The secret to conquering tricky opponents

This article first appeared in Poker Digest magazine.

My wife Phyllis walked into my office an hour ago and told me how weird I’m becoming. She had just listened to my latest poker lesson, broadcast from www.pokerpages.com. I’m really having a lot of fun supplying those audios free to the world on the Internet, and I’m packing them with my very best poker advice.

Phyllis said, “Those might be the best thing you’ve ever done, except for the strange parts. Can’t you just do anything straight?” So, I’ve decided to dedicate this column to my beloved Phyllis. Herein, I present one of the most important poker secrets. And I’ll share it with you in the least weird way I know how, without any gimmicks whatsoever. Here goes…

Getting Up From The Table

Imagine you’re my student and I asked you to leave your chips on the table and follow me.

“Do we have to do this now?” you whine. “I’m stuck four thousand dollars and this game’s too good to get up from.”

“Yes, now. We need to meet away from the table,” I tell you. “I know why you’re losing.”

“I know why I’m losing, too,” you insist. “It’s because I keep guessing wrong against Jack and Jill. Everyone else is easy, but they’re trying to run over the game. And I’m not going to let ’em.”

At this point, I provide you with a sympathetic nod that is partially fake and partially felt. But you continue to lament, “So, I try to make them pay by running over them right back. But I’m getting really unlucky by always bluffing at the wrong times and raising when they have better hands. Things will change. I can feel it.”

“Get Up Now,” I repeat sternly.

So, you leave your chips on the table and we go to the parking lot together. Outside, the sun is directly overhead. It’s 72 degrees with a slight wind coming from the southwest. The humidity is about 81 percent. But since none of that has anything to do with poker, we ignore it and walk to my car in silence.

Poker Truth In The Mountains

“Where are you taking me?” you want to know, once we’ve driven 10 miles out of town.

“To the mountains,” I say simply.

You grumble and I drive. Sure enough, 20 minutes later we’re in the mountains a hundred yards from the roadway, sitting on boulders and listening to the birds chirp unseen among the trees that surround us.

“Now what?” you insist.

“Now I share the secret. First, tell me what bothers you about Jack and Jill.”

You fumble your first words as you try to think, slapping your hand painfully against the boulder in disgust. Then your thoughts crystallize and you blurt, “Well, Jack’s a good guy, but he just keeps raising so much it’s frustrating. And Jill does the same thing, and she’s a bitch, besides.”

“Jill’s really nice once you get to know her,” I correct. “And you don’t have to like her. You just have to keep her from taking your money. Tell me what really bothers you about playing poker with Jack and Jill,” I prod.

“Well,” you confide, “it makes my head hurt. Every time I think about putting my chips in the pot, I’m secretly looking at them, worried about what they’re going to do. It’s comfortable playing against everyone else, but against those two I feel threatened all the time. They’re always betting and raising. Jack’s the worst. He’s always trying to bull the game, if you know what I mean.”

Improving Your Poker Prospects Forever

So, I begin to tell you the powerful truth that will change your poker prospects forever – for the better. In the next half hour, I convince you that:

1. First, you’ve got to identify opponents who habitually use deception, since these are the ones that bother you and interfere with your prospects of making profit from weaker foes. It’s easy to identify them.

They slow play hands at surprising times. At other times, they bet and keep betting. They raise often and sometimes unexpectedly. They bluff often, along with all those other annoying and aggressive maneuvers. In short, it’s hard for you to determine what they’re doing at any moment.

But, even though they’re hard to figure out, they’re not really playing a profitable game of poker. They suffer from what I call “Fancy Play Syndrome” – the habit of trying to find the most creative play instead of the most profitable, more obvious one. (We’ll probably delve into that more in a future column.)

All you know about Jack and Jill is they’re tricky and, on balance, way too aggressive for your taste. Identifying these deceptive players is easy. What to do about them is what might not be obvious, but all I’m asking you to do first is identify them by their traits.

2. Now that you’ve identified these aggressive-and-deceptive opponents, here’s the simple part of the secret. Whenever you’re faced with this type of opponent, you should bet into them less often and call their bets more often. You should also raise them less often.

The governing logic is that you can make marginal “value bets” against opponents who are timid and who are intimidated by you. Remember, all this super-aggressive betting and raising, when used at the right times, means you’re targeting a few extra dollars of profit. You’re pushing things to the limit. But all this backfires when your opponents are aggressive and unpredictable. Those are the opponents that you don’t what to value bet into and that you don’t want to make marginal raises against.

Sure, sometimes you might make a forceful raise just to encourage an opponent to back off and “play nice.” But this doesn’t work often with players like Jack and Jill. It’s especially unlikely to work if they have superior position, meaning they are seated close to your left, acting after you most of the time.

And if they’re seated to your left, you should do a lot of checking and calling. That will drive them nuts and completely dismantle their aggressive-and-deceptive tactics.

Checking and calling is especially good if they bluff a lot. Repeat: On each betting round, just check and call. That way, you’ll get maximum value from their bluff attempts. Betting with marginal hands isn’t good (even though this would be long-range profitable against timid opponents), because they’ll maximize their profit by raising too often when they do have you beat. Additionally, by betting, you give them less opportunity to lose money by making their mistake of bluffing too often.

3. Another part of the secret is that trying to get even with Jack and Jill is interfering with your strategy against the weaker players, which is where your profit lies. Even if you could fight back to an even footing against J and J by using their own tactics, you will have diminished your profit by neglecting to concentrate on extracting money from the weak, timid opponents. So, let them have the stage. Let them try to destroy you with their too-forceful tactics. Realize that it’s impossible for them to succeed unless you let them.

“Wow,” you whisper. “That’s the secret. I can destroy Jack and Jill just by calling more and betting less.”

“Yes,” I say. And when I’m finished, you are energized. You have heard the truth about something that’s bothered you at poker all your life. You understand it completely now. And profit waits back at the poker table.

“But why did we have to come to the mountain for this?” you wonder.

“Because it was important enough,” I explain.

Thanks to Phyllis, I enjoyed talking to you today about plain poker strategy, without any weirdness. Maybe I’ll do it again soon. — 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. But value betting into deceptive opponents when you can confidently call a raise would be more profitably than checking to them, correct?

    1. Hi, Andrea —

      I’m glad you found the new Poker1. Welcome to the family. And thanks for the kind words.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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