This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Two common questions about poker come to mind that require more than a one-word answer. One I’ve been asked under oath while testifying as an expert witness. That question is: Is poker predominantly a game of luck or a game of skill?
It depends. If you only play for a very short time, then your fate will be predominantly determined by luck. Even if you’re a very weak player, you may receive superior cards and win. Even if you’re a superior player, you may receive very weak cards and lose. That’s the truth.
Of course, it’s possible that you can win even more money in that short time, by playing your superior cards correctly. On the other hand, making the sophisticated decisions that will theoretically earn you extra money may backfire. You might earn less than an unknowledgeable player would earn with those same superior cards in that same situation. For instance, you might raise on fourth street in stud, knowing you’re likely to chase at least one player out of the pot, while earning extra money from those who call. A weak player may make a poor decision not to raise. As a result, all players will receive different cards on subsequent streets. This could change the amount of money you win. It could also mean that you will not win at all. The point is, in a short period of poker, luck rules. Skill is a weak force.
But the longer you play, the more luck fades and the more skill predominates. It’s like throwing a baseball toward the clouds. In the short term gravity is overwhelmed by the action. But the longer the ball stays airborne, the more gravity takes hold. That ball is coming down sooner or later.
So that’s what you should tell people when they ask whether poker is predominantly a game of luck or a game of skill. It takes a long answer.
Psychology or technical strategy?
The other common and perplexing question about poker is: Which is more important – psychology or technical strategy? In terms of profit for experienced players, psychology is much more important, because technical strategy is often closely matched. Of course, someone could master additional technical skills – skills based on analysis that researchers, including myself, have made available – and expect to win a great deal of extra money.
Still, after you advance far enough beyond the fundamentals of poker, beyond where you fine-tune your mathematical knowledge and your one-size-fits-all tactics, there remains only psychology to help you advance further. It is entirely possible that a technically expert player who is not savvy about tells, psychology, and manipulation may earn $40 an hour in a big-limit game, while a player who has mastered those elements may win $200 an hour or more. Simply choosing and accurately conveying the right image in a game can be worth $50 an hour in a $75/$150 limit game – sometimes much more.
A couple issues back, I wrote a column using words of only one syllable. At least I tried to. A two-syllable word appeared once. That word was “about.” In fact, it also appeared in the headline above the column, but I don’t know if that counts against me.
NOTE: This next short section can be skipped by scrolling down. It remains for historical purposes, but is no longer timely. SKIP BEGINS…
Rec.Gambling.Poker discussion group.
If you have a computer and are able to go online, you should visit the newsgroup rec.gambling.poker. This is not a web site, so you’ll need special software (called a newsreader) to participate. If you’re using a PC and Microsoft Windows, you can download Forte’s Free Agent at no cost. From your web browser, go to http://www.forteinc.com/agent/freagent.htm. This is just one of many solutions that will get you started with newsgroups. If you belong to AOL, there’s a built-in newsreader.
In any case, make the effort. Once you find rec.gambling.poker, you’ll be treated to some very intelligent online discussions about your favorite game. But you don’t need to participate. Most people just read the messages. Nobody will even know you’re there. This is called “lurking,” and it’s perfectly acceptable. When you’re comfortable, post your own messages, if you want to – it’s optional. You will quickly become familiar with some of the regular contributors. Also, you’ll encounter messages from people you already know. Doyle Brunson, Lee Jones, Linda Johnson, Lou Krieger, Mason Malmuth, Jim Albrecht, Nolan Dallah, and many more have all contributed to RGP. You’ll see me there quite often.
Speaking of RGP, two real-life testimonials were posted there that back up some of the advice I gave in my almost-all-one-syllable column. One of the topics I covered was purely psychological. It had to do with winning a call when you were sure your opponent was in the process of passing.
… SKIP ENDS.
Readers prove how it works.
What I said was that most players enter the game with a bias toward calling. They came for the action, and they don’t want to throw hands away. So, if you can give them any excuse to call, they will. I term this the calling reflex. When you hold a strong hand, you can trigger your opponents calling reflex simply by doing anything that will get their attention. Twisting in your seat, brushing your hair, starting to stand up – anything is apt to trigger that reflex and win the call. And, in this case, you don’t have to worry about whether your opponent sees through the ploy, because he’s passing anyway. So, it’s worth a try. It’s a free roll.
Anyway, here are two posts made to RGP in response to that column. By the way, whenever you see “:)” or “:-)” in an online post, that means the speaker is smiling or saying the words in a friendly manner.
From Tiger123@aol.com (Tiger). hi, mike!
you’ll like this one! :)
i do like the way you write! and i do like the stuff you write, too!
this week, like all weeks, i spent the last two or three days of the week in this town by the shore, just south of new york. as is my wont, i played some stud at the taj.
my first night there, when i had quit the game for the night, i read your last piece (you know – the one where you talked about the bet?). i loved it!
and then, on my last day in town, i got to use two of the bits you taught us! yep! the two tips on how to win that last call! :)
this is what went down: i was in a game of stud. there was a loose weak guy just to my right. as we played, i took more and more chips from him. but let me tell you of this one hand! the guy had limped in with an ace. i had the king and six of hearts in the hole, and the king of spades on the board. i raised the pot, and he called. i bet the hand all the way, and caught a heart on 4th, 5th and 6th streets! he just called, and i was sure that he was not on a draw, but had a small pair in the hole. on the end, he checked blind. i squeezed, looked up, and slid four red chips to the pot. i saw that he missed his hand, and that he would muck. so i looked right at him, and i twitched my head. and i winked. but he picked up his cards, and moved to throw them in. so i did it all! i coughed. i rubbed my nose and sneezed. and he did not know what to do!! and, yes, he picked up four reds!! so, then, the best and last: yes, i knocked down my whole stack of chips!! it made a mess!! it worked!! he was stunned!! and he called!!!
lol!!! all right!!!!
hey! thanks a lot, mike! i learn a great deal on our game each time i read your words! keep up the great work!!
and i’m glad that you won that bet with…… ……. ……. doyle!
And from John Rowan
(better known to RGP as Goatboy). I tried to do this like Mike and Tige, but there is one phrase I just have to use, so I give up now…..My last day in ABQ and I’m reading Caro’s article while I wait to get in a game… “Play Your Best Game” check. People Want To Call” check.
Trigger That Calling Instinct” hhmmm…don’t know if I’ve heard that one before. I get called to a 4-8 HE game and in a little while I limp in with AJo with one caller ahead. Three callers behind including both blinds. Flop is 9-10-Q. Checked tom me, I bet, three callers. Turn is a 6, I bet, two callers (The blinds).
River is a K, I bet, small blind folds, big blind hesitates. Usually when I am waiting for someone to decide what to do I try to look like Russ Hamilton (Which is hard to do because I am 5’8″ and 160lbs with my hat on). As I go into my “Still as a cactus” routine, I feel a light tap behind my ear. I look around, and there is a Tiny Mike Caro standing on my shoulder punching me in the head! “What was I just telling you about, my friend? I give you a perfectly good tip and you just forget about it? By the way, nice hat.” “Yikes, he’s right,” I think to myself. I immediately grab 12 chips with each hand and begin two one- handed riffles. I stare intently at my opponent. He looks frightened for a moment, and then, calls! After he sees my winning hand, he is kind enough to show the K-3 he was about to muck. So Mr. C., I figure I owe you half of that last bet. Where should I send the $4? – Goatboy
Repeating the magic secret.
Once more, when you hold a huge hand and your opponent is about to pass, do something. This will often make that opponent stop and reevaluate. Shuffle around in your chair, splash your chips, say something – anything. At this point you have nothing to lose. It’s a free roll, and it’s worth your effort.
The value of most advice is hard to measure. Often you can only guess. But each time this technique works, you will know for sure that you make extra money. And you can spend it. — MC