Peculiar hold ’em happening

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

I like puzzles. I like things peculiar. Well, wait. Some things that are peculiar I don’t like, and I’ll bet there are some puzzles I don’t like, too. But in general, things that bother my brain appeal to me. Today, I’d like to share something that a reader e-mailed to me. What if you were playing hold ’em. The game is full of happy, loose players. Suddenly you find yourself involved in a pot. The flop is spread before your eyes. “All right! How can this be bad?” you think, realizing you’ve just flopped the current nuts.

Nuts to you

What does “nuts” mean to you? For those readers who are not familiar with hold ’em terminology, “nuts” means slightly different things to different players. To me, it means a hand that cannot possibly be beat at that point of the action.

For instance, if the flop is K♣ J♦ 9♥ and you hold Q♦ 10♣, you hold the “nuts.” The term is a sometimes used to mean a hand that cannot possibly be beat. Sometimes that’s called the “mortal nuts.” You also hear the terms, “nut straight,” and “nut flush,” meaning the best possible straight or flush.

A few columns back, I wrote about a nightmare that other poker players have shared. It’s one where you hold an unbeatable hand, but as you start to show it down, it gets worse and worse. The following letter is, in part, a response to that.

The contest

I thought I’d use this letter as a springboard for my contest. What contest? I’m offering prizes to the best entries received by regular mail or by e-mail (sent to the addresses shown in the box on this page). I’m looking for examples of poker hands that are either not as good as they appear to be or much better than they appear to be, when all the facts are known. You get to think them up.

There are only four rules: (1) I am the final judge, so there is nobody to appeal to; (2) There is a maximum of two entries per person; (3) All entries must be postmarked or e-mailed by August 31, 1998; (4) Entries must be 250 or fewer words, but may contain optional illustrations.

You will be judged on originality, profundity, and presentation. First prize: Caro’s Pro Poker Tells on Video (a $59.95 two-tape set), plus Caro’s Power Poker Seminar Video ($39.95), plus Doyle Brunson’s Super/System – A Course In Power Poker (the classic 600-page poker bible, $50). Second prize: Everything except Super/System. Third prize: The seminar video.

The letter that inspired the contest is not eligible. Here it is…

Dear Mad Genius,

My dad told me that he spoke to you about a poker hand that I dreamt up one day. After reading your column about nightmare hands, though, I’m a little reluctant to tell it to you. You see, I’m weeks away from being an attorney, and I am cringing at the thought of the law suits that could occur if you ever publish1 anything relating to this hand. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress is a compensable injury in most states, so if my hand is known by millions of card players, it will probably haunt the sleep of at least 10,000 in the same way your five-aces hand does. To put it bluntly, this is a hand that no poker player in the world ever wants to have.

I’m not sure what the true value of this hypothetical hand is, and there are some variables that I haven’t completely decided on/figured out yet (i.e., seat positions, suits of each card in the hands with pocket pairs, etc.). Additionally, at this time I don’t have the original computations of odds/outs in front of me while I’m writing this. I’ll give you the bare bones, and you can play with the idea and see if it takes you anywhere.

Getting back to the value of this information, I’ve thought of a few things that could be done with it, but I don’t know what is best–so I’m giving it to you (you and I are like-minded, but of the two of us you know much more about poker). I’ve thought it would make a great con, or a great teaching tool. There are other options as well, but I can’t remember them at the moment. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll find it interesting, and I hope you can figure out what to do with it.

You’re sitting in a really loose game of 10-20. Your luck has been terrible, but after 3 hours of play you’re only losing $360 due to your skill level and stealing a few pots. You’re on the button, and hoping to pick up some money soon so you can get out of the game soon and go home. By the time it gets to you, the pot is capped, and two players have called the full $40. So far, no one is out of the hand, and it doesn’t look like anyone is going anywhere. You look down at your hand and find that you can play your cards: 9d9h. Amazingly everyone at the table calls the full $40.

The pot will get you even for sure if you can manage to turn your nines into a winner.

The flop comes: 9c 6s 3d. If you aren’t the happiest player in the poker room, pigs are flying. Then something really strange happens–the pot is capped before its halfway around the table, and nobody folds. Its $40 to you. You have the stone cold nuts. Nobody can beat you. But are you going to just throw the $40 in?

`Now the nightmare begins. Being the smart player that you are, you start to think about the hands. What kind of hands do people play? What kind of hands do people bet? What kind of hands do people call with? I’ll end the suspense–your nut top set is worth almost bubkus. You’ve got one out twice.

What they hold

Here are the other nine hands:










You’re up against four overpairs, two smaller sets, and three straight draws. You’ve got one out. You can only improve your hand by getting the case nine. If a ten or a deuce comes on the turn, you pick up three more outs. If an eight or a four comes, you pick up two more outs. If a seven or a five comes, you pick up one more out. Your bad night just got worse.

Now, the implied odds of this hand make it an almost definite call, anyway, but a one out call when the pot is capped is not something that anyone would ever like to do. (By the way, if you make it an eleven handed game, you can put the case 9 in the 11th hand and make the nuts absolutely dead.)

I don’t have much more knowledge to impart. I came up with this hypothetical by playing numbers games in my head. This is the only possible hand in Hold’em that this works for (with the exception of an extremely similar hand, flop: 8, 5, 2.). I hope you find this more interesting than just a fun piece of triviality about poker–I hope it is actually worth something. My dad thinks there is something to be learned from it, but neither he nor I could figure out exactly what that is. Anyway, enjoy teasing your brain with this one.

By the way, I love your column. It is one of two columns that I read religiously (the other is Ask Marilyn written by Marilyn Vos Savant, the woman with the highest IQ ever measured). I get a lot of enjoyment out of the mental gymnastics you sometimes put the reader through. I wrote you once previously about the Johnny Moss problem. I appreciated your response immensely (even though I still disagree with you slightly–not on mathematics, but on the influence of outside characteristics). At any rate, thank you for your time and consideration.


Greg Weum

Son of Dewey Weum (#4 in the world!)

End note

The interesting thing about Greg Weum’s hand is that what is temporarily the nuts after the flop will almost never be the nuts after the next card (the turn). In the end, this “dream” hand will win only slightly more than its fair share of hands, by catching a nine and by making full houses when the last two board cards are a pair that is not useful to opponents.

This is a great example of a poker situation in which things are not nearly as great as they appear to be. Why not enter the contest? Think up some situations in poker where your hand is either much better or much worse than it appears, and send them in.

1 Changed “publics” to “published” in first paragraph of Greg Weum’s letter above on 2010-05-29. It is not known whether this was a typo made by Poker1 or was in the original letter. (Glitch reported by Thomas Foster.)

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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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