable decisions, even when best choices are clear.

Don’t play poker like chess; play poker like poker. That seems like a silly-sounding secret, but it gets the money. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mikecaro
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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.

7 thoughts on “Loose wiring: Why poker isn’t chess”

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  1. Just came across this post Mike, and reminds me of quantum physics. I think you just explained Heisenbergs uncertainty principle to me in a poker analogy! lol

  2. Mike: Have you ever, or do you know of anyone who has ever, laid down four Aces? If I put my self in the game with either hand I would express the tell you describe of shaking hands. I would be quivering like a palm frond in a hurricane.
    Paragraph 8, second sentence: “…a solid sensible player to your right.” Paragraph 15, second sentence: “… you can’t depend on even the most stable-seeming opponents to play logically at all times.” My thinking – “He’s bluffing for the first time in the 15 years I’ve known him!” I will always remember this scenario, but I will never lay down four aces.
    Love your articles and Love your analysis.
    Rich

    1. It would be very hard to fold quad aces. But, I have folded pocket AA before. I was playing what was a wild $2/$5 game where I had AA on the button and five people went all in before me. I had just spent 3 hours getting not only back even but $800 ahead, but three of the five all-ins had me covered. I figured my other aces were probably being held by a few of these people and that AA wouldn’t hold up against five other all ins. I folded AA and it turned out that the guy with QQ hit a Q on the flop and took the pot so my decision to fold AA turned out to be right in the end.

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