For Jan Bowman: The theory of betting and calling

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

I just learned that Jan Bowman died of lung cancer on June 16 [written in 1996]. To me, Jan – who engineered and managed the original poker room at Foxwoods and held key management positions in Las Vegas and California – summed up all that is good in the industry.

There are only a handful of people who ever equaled his professionalism and integrity. I say equaled, because no one will ever surpass it. His wife, Renee, told me their first date was to attend my seminar at the Bingo Palace (now Palace Station) in Las Vegas. Despite this questionable first night out, their marriage flourished and they became an institution as a poker couple. In fact, John Sutton – one of America’s premier card-club executives – recently named his baby after them. She is Jan Renee Sutton.

Jan was 55. Today’s column is dedicated to him.

Teaching Ruth. OK, it’s about 10 years ago. A poker player in his late twenties wants me to join him and his girlfriend for coffee. I tell this guy, Wilson, I’m headed home to my computer because I’m eager to see the results of some seven-card stud research I’ve left running.

Wilson walks toward the casino restaurant with his just-turned-21 girlfriend, Ruth, clinging tightly to his arm. Refusing to accept my excuse, he motions me to tag along. Seeing no diplomatic way out, I follow and soon find myself seated in a booth, squirming in boredom as he attempts to explain poker strategy to Ruth. Thus occurred just one of perhaps a dozen similar incidents I’ve experienced over the past 20 years.

Getting engaged the right way. Again and again, he pauses to seek my approval of what he was saying, hoping my briefly nodded reinforcement would impress Ruth. Unfortunately, she seems completely uninterested and several times tries to steer the subject away from poker.

About five minutes into his monologue, she excuses herself and heads for the ladies’ room. And while she is gone, he explains, “We’re thinking of getting ourselves engaged, but first I need to know she’s going to be able to understand how poker theory works.”

“Good idea,” I say, though truthfully I have no idea at all what he meant. By pretending to motion for more coffee, I skillfully avoid posing a follow-up question and hearing the clarification I have no interest in. Ruth returns. Now, none of this would have stuck in my mind had it not been for Wilson’s concluding statement, which will serve as the basis for today’s discussion. He seems suddenly on a roll, driving home point after point, and Ruth even nods in mild agreement, caught up in his enthusiasm. Then he says, “The most important thing is this…” and here he leans toward her to make sure she grasps the importance, “…every time someone bets and someone else calls, well, someone made a big mistake. They can’t both be right.”

Wilson looks to me for support, but all I can say truthfully is, “That’s a very interesting way you phrased it,” hoping somehow that he misinterprets this as an endorsement. In fact, his statement reflects a belief held by millions of poker players worldwide. And the belief is just plain stupid. Here’s why.

It’s only even money. Every bet against a single opponent offers exactly even money for the call itself. Pot odds are a different measurement, weighing the size of the whole pot, including the last bet, against the cost of the call. Pot odds – in conjunction with other factors – should be used to determine whether a call is worthwhile.

But because a bet and a call provides your opponent only even money, that exchange in itself can be profitable for you, while the call itself – considering the whole pot and pot odds – can be profitable for your opponent.

Repeating: You can be correct to bet and your opponent can be correct to call. Let’s say the pot is 20 times bigger than the betting limit. You’re a 2-to-1 favorite to win. You should bet and offer your opponent a chance to call at even money.. He’ll probably accept – even though he may know he’s a 2-to-1 underdog – and his call will be correct. But your bet is correct also!

How to think about poker. Here’s the point, and it should be the way you always think about poker: What was already in the pot is, in one sense, irrelevant to the bettor as long as he has an advantage on the current bet and call.. If the opponent accepts even money on the last bet and is a 2-1 underdog, the bettor has the advantage on that bet and thereby gains something.

He would have cost himself that gain by checking and letting his opponent off free. But although the pot size is not relevant to the bettor (for this specific purpose), it is very relevant to the caller. Here, the caller sees himself as a 2-1 underdog, but is getting more than 20-to-1 odds. He simply must call.

The truth about poker pots in limit games is that most calls will lose, yet most calls are correct. It is a horrible mistake to call or not call based on whether you think you have the best hand. Simplistically, the only consideration should be what your chances of having the best hand are, weighed against the size of the pot. As we investigate the more complex aspects of this bet-and-call interaction, the consideration becomes what the chances of winning are, measured against the total projected cost of continuing to play and the final probable size of the pot.

But, however you figure it – simple or complex – you should usually call and expect to lose. And, if you do lose, don’t feel bad – you’re sailing on a money-making course. The few times you call and win will overwhelm all those losses. — 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.


3 thoughts on “For Jan Bowman: The theory of betting and calling”

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  1. I don’t think enough players give the same thought to the pot odds they’re offering as they do to the odds they’re presented with. As far a I can tell, there’s no difference between taking bad odds or giving them.

  2. I’ve always had a problem reconciling this with Sklansky’s Fundamental Theorem of Poker

    “Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose”

    If you could see all the cards on the end and you call knowing you will lose, you’ve made an error, since your chances of winning are zero, right?

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