This article first appeared in Poker Digest magazine.
Grand Island, Nebraska, 1965. I’m playing a little too conservatively, but winning nonetheless. I haven’t mastered most of the tricky tactics, tells, and psychological warfare yet, so I resort to just playing tighter than my foes. That, of course, is what you should do during your training stages – and even beyond. Tight turns out to be the simplest way to beat weak opponents who play far too many pots. Of course, you can liberalize and win still more money, but when you’re just guessing about which bet or raise is right in what situations, it’s often better to just stay out of trouble and play super tight. Yes, although it will be hard for many to believe, I wasn’t always an “action player,” profiting from small edges and mixing up my play. I went through periods as a rock. But please don’t tell anyone.
Anyway, I’m just out of high school and have been appointed sports editor for the Daily Independent, a newspaper that serves the city of about 25,000 and its surrounding community. Being sports editor carries special privileges, one of which is that I can be a special guest at the local VFW and play in their quasi-legal poker games.
What does “no-limit” mean?
There are two poker tables, both full of players. I’m in the $1 limit game – stakes that inflation has made less meaningful today. Nearby is a no-limit game that is perceived as a step up in stature. I’m not sure why. While the term “no-limit” carries its own prestige, the actual money changing hands was probably about the same as in my game.
“No-limit” isn’t a measure of a poker game’s size, as many casual poker players seem to think. Instead, it’s a style of wagering. In no-limit games, the size of the average wagers is dictated by the size of the antes or blinds. That money, placed in the pot before the players make decisions about further wagering, represents the target. The bigger the target is, the bigger the rewards you’re pursuing and the more often you should bet.
But, I’m sidetracked again. What we just shared may be important, but it’s not the point. There was a not-so-big no-limit game going on at the table next to me. It involved some local businessmen, mostly. Now, the atmosphere was normally peaceful. Lots of friendly chiding, laughter, good cheer. Then what? Well, then the peace was suddenly shattered with the bellow of an irate player from the next table.
“You might as well take out a gun and just steal fifty bucks from me!” And the angry man – a big, burly guy about 40 – reached into the pot, which wasn’t his to handle, and began hurling handfuls of chips against the VFW walls. They rattled and rolled everywhere.
“Hey, calm down, what are you doing?” the rightful winner of the pot protested, trying to scoop in as many chips as possible, partially salvaging the pot.
This seemed to enrage the loser even more. “Damn sandbagger!” he ranted and threw two more handfuls of chips at once, awkwardly, his wrists colliding in mid-air, making him wince in agony. “Rotten sandbagger! Just take out a gun and rob me,” he said, repeating his original thoughts.
It was an incident that I’ll never forget. The game had been ace-to-five lowball. I learned later that the winner had drawn two cards and made a wheel, which is the best hand you can possibly have in this form of poker – five, four, three, deuce, ace. The loser had stood pat on his six-high – a super hand that figures to win most of the time. The winner had looked at his cards, realized that he’d made the wheel and couldn’t be beat, pondered for dramatic purposes, and checked.
No doubt the loser felt even more confident after that check. He was solidly in the driver’s seat now and he bet $10. The opponent quickly raised $40. The loser called and the resulting showdown caused the blow-up.
Okay, fine. Now I’ve got a few things to say.
First, if you’re one of those players who think that sandbagging is unsportsmanlike, then you don’t fully understand the nature of poker. You see, sandbagging – which is the term given to checking a hand into an opponent and then raising after that opponent bets – is a perfectly appropriate tactic in poker. Now, it’s true that in some home games (and in some forms of lowball), checking-and-then-raising is not allowed. Fine. Just fine. That rule takes an element of skill out of the game, but fine. Wherever sandbagging is allowed by rule – and that’s almost everywhere in serious poker circles – it’s proper to do it.
Here’s the truth. If you never sandbag, you’re giving astute opponents an opportunity to bet medium-strong hands with impunity after you check. Think about it. You might have a fairly good hand – one strong enough that you’ll have to call with it, barring a tell to the contrary. Okay, let’s suppose it’s strong enough to call with, because the pot is laying you large enough odds that you could lose the same call many times for each time you won and still turn a profit.
For instance, if after you check and your opponent bets, there’s $100 in the pot and it costs you $10 to call, you only need to win once in 11 attempts in this same situation to break even. That’s because 10 times you’d lose $10 each for a total of $100, but once you’d win the whole $100 already in the pot, a profit of $100 – nothing gained, nothing lost. So, if you figure you have one chance in 10 of winning, you should definitely make the call. Over time, you’ll lose $90 on nine tries and win $100 once. Your profit will be $10 for those theoretical 10 tries, so you win $1 per call – and, conversely, you lose $1 each time you don’t call.
Now, think hard. We’ve just determined that if you win once in 10 times, it’s worth calling and you’ll average a $1 gain, but do you want your opponent to bet? No. You want your opponent to check after you do. That’s because, despite the fact that you earn $1 by calling, you actually lose money on the call itself.
Huh? How much? Well, let’s examine this. You called 10 times and lost nine times — $90. Once you won $10 – that’s right, don’t get confused. This time we’re looking at your profit or loss on just the bet itself. Your opponent’s bet is $10. Your call is $10. You’ll win or lose $10 on that exchange each time you call. So, for 10 calls, you lose $80 ($90 lost and $10 gained).
The average cost of your call is $8. From a mathematical point of view, the question is simply: Is the $8 I’m losing by calling the bet less or more than my theoretical share of the pot in a showdown? If it’s more, you should fold, because the cost of the call overwhelms its value. If the cost of the call is less than its value, in terms of your average share of the pot, you should call.
Yes, I know, you’re supposed to call despite the fact that you’re losing $8 on the exchange, because you win the whole pot if you have the better hand – and the pot is big enough relative to your changes of winning. But, wait! Wouldn’t you be happier if you got to see the showdown without having to suffer that average $8 loss?
Well, here’s the key. You’re less likely to suffer that $8 loss if you occasionally sandbag against an astute opponent. That way, it makes it uncomfortable for him to bet medium-strong hands after you check, because you’re more likely to have him beat, and he might have to face a raise. He’ll still bet these hands sometimes, but he probably won’t bet them as often. And whenever he doesn’t bet them, for fear of your raise, you save money.
Of course, that’s simplistic. I’ve spent 30 years analyzing these situations, using both logic and my own computer simulations. Trust me when I say it can be complicated. There are other factors involved. Bluffing is also a factor. So is the fact that when you sandbag a strong hand, you want your opponent to bet, and the fact that you’ve previously sandbagged will discourage this.
The Basic Truth
But, despite these complications and others, we shouldn’t lose sight of the basic truth. If we never sandbag, and our opponent is rational and aware, we’re providing him with extra opportunities to win money from us. So, don’t let anyone tell you there’s something unkind or unethical about sandbagging. It’s sometimes a necessary part of poker.
But I’m not done. That advice focuses on astute opponents. Strong opponents. Now I’m going to say something that may shock you. I seldom sandbag at all against weak players who are having a good time giving me their money. I don’t usually sandbag even when it’s clear to me that I’ll make more money right now by doing it. Why?
Here’s the reason. I try to create an atmosphere in which my weak opponents have a good time. I reward them for making weak plays and beating me by giggling, being friendly, and praising them. I want to encourage this weak behavior, because I know that’s where my profit comes from in the long run. One quick way to change their mood and make them less likely to play and bet weak hands against me is to sandbag. You see, sandbagging seems like an act of war to these players. Remember the man who lost the pot in Grand Island, Nebraska? That’s how they may feel, even if they don’t vocally express their displeasure.
What happens when you sandbag these weak, carefree players is you teach them a new trick. They may start sandbagging more often themselves and change the whole fun, loose nature of the game. But, worse, you’re demonstrating that you’re playing poker seriously. This will often make them more wary and selective about the hands they play and the wagers they make. By using sophisticated strategy against weak opponents, you’ll often alert them to the fact that there really is strategy. They’ll stop giving you their money as readily – and all because you decided to show them how clever you are by sandbagging.
So, my advice today is:
1. Don’t let anyone tell you that sandbagging is unsportsmanlike. It’s part of poker and sometimes necessary.
2. Sandbag mostly against sophisticated opponents who will appreciate and understand it.
3. Seldom sandbag against weak opponents who are throwing profit your way by playing loose and friendly.
Hope this helps.