Games you can beat update and two tips

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

I just figured out what we can do today. Instead of our typical conversation, let me give you two miscellaneous tips I found in my files.

Wait a second, I’m not quite ready.

Just hang on, please.

Sorry, I had them here a minute ago. Tips, tips, tips, where are you, tips. Somebody’s got to do something about this damn desk, but it isn’t likely to be me. OK, I found them.

Beatable games update.
But before we get to those tips, I want to clarify something I said a month ago. In a reprise of a column I’d written in the early 1980s, I explained how you can know which forms of gambling you can beat and which you can’t. Games such as poker and gin rummy can be profitable, because good players beat bad players. But with many other games, you must have the opportunity to make intelligent decisions that are strong enough to overcome the odds against you. Therefore, it makes no sense to analyze craps or roulette (other than timing the wheel) with the intention of winning. Winning is beyond your grasp, because there is no logical way to bet that can overcome the odds against you.

Having made that powerful and undisputable point, I then listed games you could beat and games you couldn’t. While the list was accurate when first published, a couple games are worth an argument today.

Tom Bowling, vice president of casino development at Hollywood Park, points out that bingo (which I listed as unbeatable) is often used as a loss leader today. That means some casinos expect to lose money on it, and are able to recoup this loss by getting bingo players into other games between sessions.

Bowling also reminds us that sometimes a bingo guarantee may be too large for the number of customers it attracts, and players have been known to enjoy the best of it if they find poorly attended sessions – in bad weather, for example.

No, I’m not retracting my view of bingo. Conceptually, it isn’t a game designed for you to beat. But, whenever casinos are using bingo as a tool to attract business, rather than a profit center onto itself, then there may be an opportunity for you to make a small profit. Of course, theoretically, a casino could decide to use the wheel of fortune as a loss leader, too. Would I then have to list it as a beatable game?

The other game in question is non-progressive video poker. Based on my early research, circa 1980, into this game, I then concluded that video poker machines with progressive jackpots were occasionally profitable to play, if the jackpot grew large enough. For a non-progressive machine of that year, I calculated each decision and gave what the payoff would be to the nearest penny. But that was then; this is now.

Dan Paymar, publisher of Video Poker Times and a contributing expert to Card Player has told me that some of the modern fixed-jackpot machines can be beat. This seems reasonable to me, because there is clearly a large skill factor involved.

The question is purely whether skill is enough to overcome the odds against you. If a machine is too tough, casual players will lose so much that they’ll become discouraged and quit playing. However if a machine is not tough enough, accomplished players may have the edge. Therefore, there may be – and apparently are – machines out there where the balance is such that experts can win, while the casino profits from the masses who play poorly – sort of like blackjack.

So, maybe next time I publish my list of beatable and unbeatable, I’ll add asterisks to non-progressive video poker machines and to bingo – and attach the above explanations.

And now, the tips…

Tips I found just in time to write this column.

1. If it hasn’t already happened, there may come a day when you’re convinced that you’ve mastered the basics of poker and you’re able to expand to new frontiers. In these new frontiers, opponents are intimidated by you and you have a reasonable advantage. Whether or not you choose to, you could now quit your job and play professionally, even though you might not yet be playing at a world-class level.

When you’ve arrived at this moderately advanced stage of your career, you should routinely make marginal raises when doing so has a good chance of helping you gain the initiative, rather than just being the caller.

What’s so great about gaining the initiative? Plenty. It’s almost always better to be seen as the force to be reckoned with at your table than to be seen as a predictable caller. That’s because building your commanding image helps you profit in the future, even if you end up winning or losing the same amount on this particular hand. Let me give you an example.

You’re playing seven-card stud. In the hole you have A♥ 9♠. Your face up cards through fifth street are 9♥ 4♥ 6♥. If an opponent bets with 10♦ K♠ 4♣ showing, and you believe he has a pair of tens, it’s often wise to raise. The term I have attached to this at my seminars is “raising with impunity.” It means you have the luxury of raising – even though you may not have the best hand – without the likelihood of facing a reraise. That’s because your opponent cannot beat the hand he fears and thinks you’re probably raising with – a flush.

Since he is likely to still have the high card on the next round of betting, expect a check. If you fail to improve, now check along. If you make your flush, another pair, or three of a kind, bet. If you don’t improve and check, you’ll still get a shot at making a flush on seventh street. Your opponent probably will check, but in any case, you most likely won the right to see that last, river card at no extra charge.

If your opponent bets and you miss, you’ll simply pass (assuming you still believe strongly that he has at least a pair of tens). If he checks, you’ll only bet if you improve your hand. So, by raising on the fifth card with likely the worst hand, you won the option to bet or not bet in accordance with what the next card suggests.

If you think it’s unusual that a sophisticated player would bet into three exposed hearts, you’re wrong. Those are precisely the players – depending on how the action went so far – who are likely to bet. Beyond the possibility that the opponent is betting in accordance with the value of his hand, he may be stone-cold bluffing, hoping you have no other hearts and will fold. Sophisticated players know that there are many situations where it’s much less likely that you have hearts in the hole than something else.

The main problem with the scenario is that you might rarely make less money by seizing the initiative with a raise on fifth street. That can happen when, after the raise, you catch another heart on sixth street. Then a check, followed by your bet when you actually make the flush, can cause the opponent to pass. In that case, you won only two bets on fifth street, instead of the three bets you were hoping for. This turn of events is fairly unlikely, though, because it is also quite possible the sixth-street heart will cause your opponent to fold, even if you just call on fifth street – and that means you lost an extra bet you could have won.

But, I have a solution for that sixth-street problem, too. After raising without the flush made on fifth street, simply check along when you actually make the flush on sixth street. You might add to the confusion my saying, while rapping the table, “Come on, let’s see the next card. I was just kidding, but I am planning to make something.”

This will usually guarantee a check on the river, and you can bet and get called. Players are more likely to call this bet, because they think it comes down to one river card – and, in their muddled minds, you either made the flush or you didn’t. For many opponents, that’s an easier call to make with one pair than a call where you bet on sixth street with four exposed hearts. Additionally, if the opponent does only have that one pair, you’re giving him another chance to improve to something he’s more comfortable calling with.

By the way, I sometimes just call the fifth-street bet. Then I call again on sixth street, assuming my card wasn’t another heart, which would have prevented the opponent’s bet. Then, if the opponent has the courage to bet again on seventh street and I make the flush, I raise. That’s about the maximum (four bets from fifth through seventh streets) I’m likely to win. It doesn’t happen often, but against certain opponents, it’s worth a shot.

Now I’m going to change the definition of the situation slightly and show you how you can clearly save yourself money while still seizing the initiative on fifth street. The cards are the same. To refresh your memory, you have A♥ 9♠ in the hole, and three exposed cards are 9♥ 4♥ 6♥. Your opponent shows 10♦ K♠ 4♣ and bets. This time, instead of believing he has a pair of tens, you’re not sure. He might have a pair, two pair, three of kind, a straight draw, or a bluff.

In this case you also raise on fifth street with the lone pair and flush draw, and he calls. Let’s assume this is a common situation in which two players, having at least a pair, are each willing to call any bet, right through the river. What might have happened if you never make your flush and didn’t raise on fifth street is this: He bets, you call on fifth street; he bets, you call on sixth street; he bets, you call on seventh street, because you’re hoping to catch a bluff. But with your aggressive fifth-street raise: He bets, you raise on fifth street; he checks, you check on sixth street; he checks again on seventh street (still fearing your flush attempt). Now, if you make that flush, you bet and get called – winning a total of three bets from fifth street on. But, if you miss, you check, and it only costs two bets if you lose the showdown.

So, by choosing this strategy, you can sometimes effectively see the seventh card “for free,” because you will save a bet if you miss and lose the showdown.

Many pros are on the alert for this maneuver, so don’t overuse it. The point is – there are often many ways to play a hand, depending on what fits the opponents and the situation. But you should always be looking for opportunities to gain the initiative on later rounds by raising right now.

2. Who should bet more often heads up – the first player to act or the second? This is a theoretical topic that I’ve occasionally been asked. The answer is that in a typical loose game, you’ll probably see the first player bet more often. But wait!

Why is that? It’s because the first player to act has more opportunity to bet. In fact, the first player always has the option of betting, but the second player only has that option when he’s checked into. However – here’s the point – the second player to act should bet a bigger proportion of the times that he gets an opportunity.

That’s an important thing to understand in poker. It is easier to make a bet after you’ve been checked to than to make a bet from the other perspective, before your opponent has acted. I know what you’re thinking, shouldn’t you worry about being check-raised? Yes, but that only diminishes the amount of extra betting last position should do, just as the opportunity to take a free card does. It does not change the fact that last position should bet more often, opportunity for opportunity, than first position – even heads up.

If you find yourself in a game where first position is betting half the time into an opponent, and an opponent are only betting, say, one-third the time that they’re checked into, then something is seriously out of whack. And this is a common situation.

Most likely your opponents have the habit of betting too aggressively up front, and you should counter by calling and raising more readily.

I’m done for today. See you sometime.

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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