Making money in the middle at poker

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Casino Player.

Let’s examine a hand I played last year. Oddly, it’s not a hand I played amazingly well or even one where today’s concept made extra money. But I played it with my best long-term profit in mind. It was in a $400/$800 limit hold ’em game, but the concept applies to no-limit games as well. The action went like this…

I held 8♣ 7♣ in the big blind. Everyone folded up to John, in the dealer position (button). John an aggressive player, raised to $800. This was an almost expected raise, since he almost always attacked the blinds when given the opportunity.

Carl, in the small blind, called. Carl was also a very liberal player. I called, which is usually the correct move, considering the big blind’s half price, against these types of opponents. The pot was now $2,400.

The flop came K♣ Q♣ 2♦. Carl checked. I checked, although an occasional bet could have been justified by my four clubs. Since I was in the middle of two aggressive players, though, I decided not to tempt fate. John bet $400 and Carl and I both called.

The turn card was 2♥. Check, check, check.


The final (river) card was 10♣, making the board K♣ Q♣ 2♦ 2♥ 10♣, and giving me my flush. Carl bet $800. I called. Notice that I didn’t raise. But John did raise.

Carl folded, and was probably bluffing. I decided to just call John’s raise. He showed down Q♠ 10♠ — two pair.

Yes, I might have raised once more, but I thought there was too significant a chance that John had made a bigger flush — or, much less likely, even a full house.

I figured that, assuming John wasn’t bluffing, which would render my raise meaningless, I was only slightly more likely to have the better hand, which isn’t enough of a motive to raise. (When you make an extra raise on the last round with only a small edge, you risk having to pay off a reraise.) Despite that, I often would reraise in that situation, but this time I didn’t. Whether that was the best choice is worthy of analysis, but it isn’t what we’re discussing. It’s my decision to just call Carl’s original bet that we’re examining.

Every poker session

On the final betting round, you’ll often end up between the bettor and other opponents waiting to act. Let’s say you’ve made a very strong hand, but not an unbeatable one. That happens at least once — and sometimes several times — during almost every poker session you’ll ever play.

Making the wrong choice can be costly. Most players, even experienced ones, make their decisions by whim when placed in this uncomfortable position. But there’s actually very powerful advice that can keep you from making mistakes.

The advice is to usually just call. In fact, if you decide that you will almost always just call with quality hands, and almost never raise, you’re hardly ever going to make a serious blunder. On the other hand, if you raise, you’ll sometimes cost yourself money needlessly.

Let’s say the bettor is bluffing, as Carl was. If that’s the case, your raise is likely to extinguish any chance you have of getting overcalled with a weaker hand by players waiting to act. At the same time, you won’t get any more money from the bluffer than you would have by merely calling.

Or what if the bettor has a truly powerful hand, one that can beat you? Then you certainly don’t want to raise. Not only will that raise itself cost you more money, but you’ll likely end up calling another bet in addition.

Extra profit

And sometimes, as was the case here, your call can make the player waiting to act too confident about his strength and that can bring you extra profit. In this case, I probably would have made the same amount of money by raising as by calling. But that isn’t the point.

The point is, I probably didn’t cost myself any extra profit by just calling and I might have cost myself extra profit by raising. Sure, there are cases where a call works against you — times when raising might have earned more. But when you analyze the most likely scenarios and simulate millions of hands by computer, it’s clear that you need an fairly certain winner to justify a value raise from the middle position on the last betting round.

Notice that I said “value raise.” That’s a raise where you’re trying to earn extra money with a superior hand. You can raise for other reasons, too. That’s why the main exception to this just-call advice comes when your hand is fairly weak and you think there’s an excellent chance that the bettor is bluffing. Then you can raise hoping to scare away players waiting to act. If you just call, you’re inviting an overcall that beats you.

But overall, when you have a reasonably strong hand, but not a certain winner, your best profit comes from just calling.— 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.


8 thoughts on “Making money in the middle at poker”

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  1. your advice is good for limit game but worthless for no limit – why you ask?
    reraise with ACE king and still get called by 69! or AA < AJ and lose, cant win with premium hands and other hands dont make enough to compensate!

  2. Hm… Does your “usually call” advice apply to all of the betting rounds or just the final betting round in particular?

    1. Hi, Bill —

      The middle position is always uncomfortable and the concept always applies. However, it’s more easily overridden by other factors on early betting rounds. So, essentially, the advice is stronger on the last betting round.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. You wouldn’t consider the middle to be as uncomfortable as being first to act right? I guess it can be difficult to make money in the middle of the action.

  3. I'm someone who is trying to improve his limit poker skills and improve his limit poker performance. I would really be interested in the analysis of river play like you use in this example, especially when it comes to whether we should be going after the extra bets with a re-raise. Thanks.

  4. What am I missing here — $200/$400 limit Hold 'Em — folded to button who raises to $800.  How?  On flop checked to John who bets $400.  How?  Finally on river Carl opens for $800.  How?
    Must have been a $400/$800 limit game.  Mike, this isn't like you to goof up like that.
    Dan Colmerauer

    1. Hi, Dan —

      Thanks for the correction. The blinds were $200 and $400, but the limit was $400/$800, not $200/$400, as previously stated.

      In customary limit games, the betting is at the smaller size before and immediately after seeing the flop — and at double those limits thereafter (as you correctly suggest in your comment). This one began with bets and raises of $400 and had $800 bets and raises on the final two betting rounds — as the description of the play indicates.

      You're giving me too much credit when you say, "Mike, this isn't like you to goof up like that."

      Poker1 probably still has many typos and glitches, and we appreciate cooperation in finding as many as possible before we officially open.

      I'll fix this one myself. Thanks again.

      Straight Flushes,

      Mike Caro

  5. I like just calling in this situation especially because both opponents were in the loose\agressive category. You really can’t fold, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the button have something as random as T2 or as strong as TT.

    The way I look at it (and explained to my girlfriend recently) you have to be the one to not make a mistake. And in this situation calling is almost never a mistake (even in the rare situation you’re beat) while raising can be a big mistake. You want to make your opponent make the mistakes because, as you’ve said many times Mike, that’s where your profit comes from.

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