Mike Caro poker word is Box

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.

Thinking “outside the box” sometimes provides a great advantage. But it can also lead to poker disaster. Here’s why.

The concept of outside-the-box thinking means you can stray from traditional step-by-step logic and find innovative solutions that aren’t otherwise apparent. Fine. I do that routinely. Many truly great advances have happened because someone thought “outside the box.”

Poker is no different. When you’re faced with a routine decision about calling or folding, you should often think, “Wait! What happens if I raise?” Raise? Well, you can’t raise. Nobody raises in this situation. Hmm… but what if I do?

Poker magic

This advanced process can occasionally lead to poker magic, rocketing your marginally successful game plan to a new world-class level. For instance, let’s say I’m in a no-limit hold ’em game and my opponent moves all-in on the river against my three nines. The board is A-K-9-5-4, with no flush possible.

My opponent’s bet is many times larger than the size of the pot, so it’s a serious decision for me. I realize that my opponent could be bluffing. So, I need to factor in the likelihood of that, which will always be an educated guess based on mannerisms, past behavior, current mood, the way my opponent perceives me, and more. I also need to think of other motivations my opponent might have for betting a hand that I can beat. He could have three fives or three fours, so I need to review the action that got us to this stage and estimate the chance that he would have continued to play those hands long enough to hit the set.

He could be betting from strength with aces and kings (holding ace-king in his private hand), but what is the chance that he would risk the all-in bet with that? What about just a pair of aces or even kings? Much less likely, of course. What about two other pair?

Now what could he be betting that has me beat? Could he have the ultimate shock-value cards, 3-2, to hold a straight? Not likely, but we’ve all seen it. What about three aces or three kings? That’s all I have to fear from his private two cards: 3-2, A-A, or K-K.


But what are the chances that he holds one of those hands? Well, the larger the bet, the more likely that disaster is, in theory. So, I have to weigh everything and come up with some odds for applying to this decision. A bluff? Two pair? Lower trips? Higher ones? Two pair? Aces? A surprise straight? What am I facing?

So, now it’s time to factor in this opponent’s style of play and his current emotions. Next, I get to something really important: What tells have I seen?

Keep in mind that most tells aren’t absolute decision makers. Only the very strongest ones approach 100 percent accuracy, and they’re rare. So, I’ll use tells as just another factor to be weighed. But, alas, I’m not seeing anything strong here. No holding of breath that indicates a bluff. Nothing that indicates strength, such as a suddenly trembling hand, either.

A question

Now what? I’ve done all the analysis I can. But wait! I’ve really only done everything I can within the box. Let’s think outside the box. What if I just show my cards face up on the table and ask him what I should do?

With the exception of terrible rules in some tournaments and other games that forbid this, what do I have to lose? I’m last to act. He’s all-in. I can’t decide. Maybe showing him my cards will trigger a reaction that will be helpful. So, I do it and politely ask, “What would you do if you held this hand?”

Sometimes it works magic — and it’s thinking outside the box.

Do you know where the term comes from? Probably nobody really knows, but it’s commonly thought that it goes back decades to the nine-dots problem. It works like this:

Nine spades

You’re given a piece of paper and a pencil. The paper has nine dots on it, but I’ll give it a poker flavor by making them spades…

♠      ♠      ♠

♠      ♠      ♠

♠      ♠      ♠

Now you’re asked to draw four straight lines that connect all the spades, without lifting your pencil. Try it.

Most people fail, because they’re thinking in terms to the visual box formed by the spades or dots. (No tricks here: You can’t use a super-wide pencil or go off the paper to draw long lines that intersect portions of the spades/dots. You have to go right through the center of each.)

One solution is to start just below the lower right spade and draw a diagonal line to the center of the top left one, then go straight to the upper right spade, but don’t stop! We’re thinking outside the box, so continue that line a little further. Now take a diagonal shot through the middle left spade and the middle bottom spade, continuing the line until you’re right under the left column. Then straight up and you’re done.


Okay, so why did I say this thought process is dangerous in poker?

It’s because players who acquire great skills often like to show them off. They prefer creative way to play hands, rather than usually sticking to the obvious and most-profitable choices. I call this “Fancy Play Syndrome” or FPS. And it destroys thousands of bankrolls every year.

The truth is, it’s good to be able to think outside the box in poker. And occasionally that thought process will lead to extra profit. But it’s more likely to lead to devastation, because of excessive use.

So, consider this a poker warning. You don’t win by being needlessly creative or by showing off. You win by being able to see outside the box and usually choosing to stay within it. — MC

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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