Mike Caro poker word is Gears

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

Poker is built on deception. If you want to extract the most money possible from opponents, sometimes you need to temporarily switch strategy. This is known as shifting gears.

But wait! The problem with shifting gears is that most players do it at the wrong times or for the wrong reasons. They would be better off not shifting at all. In this self-interview, I’ll show you how to shift correctly.

Question 1: So, why do you need to shift gears?

Ideally, you shouldn’t shift. You should have one single most-profitable gear.

But in practice, you can earn more money sometimes by shifting in order to appear less predictable. You shift because there’s always a lag between when you do it and when astute opponents realize it. They’ll be responding to your previous gear, and that gives you time to profit.

But confusing your opponents isn’t the only reason to shift. Sometimes you do it to adjust to game conditions. Remember, if your opponents play way too many hands, you can stray from the standards that are profitable on paper and play more often. That’s because the average opposing hands will be weaker than usual, leaving you the opportunity to liberalize and still make more money.

So the two main reasons to shift gears are to confuse and to adapt.

Question 2: What methods of shifting do you recommend?

There are three methods that I recommend. There’s the standard three-gear system in which second gear is normal, first gear is tight, and third gear is loose.

There’s my simplified two gear system. And there’s my advanced five-gear system. I covered the two-gear and five-gear systems in this column eight years ago.

Question 3: So what’s the two-gear system?

It’s based on the fact that most playable hands are only marginally profitable or unprofitable. They’re borderline.

The peculiar thing about borderline hands is that theoretically you won’t affect your overall profit much, no matter whether you play them or fold them. In fact, since there are so many hands close to the borderline, two players can have very similar earnings for their lifetimes, but one could play twice as many hands as the other.

One would be perceived as loose — playing hands liberally — while the other would be perceived as tight — playing hands conservatively. Over time, they would be equal winners, assuming their other skills were superior enough, relative to opponents. Neither would be a perfect player, but each would be a similar winner.

So, keeping that bizarre fact in mind, the two gear system simply dictates that you stay in low gear, not playing borderline hands, when you’re vulnerable. That happens when opponents see that you’re losing and are inspired by your misery, thus taking better advantage of their small edges.

And it happens when you’ve tried to establish a dominant image, but fallen flat, due to a poor run of cards. In those cases, run for cover. Stay in low gear, folding borderline hands, until fate makes you a factor again.

But when things are going well and opponents fear you, that’s the time to shift to the other gear — the high one — and stay there as long as you’re a powerful force at the table.

This system doesn’t just consider playing and folding. It covers calling or raising and folding or calling, too. Act more liberally with borderline choices when you’re in high gear and conservatively when you’re in low gear.

See? Just two gears centering on borderline decisions. You either play liberally with all of them or none of them.

Question 4: And what about your five-gear system?

The main skill you need to use five gears effectively is the ability to count to four — not to five, to four!

First, you need to recognize a borderline decision, because that’s the only kind of hand this system handles. I’ll leave you on your own to enter pots with clearly profitable hands and to fold clearly unprofitable ones. Same goes for clear raising and calling situations.

You’ll be able to immediately recognize borderline decisions, simply because you’re in doubt. Whenever it’s uncertain to you whether to play or fold, raise or call, call or fold, that’s a borderline decision. And that applies to the majority of potentially playable poker hands and subsequent call-or-raise and fold-or-call choices.

Fine. When you sit down, begin in third gear and either stay there or shift up or down depending on the factors discussed previously. (Actually, I often start in fifth gear, because I try to establish a carefree image right away.)

Now do this: Keep a running 1-2-3-4 count in your head from deal to deal. The five-gear (“count to four”) system is really a fancy two-gear system.

Gear 1: Fold all borderline hands, no matter where you are in your 1-2-3-4 deal count.

Gear 2: Fold borderline hands if the count is 1, 2, or 3. Play if it is 4.

Gear 3. Fold borderline hands if the count is 1 or 2. Play if it is 3 or 4.

Gear 4. Fold borderline hands if the count is 1. Play if it is 1, 2, or 3.

Gear 5. Play all borderline hands, no matter where you are in the 1-2-3-4 deal count.

The five-gear system is very deceptive. Just have a good reason to shift up or down a gear, remembering that you can only move one level lower or higher per deal in this system. And keep counting.

Question 5: Any final thoughts?

Never shift gears at whim. You need a valid reason. Without that reason, you’ll make more money sticking to your best everyday game, based on your most comfortable medium gear.

Anytime you shift, you’re straying from your normal mode of profit to either adjust to opponents or to confuse them, so that they’ll make costly mistakes. Your preference should be not to shift at all.

But staying in the same gear isn’t always the most profitable solution, either. So, be willing to shift reluctantly when you’re strongly convinced doing so will be more profitable.

But your quest should always be to return to your normal gear as quickly as possible. It’s the one you’ll use most of the time for a simple reason. It’s your money gear. — 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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  1. Mike, I enjoy your writing and appreciate your knowledge of the game. Keep the strategy suggestions coming.

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