Sometimes you’re not the sheriff

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (1992) in Card Player magazine.

Enhanced by Mike Caro in 2014.

Too many otherwise skillful poker players have a problem with law enforcement. I’m not talking about anything that would brand these players bad citizens. In fact, this problem might make these players good candidates for the police force. Unfortunately, this same problem pulverizes their profits.

I once played hold ’em against a college-age kid who called my bluff with a hand that had almost no chance of winning, but the operative word here is almost. I should have forgotten the incident by now. And I would have, except for one thing. . .

The kid raked in the pot proudly, chirping, “Every pot needs a sheriff.”

Contritely, I feigned a warm smile and nodded. I soon discovered, this guy never threw a hand away if there was a possibility of being bluffed.

You probably heard about the poker-playing student who wrote home from college: “Dear Dad, please send more money, because nobody’s going to bluff me!” I quit bluffing against the kid, and he kept calling until he went broke mumbling, “You lucky bastard!” He left the table so swiftly there was a vacuum in his wake.

A question worth asking. Every pot does not need a sheriff. Some pots need a sheriff, true. On the final card in seven-card stud, the pot is often big enough that that you should call with any reasonable hope. But wait! Even if a pot needs a sheriff, that doesn’t mean you’re it!

With three or more opponents in a pot, many players make the mistake of trying to catch a bluff with a weak hand. Fine. But they ought not try it too often when other players with more reasonable hopes are yet to act. Remember, the more players an opponent bets into, the more risk he takes of being called. That means there are lots of potential sheriffs out there, so consider leaving law enforcement to someone else.

Rick Greider. The most fiercely competitive poker player I ever met is Rick Greider. Once we left a game to go fishing, betting on who would catch the most. We were both shut out until I reeled in a six-inch fish.

While I dangled my hooked fish over the edge of the boat, gloating, Rick nudged my rod. That fish escaped into the vast ocean. I instinctively started to call for a floorman before I remembered we were on a boat.

This closing note left for historical purposes. Years ago, Rick completed his revolutionary investigation into the science of seven-card stud. Next thing I heard, he was a noted lion tamer!

Now he’s back, taking on serious students. (Note: An ad for these lessons appeared in the same Card Player magazine issue as this column.) Pros who’ve studied under him all tell me this is a rare opportunity to learn stud from a master. Knowing Rick, I’m not surprised. Good luck, my friend.

A closing note from 2014. This entry stresses the importance of realizing that it isn’t always up to you to make the call. In fact, usually it isn’t.

In the decades since I wrote this piece, I’ve concentrated even more on that aspect of the game and done some computer analysis. It seems clear that most of the “marginal” calls that typical players make on the final betting round are unprofitable, unless they’re last to act. And I feel comfortable saying, “Period.”

So, if your heart tells you it’s a borderline call when others wait to act, it probably isn’t quite so borderline. It’s most likely a bad investment. Anyway, you’ve been warned and I’ve been reminded. — 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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