Mike Caro poker word is Speculate

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2008) in Poker Player newspaper.

Today’s self-interview is about playing speculative hands in poker. If you’ve been following my latest columns, you know the rules. I get to ask and answer my own questions and each interview is completely independent of the previous ones. Although the question numbers keep progressing, there’s really no reason for that, except that I’ve chosen to do so.

If it makes you feel left out because today’s questions begin with number 128, subtract 127 from each one and you’ll feel better. Here’s the first question…

Question 128: What is the theory behind speculative hands in poker?

Theory? That’s a silly question. I don’t really have a comprehensive theory regarding speculative hands. I could create one, but why bother? Instead, let me just tell you some things about speculating.

A speculative hand is one that needs help. You expect that someone else has a better hand at this stage of the action, but you have hopes of improving enough to win the pot in a showdown.

Most speculative hands are attempts to make straights or flushes. Sometimes speculative hands win in untargeted ways.

In fact, if you play king-queen suited in hold ’em, speculating on making a straight, a flush, or even a straight-flush, most of the times that you win will be because you made something else — a pair, two pair, three-of-a-kind, a full house, or even four-of-a-kind. Those are the side effects of playing speculative hands.


It’s important to understand that any hand that isn’t likely to be the best at the moment can be played speculatively. The question is whether such speculation is profitable.

In hold ’em, most of your hands are speculative before the flop. Only big pairs are the exception.

In forms of lowball and high-low split, almost all of your profitable hands are speculative. In fact, when you play seven-card lowball, known as razz, you’re always betting speculatively before at least the fifth card. Ace-2-3 may be the perfect starting hand, but it’s definitely a speculative one.

Understanding speculation and knowing how to play “on the come” in poker is essential to success.

Question 129: What are some bad times to speculate?

Well, second-best speculative hands tend to be unprofitable.

Obviously, in hold ’em, if you hold 7-2 suited and an opponent holds 8-3 of that same suit, you both are hoping to make a flush, but actually that would be a disaster for you.

That concept plays out more subtly in other forms of poker. In draw poker, for instance, the second-best “drawing hand” is almost always unprofitable. That’s because a speculative hand — a try for a straight or flush — normally only averages a small profit in the long run. When you include the disaster of making the hand and losing to another speculative hand, there’s no profit in it at all.

Poor choice

That’s one reason why trying for a small flush in seven-stud is usually a poor choice. The other reason is that if you pair up, it’s not likely to be large enough to have a significant chance a victory.

This same truth applies to hold ’em, and when you understand it, you see why playing 7-6 suited is usually not profitable. Throughout poker, players who consistently barge into pots with low-ranking speculative hands tend to be losers.

In hold ’em, another frequent mistake is pursuing a straight or flush opportunity when there’s a pair on board. Sometimes it’s okay to do that, but usually not.

Since your expected profit — averaging all the times you miss with your occasional connections — is only marginal, when you factor in the small chance of losing a big confrontation against a full house or four of a kind, you’re often in unprofitable territory.

Question 130: Should you be more willing to play speculative hands in a loose game or a tight game?

Almost always in a loose game, because you’ll have more players competing against you and they’ll pay you off more readily when you make your hand.

Question 131: Can you speculate with the best hand?


In fact, you can argue that when you bet what you think is probably the best hand, you’re speculating that it actually is. But that’s not really pertinent to this discussion.

You can make a speculative bluff when you are likely to have the best hand! As a seven-stud example, suppose you bet an exposed pair of aces, and that’s all you have, into an exposed pair of sixes.

Your opponent might have two pair and reason that the only reason you’d bet would be if you have more than two aces — so he might fold two pair. You’ve attempted a bluff on the speculation that he has two pair.

Question 132: How important is it to speculate correctly?

It’s extremely important, because most of your profitable hands are speculative.

However, your most-profitable hands are not. That doesn’t mean that speculative hands won’t win your biggest pots — often they will. But non-speculative hands, where you have the best hand all along, win more consistently and are more profitable on average.

Acquiring a feel for which speculative hands are profitable to pursue and which should be discarded is one of the biggest keys to winning at poker.

Question 133: Is it important to know what opponents typically do with their speculative hands?

Of course.

Identify opponents who bet aggressively on the come. Many players will routinely bet or even raise in hold ’em when they are trying for a flush. You should raise them more liberally than you would others.

There are also players who don’t bet often on the come, but do push small pairs for value. When they check, then you bet, and they call, it invariably means they’re trying for a straight or flush. That’s important to know.


If you think opponents hold speculative hands, you should usually bet to make them pay something for the chance of connecting. Even if they’re getting good odds to call, it’s better for you that they’re paying a little bit than that they’re getting a free shot.

In no-limit, try to bet enough so that an opponent will over pay by calling and be getting bad odds. You’ll either win the pot or earn extra profit on average, because you’ve overpriced your opponent’s call and made a sale.

No more questions, please. I’m done for today. — MC

Next self-interview: Pending

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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.


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  1. With an opponent betting into you while you’re speculating, would you rather he has a big hand to pay you off with, or a bluff that he’ll likely give up with on the river?

    1. Hi, Jon —

      Unfortunately, there can never be an actual answer to that question. It depends on bet sizes, how much more you expect to make if you hit your hand, and a whole lot more.

      If you’re only going to bet if you make the hand, then it still isn’t clear whether you want his current bet to be a bluff. It would depend on how likely your hand is to win in a showdown among garbage hands, if you miss. It would also depend on whether the opponent attempts another bluff or just gives up. Your biggest profit, obviously, will come when you connect to beat a significant opposing hand and big betting follows.

      I hope this partially explains why there are seldom any absolute answers to similar questions in poker.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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