How to play Caro Hold ’em


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.


A few minutes ago, I sat down to write this column on a completely different topic. What happened? Well, my mind started wandering. And I imagined myself playing hold ’em, but the game that wandered into my head wasn’t any that you’ve ever played before. I’ve never played it, either, except just now in my vision. But I’m so intrigued by the concept that I want us to share it.

If you like the game I’m about to describe, I invite you to be the first to try it out in your home-game environment or coax your cardroom into spreading it. Then, report back to me (e-mail mike@caro.com) and let me know what happened.

Feeling modest tonight, I’ve decided not to credit myself in naming this new game. Instead, I’m calling it Caro Hold ’em as a tribute to my grandfather. The rules are really very simple, and it won’t take you long to get accustomed to them.

Not limit, not no-limit

This can’t be played no-limit, as you’ll quickly understand. But it isn’t a form of limit hold ’em, either. Everything plays the same way as standard limit hold ’em, except each player starts with five secret cards, not just two. Oh, and one more thing: It’s not a three-card flop, followed by a single card on the turn and river. Hell, no! It’s a two-card flop. Let’s call it a flip, followed by a single board card, which we’ll call a blip, just because it rhymes. Then there’s a reflip — two more board cards.

There are the familiar four betting rounds: Pre-flip, flip, blip, reflip. What’s so innovative about that order of dealing the board? Nothing. But there’s a reason for it. The game wouldn’t balance strategically with a 3-1-1 board. That’s because of the method of wagering. And this is where it gets strange.

Excess cards

Whatever the established limit is for a betting round, you wager it once for each card you continue to hold. At any point in the wagering, you can throw away any excess cards above one, then bet. You can bet or raise holding five, four, three, or two cards — or even keep just one. Yes, you must keep at least one card, even if you plan to play the board. Winners are determined at the showdown, when necessary, just as in regular hold ’em.

That means you can use two, one, or none of your private cards to form your best hand. Sometimes you might continue to hold more than two cards at the showdown, when there’s no betting after the reflip (or when you’re voluntarily keeping needless cards during the reflip betting in an attempt to bewilder or intimidate opponents). If so, you can use no more than two private cards.

Why wouldn’t you keep all five cards until betting after the reflip? You might, but then you’d be paying five times the wagering limit for each bet, call, or raise. The risk might be worth it, but might not.

Let’s say it’s a $10 per unit game. Each unit of wagering — meaning you bet, call, or raise that much for each card you retain — is then $10 before the flip and after seeing the flip, $20 after seeing the one-card blip, and $40 after seeing the two-card reflip (the final two of the five board cards). How come? It’s a matter of keeping the game in tune. The larger final betting round reflects the fact that almost all players will normally be holding only two cards at that point, having seen the entire board. Otherwise, the wagering often would be smaller than on previous rounds when some players may have chosen to hang on to more cards.

The keys

These are the key rules and elements:

  • The more cards you keep, the more likely you’ll be to stumble into a winning hand.
  • The more cards you keep, the more expensive it is to play and the greater your risk.
  • You might indicate strength by throwing away more cards and perhaps psychologically enhance your bluffing chances.
  • You might mislead by keeping more cards than needed, though that can be expensive if you lose.
  • Cards discarded must be placed face up in front of player, so others can discern how many cards are kept and easily monitor the correct betting. The face-up provision adds an element of strategy. (You might show a discarded pair face up when there’s a smaller pair on the board, representing three-of-a-kind and hoping to bluff your way to victory.)
  • Players who fold, throw their cards away facedown, as in regular hold ’em.
  • Players may reduce their hands at any point before betting, calling, or raising, even on the same round where they originally held more cards and wagered more. (There are possible elements of deception here, too.)
  • Think of bets and raises not in terms of the size of the wager, but the number of levels. A bet is level one. A raise is level two. A reraise is level three. (There probably should be a cap at level four, especially if more than two players remain.) Remember that at each level (bet, raise, reraise) the cost is often different for each player. It depends on the number of cards held.
  • You cannot throw away cards when you check, but only just before you wager.

More clearly

Just so you see it more clearly, if an opponent on a $20 round holds four cards, he must bet $80 or check. If he bets and you reduce your hand to two cards, you can raise for a total of $80 ($20 for each card to call and $20 for each card to raise). If he calls without further reducing his hand, he’ll be investing $160 to your $80.

By the way, if you split a pot, you might lose money, assuming you kept more cards than an opponent.

That’s Caro Hold ’em. Call it just Caro, for short, if you prefer. You’ll meet elements of poker gamesmanship you’ve never encountered before. And I’m betting that after just a couple hands, you’ll be comfortable with the rules and procedures. I’m not claiming any legal ownership. As of now, this game is in the public domain, so it’s yours. Enjoy. — 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.

4 thoughts on “How to play Caro Hold ’em”

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  1. Hi Mike,

    I want to give it a try and hold a Caro Hold ’em tournament on one night at my home game.

    Some points are not clear though :

    1°) let’s imagine the blinds are 25/50$.
    How much should the player in the big blind post before the cards are dealt ? 50$ (the big blind) or 250$ (because he’ll get 5 cards) ?

    2°) if it is 250$, let’s imagine it’s called to the BB who wants to raise with only 3 cards left. How much will be in front of the BB ? 3x2x50 = 300$ or 250+ 3×50 = 400 $ ?

    3°) if the guy in the Big Blind has got only 400$ left, and the blinds are now 500$/1.000$, how many cards will he go all in for ?

    1. When we play this game we have everybody ante instead of playing with blinds. Our home game everything is a cash game though. we play dealer’s choice, no tournaments. this one has become a staple and we play it several times a night.

      If I were going to do a blind structure I think I would just force the blind to be one unit. That way they get to make the same choice everybody else does when it is the their turn to bet. If they want to only keep one card, they aren’t penalized by having to bet 5 cards worth before seeing any of their cards.

      I think with regards to being all in, you should get to keep all of the cards in front of you. It doesn’t seem right to me that you would be forced to dump cards because you were short of funds. the only game I’ve ever played where players have gotten penalized for being all in is baseball. And that is only for buying extra and/or wild cards. Those are optional bets, so I don’t see that as a problem.

  2. My buddy who hosts a home game about once per month might give this a shot but we are unclear on one thing. How many cards can you use out of your hand at the showdown? He seems to think you can use at most two, which makes sense because in Hold ’em you have 2 cards, but in Hold ’em you make the best 5 card hand from all the cards at your disposal (5 on the board and 2 in your hand). If you take that interpretation, you can make the best hand from the 5 on the board and 5 in your hand, allowing you to take the best 5 cards from 10. Not that you would do that normally, but say you have 3 in your hand for a straight flush to go with 2 on the board, can you can play that straight flush?

    example:

    board As 4h 5h 9c 9d

    hand 3h 6h 7h 4c Td

    At some point you can dump the 4 and T and keep the 3,6,7h for the 7 high straight flush, right?

    1. Hi, Mike —

      I’m glad to hear your buddy might be experimenting with Caro Hold ’em.

      Yes, you can only play two cards. I’ve added a paragraph after “Winners are determined at the showdown, when necessary, just as in regular hold ’em.” …

      New: “That means you can use two, one, or none of your private cards to form your best hand. Sometimes you might continue to hold more than two cards at the showdown, when there’s no betting after the reflip (or when you’re voluntarily keeping needless cards during the reflip betting in an attempt to bewilder or intimidate opponents). If so, you can use no more than two private cards.”

      I also fixed a typo under the “More clearly” section. The opponent would be holding four cards, not five, for an $80 wager.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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