Caro’s lonely opinion about smoking and poker

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

Okay, with electronic cigarettes on the rise, it’s probably a good time to revisit this powerful poker tell. What I’m about to describe applies just as strongly to “vaping” as it does to smoking tobacco. By the way, I like electronic vapors, especially my favorite flavor, chocolate malt. I’m not kidding. Vaping it right now — 7 a.m., July 31, 2014. So, now, let’s move back in time. When I say “couple years ago,” we’re talking decades now. And, yet, the tell remains towering and true. Here goes…

A couple years ago, I was playing in a $200/$400 seven stud game. I was against just George at the river. He was smoking approximately his fifth cigarette in the hour and a half he’d been sitting at my table.

The entire strength of my hand consists of a pair of sixes. George’s board looks ominous, although there is no pair exposed. He drags deep from his cigarette. He bets. I watch. Anyone terrified by secondhand smoke would have felt quite comfortable just then.

Where did the smoke go? I wonder. Isn’t any ever coming out? I wait. Still no smoke. So, I call. And win. It was clearly a bluff. As I’ve pointed out many times, it’s often easy to spot tells with a cigarette smoker. When they bet in a key situation, they’re much more likely to exhale conspicuously if they have a strong hand then if they’re bluffing.

Of course, this is wholly consistent with everything else that I’ve taught you about tells. Players who are bluffing are afraid to do anything that might trigger your calling reflex. Sometimes they don’t even breathe. So, obviously they’re less likely to exhale their cigarette smoke.

Here’s where I get in trouble.
Look. It would be nice to be popular all the time, but I hate being around people. And that’s a problem. Often, I’m forced to come out of hiding and smile and shake hands and junk like that. Well, fine. I work very hard to make friends and allies. I love these people. I just can’t stand to mingle most of the time. I want to do the right thing for you and for poker. That’s because, deep, deep inside I care very much about you. I just don’t want to be around you, usually. That’s all.

I wish I hadn’t said that, but I’ve already written the whole damn paragraph, and I can’t very well change it now. So, where was I? Oh, yeah, there’s an even worse problem I have with popularity. It’s my opinions. Why can’t I just be lucky and have the same opinions about things that everyone else has? How secure and snuggly it must be to fit in. Anyway, all my life I have said unpopular things every six months or so. Then I’ve had to work the next six months to regain your trust and get you to like me again

Everyone will be offended.
Maybe I should keep my opinions to myself. but I can’t. I mean it. There’s something seriously wrong with me. It must be a curse. Just when I think I’ve won most people over to my side, using all the political savvy I’ve learned, up pops this urge to offend. I wish I could control it, but I can’t.

So, today I’m going to offend most of my friends, most poker players, most people with children, most people who drive cars, most people who enjoy movies, most people who eat in restaurants, and most people who buy lettuce. I’m not going to talk about those things specifically, except poker, but what I’m going to say is so unwelcome to so many that I can name almost any group of people and lay odds that they will be offended.

Well, there may be one minority group that won’t be offended. That group would be cigarette-smoking poker players. As you know, smoking has recently been outlawed in California poker rooms. The vast majority of my friends are jumping up and down gleefully, gloating. “It’s about time!” they chorus.

One strategy I could use is to come right out and say, “Hey, I’m a smoker. This new law is the scariest piece of legislation I’ve ever seen. I would fight a war and gladly die for the right to smoke at the poker table.” But such an outburst would be a lie, because I am not a smoker.

Cigarettes dangling from peoples’ lips, white-grey puffs of blurring the background, ever-changing designs as the smoke drifts with the air currents – strange. It seems ludicrous that this fad has lasted so long. I mean, those in the anti-smoking brigade aren’t the only folks that can do research and bring us the startling facts about smoking. These are the folks who first pointed out the true dangers of secondhand smoke, explaining that smoke is more dangerous to the non-smoker nearby than to the smoker.

At first I was puzzled by this fact, but then I did my own research and discovered many interesting facts about smoking having exactly the same validity. Here are some:

1. You didn’t see many cigarettes around in 1776, when the United States declared its independence. Camel was only selling 537,000 packs a year back then, according to an editorial in the Las Vegas Review Journal, dated August 14, 1783.

2. Inexplicably, dogs benefit if their owners play poker in casinos where smoking is allowed. According to sources in the know, the average life span of a dog that never encounters smoke, or comes in contact with tobacco advertising, is only 13 years. Contrast this to the 30 years and longer that a typical poker player’s dog lives. Scientists are just beginning to investigate why this is so.

3. The average life span of a poker player who smokes is, oddly, 87 years – considerably above the life span for non-smoking players.

World-class research.
Also, note that the previous facts, startling though they may seem, were investigated with the same diligence that was used to discover the harmfulness of secondhand smoke. Until that research was made public, many of us had doubted that being around secondhand smoke could be more detrimental to our health than smoking itself. We erroneously figured that when you smoke a cigarette, you are getting both the direct smoke and the secondhand smoke. But we were wrong, of course.

I realized this when I got to thinking: When was the last time I visited a cardroom that two or more non-smokers didn’t drop dead while I was playing? I can’t remember.

So, having now realized the seriousness of the issue, I need to take an unpopular stand, anyway. My stand is simply this: As strange as the smoking fad seems, as dangerous as the habit may be to onlookers, as addicting as it may be to smokers themselves, there remain two reasons why I cannot currently yield to this smoke hatred:

1. As I already explained at the beginning of this column, cigarette smokers gave us one of the most powerful tells in the history of poker. Smokers were much more likely to exhale when they had a strong hand than when they were bluffing.

2. The people we are siding with on this ban are not the people we should empower for any reason, anywhere, any time, under any conditions. While you and I may genuinely not like smoke, these people are out to crash everyone’s party. Not just the smoking party. These are the same type of people who praise Science in the Public Interest. These guys would rather scream bloody murder about constipation than let anyone enjoy a potato chip.

If we sit around and let these people forbid us to butter our popcorn the way we want, banish our four-wheel drives, and prevent us from eating rare hamburgers (all of which they take delight in urging), then whatever happens is our fault. They’ll never stop with smoking at the poker table. Are you sure you want to side with them? I think a smoking ban – if we ever want one – can wait. One thing that I know will do more long-term damage than breathing secondhand smoke is building these folks’ self-esteem. Think about that.

The “other” Mike Caro – how many people have had this dream?
There was a discussion on the Internet newsgroup last week. Someone related a vivid dream about having misread a hand at the showdown in a huge pot. I responded this way:

Back when I first started playing draw poker regularly in Gardena, I first met the “other” Mike Caro. Yes, there really are two of us — as I explained in Doyle Brunson’s Super/System. No, we’re not related. The other MC a top player who was active in Gardena before I was, became known to many as “the real Mike Caro.” We quickly became friendly, although he joked that he resented the fact that I had stolen his identity.

I later “confessed” that I had come to Gardena wanting to hide my real name. So I’d decided to assume the name of the first person I heard paged, and — unfortunately — it turned out to be him. I think he has always wondered if there was any truth to that. (Actually, it’s just a very strange coincidence. Neither of us had ever heard of another Mike Caro before then.)

Where was I? Why do I always get sidetracked like this? Anyway, one day the real Mike Caro starts to tell me about a strange dream he had the night before. I know this story changes slightly every time I remember it, but essentially it goes like this…

There’s this monster pot and he arrives at the showdown holding five aces (the joker was added to the deck in Gardena). He looks down and starts to spread his hand and — oh, oh – there are only four aces. He thinks, oh, well, and doesn’t figure he’s against a straight flush because the opponent drew three cards. More likely he’s facing a full house or a smaller four of a kind.

So, he’s pretty sure he’s going to win in this dream, but he scolds himself for overlooking his hand. He starts to spread his cards on the table and — what the hell — there are only three aces now. He might lose! But he still might win, so let’s find out.

Oh, no! There is now only a single pair of aces in his hand. He’s going to lose almost for sure. But just then the opponent spreads his hand face up. Two kings! Just two measly kings. Wow! MC is going to win after all. So, he spreads his hand.

Opponent says “What’s THAT?” Mike looks down at the cards he has just spread. Ace-high garbage. When the other Mike Caro told me about this dream (or nightmare), I was astonished. I was dumbfounded. I was stunned. It came so close to similar dreams I’d had. It was almost exact.

I wonder how common this is.

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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 “Caro’s lonely opinion about smoking and poker”

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  1. I like my “E-Pipe”! Have not found my perfect flavor yet, but liking the Peppermint flavor (makes me drink more water … lol). I never realized the tells that smokers give … I will have to watch that! Thanks!

    1. Hi, Chris —

      I actually own e-pipes, as well as e-cigarettes (in the form of huge LavaTubes, if that qualifies). The pipes are the 601 kind. I never smoked cigarettes, though.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  2. How about if you encourage smokers to use “e-cigarettes”? Those of us who are sensitive to smoke could still play next to them, and the smokers tend to behave the same way when smoking them as they do with real cigarettes.

    1. Hi, JT —

      Actually, I’m about to upload photos of me with an e-pipe. I love these. You can “smoke” them (actually, it’s only water vapor that disappears in a puff) without major associated health risks and even use zero nicotine as an option. (Note that nicotine is NOT what causes cancer and the other most-common health problems associated with cigarette smoking, anyway.)

      Government should be celebrating this breakthrough (e-smoking), but instead, in several cases, they’re trying to ban it! No tar, no offensive or lingering smell, no harmful chemicals, no fires, no second-hand smoke (in fact, no smoke period), and much more that’s beneficial when compared to tobacco smoking. Yet there is legislation pending to stop it, while tobacco smoking will continue to be legal. Go figure.

      And, yes, I’m pretty sure the same poker tells will apply.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  3. Mike,
    I have to agree that dismissing smoking from card rooms eliminates a bunch of tells, and so from a card game standpoint, it’s a bad situation. However, smoking is one of the few vices that actively affects those around you. Smoking isn’t like eating too many Krispy Kreme’s or excessive drinking (assuming the person isn’t driving) as they only affect that particular individual. Everyone has a right to die. If someone wants to smoke and commit suicide by lifestyle choice, they have that right. At the same time, they don’t have the right to affect me. Still, we choose to be at a card game. If we didn’t want to be near smoking, we don’t have to play. This is one issue where I see both sides and I think each side has a valid argument.

  4. I love this paragraph:

    “Look. It would be nice to be popular all the time, but I hate being around people. And that’s a problem. Often, I’m forced to come out of hiding and smile and shake hands and junk like that. Well, fine. I work very hard to make friends and allies. I love these people. I just can’t stand to mingle most of the time. I want to do the right thing for you and for poker. That’s because, deep, deep inside I care very much about you. I just don’t want to be around you, usually. That’s all.”

    I understand.

  5. Happens to me not infrequently. I’m glad I’m not the only one. In my most recent poker dream, not only did my cards morph into something completely different(which is the standard poker dream occurance for me), but the flop changed also, and then the whole board became different by the river.

    In the dream before that, I made a raise based on playing in a tournament when I was actually playing cash. I was called with my ridiculous overbet, ended up with obviously the best hand, and then at showdown I mysteriously had four cards (playing hold em) and was frantically trying to piece together my actual hand in order to win this big pot when I finally woke up.

    Why can’t I just go back to my nuclear holocaust and bear-attack dreams that I had before I played poker? They were far less stressful.

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