Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
You should never enter a poker game feeling like an old west gunslinger and getting your ego involved. If you do that, you’ll fire away at opponents with a barrage of raises. You’ll win their attention and, for at least a short time, you’ll be intimidating.
But then what? Then you’ll realize that you can’t win money in the long term, only attention, because each raise needs to be profitable. Deciding when to raise and why to raise is the topic of today’s self-interview.
Question 1: You said that a raise needs to be profitable. How do you know when that is?
Well, first you need to understand one powerful poker truth. Any decision you make can only be classified as profitable if it is the best choice at that moment.
That’s important, and I’ll repeat it: Only decisions that are the best ones right now are profitable. Some might quibble with that statement. They might argue that, for instance, both a raise and a call might be profitable choices. You might make money on your hand either way.
But that argument isn’t logical. If you’re going to master poker, you need to approach it like this: My decision, whenever possible, should be the one that will earn the most money, on average, if the same hand were played a billion times under the same conditions. If by calling you’ll average a $200 profit on the hand and by raising you’ll average a $180 profit, then “profit” is the wrong word when applied to raising. There was no profit in it at all. Raising lost you $20.
Get it? Okay, let me explain it another way. Some poker hands are just plain destined to make money. Everyone gets these hands. But when all the dealing and wagering is over, the players who capitalize the most on those hands win and players who capitalize least lose. On the flip side, some hands are weaker and destined to lose. On those hands, players who trim their losses by folding or not raising are more likely to win money.
In order to justify a raise, you must consider all strategic and psychological factors and logically conclude that doing it makes more money than either calling or folding.You shouldn’t raise unless that’s true. And you’re not going to be able to even estimate that truth unless you think about poker in precisely that way.
Question 2: Decades ago, you declared that there was too much pre-flop raising in hold ’em. Do you still think so?
Absolutely. There’s a raising epidemic that has endured for 20 years. It’s partly my fault, though. I was the guy who attacked “sit and wait” poker by promoting a new power strategy designed to take control of the game.
You can make more money using that style of play than by being extra conservative. Fine. But the raising revolution has gotten out of hand. I’ll say it again: You shouldn’t raise unless the result of that decision is more profitable than calling.
In hold ’em before the flop, calling is often better on all but the most powerful hands. That’s because hands aren’t really defined until after seeing the flop. And most semi-strong starting hands, when carefully analyzed mathematically, don’t have enough of an edge to justify a raise.
Remember, unless you’re raising for more subtle reasons than straight power, you need more than a small advantage to raise. Why? It’s because you can be reraised or you might scare opponents out of the pot who would provide profit had they played. Power raising is great. I helped pioneer it in books. But power raising before the flop in hold ’em shouldn’t be routine.
Question 3: What else can you teach me about raising?
Don’t raise with a strong hand if someone else will do it for you. That’s why I frequently just call with powerful hands when super aggressive opponents are waiting to act. I want them to hang themselves, using their own rope.
Also, usually don’t raise if it will chase weak opponents out of the pot. If a strong opponent has bet, I seldom want to isolate myself against just him by raising. I want to improve my odds by coaxing weak players into the pot. I can do this more easily by just calling, instead of raising, especially with marginally strong hands.
Question 4: What else?
It’s okay to raise with the intention of creating a dominating image. I do that a lot. But once you’ve established yourself as a force to be reckoned with, ease off on the throttle. That’s when you should make decisions wisely, based on which tactic is the most profitable. Again, it doesn’t matter that a raise will win money. It’s still the wrong choice unless it makes the most money.
You should also be aware that loose games are the most profitable. But loose games with lots of callers are much more profitable than loose games with lots of raisers. Seek opponents who call too often but don’t take full advantage of their strong hands by raising. Timid callers usually are your most profitable opponents – not reckless raisers.
Our time is up. We’ll talk again soon. — MC