This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Last update: 2022-02-05. See notes at bottom.
Sometimes, things aren’t as they appear to be in poker. Some of the following might be known to seasoned professionals. Some won’t be. Most isn’t obvious the first time you sit down to play poker. Today, I’ve decided to select a few items from my list of things that don’t immediately make sense to poker players.
A few readers will nod smugly and mutter, “I knew that! Someone would have to be really dumb not to know that!” To them, I ask, “Think back. When did you first realize that you knew? How long have you known? What were you like 10 seconds before you realized how obvious it was?” That’s just a little exercise in humility. I don’t use it myself, because I’m not humble, but it might work for some people. Anyway, here’s what I’ve selected for today.
Betting and hoping they fold.
In limit poker games, most of the time that you bet, you would rather not be called. Then why bet? you demand. It’s because most of the time that you’re betting with quality hands, your opponents are correct in calling. The pot is laying them money odds that justify them continuing to play, despite the odds against them winning.
Just keep in mind that you’ll usually be happy if everyone folds. You need an exceptionally powerful hand not to be happy. Most of your betting is done with the hope of marginally improving your profit. In almost all of those cases, you’re somewhat better off betting, but you’re much better off if you don’t get called. Sound strange? It’s because the amount of money already in the pot is a bigger prize, if you win it right now, than the average profit you’d make if your opponents called in a million similar situations.
The simple governing concept here is this: If the call is bad for your opponent, you want him to call; but if it’s good for your opponent, you want him to fold. Usually, when you bet correctly for value, the bet is good for you and the call is good for your opponent. Therefore, you want him to fold. Only when the bet is good for you and the call is bad for your opponent do you want him to call.
The most difficult hand in ace-to-five lowball.
Ace-to-five lowball is usually played with a joker that fills in for the lowest missing rank in your hand. Straights and flushes don’t count against you, and the best possible hand is 5-4-3-2-A (a bicycle), followed by 6-4-3-2-A (a six-four).
It would make perfect sense, then, that a bicycle is rarer and harder to get than a six-four. Well, it isn’t. The odds against being dealt a pat bicycle are 1,245 to 1, and the odds against a six-four are 1,400 to 1. Maybe this just isn’t fair and doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a fact, nonetheless.
Here’s why. Suppose you hold 4-3-2-A with one card to come. There are four cards that will provide you with a six-four – a six of any suit. And there are also four cards that provide you with a bicycle – a five of any suit. But, wait! What happens if that fifth card is a joker? See it now? The joker would always substitute for a five, never for a six. And for that reason, it’s easier to be dealt a perfect bicycle than a second-best six-four.
When seven-stud pairs are buried.
Conventional wisdom has it that when you start your seven-card stud hand with a pair, you’d rather have both members of that pair facedown and buried. If one of them is the faceup card and you later make three of a kind, opponents will be afraid. You’ll often make less money than you would have if your board did not show a pair.
I have discussed elsewhere that the conventional wisdom is not always true, that there are cases in which you would rather have your starting pair split (one faceup, one facedown) than wholly concealed. But that’s another topic for another day.
Strange as it may seem at first, the odds against your pair being totally concealed are exactly 2 to 1. When you think about it, this makes sense. Let’s call the three positions for those starting cards A, B, and C. Positions A and B are facedown; C is faceup. How many different combinations of positions could your pair occupy? Let’s see… A and B, in which case the pair would be hidden; A and C or B and C, in which case the pair will be split. So, clearly, there are only three arrangements for the starting pair. Only one of these (A and B) leaves you with a buried pair. So, obviously, the odds must be 2-to-1 against a pair being buried.
That means two out of three times that your opponent holds a pair, it will be the kind that’s exposed and staring you right in the face.
The changing tide.
If you remain in a good game, it usually will get worse; if you remain in a bad game it usually will get better. If it isn’t convenient to select a more profitable game, remember that the game you’re in will change.
By natural selection, tight games will become looser, because solid players will leave in frustration, having no one to prey upon. Also, by natural selection, loose games will become tighter. They will attract solid players, and loose players will go broke. Important: while you’re waiting for a bad game to get better, play defensively and conservatively. The trick is to survive until the profit returns.
Tricky players are easy.
When you first started to play poker, you probably were bewildered by a certain style of play. Some opponents would always do strange and unpredictable things, and you couldn’t quite figure out how to handle them. Should you respond by doing strange and bewildering things right back?
Many experienced professionals believe, yes, that is the answer – but it isn’t. First, identify those who habitually use deception. They often bluff, they consistently check-raise, and they seem to suffer from what I’ve termed “Fancy Play Syndrome.” Fine, but how do you beat them? Easy. You simply call more when they bet, and you bet less when they are waiting to act.
Can it really be that simple? Yes! That’s just another poker fact that may not make sense at first. But it’s powerful advice. Try it. Against FPS opponents, simply call more and bet less. We’ll talk again soon. — MC
Updated 2022-02-05, changing “pass” to “fold” in accordance with modern terminology. Also, added closing “— MC.”