Sandbagging successfully

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

Expanded for Poker1 in 2014.

What’s the difference between the term “sandbag” and the term “check-and-raise”? Not much, but the two are not identical. It astonishes me that many young players aren’t familiar with the term sandbag.

When I was maturing and polishing my game in the poker arena of 1970, hardly anyone bothered to say “check-and-raise” to describe the practice of checking a strong hand into an opponent, hoping that he’ll bet, so you can trap him with a raise. Sandbag meant the same thing and was a whole syllable shorter.

But check-and-raise actually covers more territory. It can mean checking a weak hand and then raising as a bluff or in an effort to thin the field of opponents. There can be many reasons to check-and-raise, but only one for a sandbag. The latter term means that you have a powerful poker hand and have chosen to check it deceptively in hopes of raising and making even more money than you would by betting.

Unfortunate decisions

Fine. So when should you sandbag and when shouldn’t you? It turns out that just deciding to sandbag at random is very costly. And, unfortunately, that’s exactly how most players – even experienced ones – decide. They think, “Well, I have this huge hand and I need to mix up my strategy, and maybe this would be a good time to be tricky and check. Maybe next time I’ll bet right out into this guy, but – yeah – I’m going to sandbag his ass right out of his seat this time!”

Such instant inspiration is compelling, but costly. You see, there are times you shouldn’t sandbag at all.

One time is against any weak opponent who is happily contributing to your bankroll. Sandbag and you’ll likely wake him up to the fact that this is serious poker – that there is strategy involved. Besides, sandbagging may seem unexpected and unfriendly. If so, it may change a giggly, good-spirited game into a solemn and sensible endeavor.

Solemn and sensible are good traits to convey in some real-life endeavors, but not in poker. Most of your profit comes from opponents who are playing recreationally and who are willing to wager money recklessly and unprofitably as long as it’s fun to do so.

Not fun

Take away the fun and you take away that profit. Worse, opponents who perceive that you’re not fun to play against may single someone else out for their discretionary gambling. Discretionary gambling? What’s that? Good question.

You see, all recreational players have a vaguely defined category of their very weakest hands that they’ll play sometimes and not others. When they play them, that spells – on average – the highest level of profit strong opponents can earn. If you sandbag them, you’re likely to make them feel less comfortable playing these hands against you in the future. Therefore, you exclude yourself from their list of recipients of their weakest-hand profit.

Also, you should choose to sandbag aggressive opponents, not timid ones. It’s implied that aggressive opponents are the most likely to wager. And you need someone to wager for a sandbag to be successful. Otherwise you check, your opponent checks, and you win nothing more. Winning nothing more isn’t as good as winning something extra, right?

When you sandbag, the whole idea is to win extra. So, tend to sandbag your strongest hands into your more aggressive opponents – or ones that seem bound to bet at the moment.

Biggest secret

And now we come to today’s biggest secret. When you’re against two or more opponents – especially on the final round of betting – you need to consider which opponent is the most likely to bet.

Let’s say there are three of you in the pot: you, Phil, and Porky. You have a straight flush and are first to act, followed by Phil.

Suppose Phil is a lively, aggressive player, that he’s been betting throughout this hand and you have no reason to think he’ll stop now. This is an ideal time to sandbag.

You check. Under favorable circumstances, Phil bets and Porky calls. Now you raise. If things continue to go well, both opponents will reluctantly call, figuring they’re already committed to the pot. So, in a limit game, you win four units. One when Phil bets, one when Porky calls, and two more after you raise and they both call. Four units is, obviously, a successful sandbag.

Although it’s easier to explain the purity of this concept using a limit game as an example, the truth extends to no-limit play. It’s a bit more muddied in no-limit by the varying sizes of the wagers. But the advice still holds.

Different order

But suppose, instead, that the order of players is different. Porky is to your left and will act immediately after you, because – remember — the action goes clockwise in poker. The likely bettor, Phil, is to your right.

Okay, now if you decide to check, it doesn’t go as well. Porky checks to the previous-round aggressor, Phil, which is what you’d expect. Phil bets, also as you expected.

But wait! Now what do you do? If you raise, you’ll probably be driving Porky out of the pot. If that happens, even if Phil subsequently calls, you’ll only gain two units, not four. So, this sandbag has less chance of success.

The solution is simple: In a multi-way pot, when you’re undecided about whether to bet or check, don’t make your sandbag decision randomly. If the player to your left is the most likely bettor, check. Otherwise bet.

Put these elements together and you discover that you shouldn’t sandbag by whim. You need reasons. And now you have some. — MC

Published by

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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