How to play poker during the nuclear winter

Note: This was the very first Mike Caro column in Card Player magazine, cover date October 21, 1988. In fact, it was the very first issue of Card Player ever.

You wake up and everything’s like an icicle. Out your window, the world is frozen everywhere. The mailman, the policeman, the fireman — all stand rigid and white.

“That’s a shame,” you tell yourself. Then you realize why it’s so cold! “Wasn’t there a nuclear war last week?” You think back. You suddenly remember. “That’s right! It was on the evening news!” Who says gamblers don’t keep up on current events? So, putting two and two together, you guess this must be the nuclear winter scientists were nagging about.

“Brrr! Sure looks cold!” And then a horrible thing occurs to you. It isn’t just men who are frozen. They can take it. Unfortunately, there are also innocent women and children frozen. Your whole being is quivering with that gruesome thought when something even more appalling comes to mind. What about the poker players?

It doesn’t take a physicist to figure out that if poker players are frozen, there won’t be a game tonight. So, you bundle up quickly and go searching for poker opponents. It takes days. Finally you find one and, by golly it’s me. (You didn’t think I was going to freeze, did you?)


“Let’s play,” you suggest.

“No cards,” I point out.

So, you leave, and after a week, you come back to our campfire with the ace of spades

“That’s not enough cards,” I tell you. “Even if we let one card constitute each poker hand we won’t have enough to deal two hands Besides, one card is hard to shuffle.”

You think about this, and pretty soon you see my point. You scurry away, seeking more cards. A week later, you return with the king of spades.

“Still not enough cards,” I explain. “The ace would always bet and the king would always pass. There could be no bluffing, because if you held a king and bet, you’d know the ace would call. With only two cards, we’re missing a key element of poker. In poker, your hand must be your own secret.”

You rapidly refresh yourself with a cup of coffee and leave the campfire, returning a week later with the queen of spades.

“Now?” you ask.


“Got any money?” I go on to explain that even though we can create an element of suspense with three cards, and each player will have a secret one-card hand, there’s no sense playing unless there’s something in the pot when the cards are dealt — something worth fighting over.

Another week goes by and you come back with some money. “Got any for me?” I ask. Another week and we both have money.

“Good, now we can play poker,” I declare.

With three cards, an ante, and more money to bet with, all the elements of poker are present. You can never bet with a king. That’s because your opponent will always pass with a queen and always call with an ace. You have no motive to bet with this middle hand. And, in fact, that turns out to be a governing concept in poker. Unless there are powerful reasons pushing you to the contrary, you should never bet a hand that is exactly average for the situation. (In future columns, I’ll discuss important exceptions.)

It might sometimes be worth bluffing with a queen, hoping a king passes. How often to bluff depends on the size of the ante and the habits of your opponent. For every poker situation there exists an exact frequency for betting, bluffing, calling and passing. Finding the frequency is fun. When you know it and your opponent doesn’t, you simply cannot lose.


Now, in the coldest hour of the nuclear winter, you shuffled and began to deal. You realized how resilient life on earth really was. There may be ice and devastation, but in tiny pockets throughout the planet, poker probably survived. While you were thinking that, I resolved that if things ever got back to normal, I would write a column again. And sometimes I’d teach money-making concepts using a reduced deck of cards.

And I will. — 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.


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