Update on rake games + using psychology for profit

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

Update. A few columns back, I explained that you should be much more liberal in your hand selection when the casino is charging seat rental than when a percentage of the pot is being raked as house profit. While, that’s not our topic today, I’ll tell why once more, then I’ll tell you what to do in a different type of situation – where the player in the dealer position pays a fixed fee.

First, the reason you can play more liberally in a game in which the house is renting your seat is because that money is not attached to a particular pot. Conversely, if the house rakes 10 percent, then if I bet $10 and you call $10, $2 (10 percent of the $20 total) will be lost. From your perspective as a bettor, that means you’ll only get $18 if you win, so you’re really wagering $10 to win $8. This also means you need a 5-to-4 advantage (same as 10-to-8) to justify a wager.

Well, a huge portion of normally bettable hands have less than a 5-to-4 edge, or even a 10-to-9 edge you’d require in a 5 percent rake game. This means that in a rake game, before any cap on the amount that the house will take has been reached, you usually must play and bet only your premium hands.

They won’t play tight

Of course, there are other considerations. You’re not always betting in conjunction with your edge right now. You could be setting up future gain or running psychological gymnastics around your opponent’s head. That can be great for fun and profit. And, just as you may need a significant edge to justify a bet, your opponent, for the same reasons, may need a significant edge to justify a call. Theoretically, there should be many fewer bets and many fewer calls in a rake game, but because of the inexperience of the competitors, the opposite is usually true. You should and will play tight. They won’t.

What about a seat-rental game? There none of the previous applies. You’ve already paid the house their money, and it shouldn’t affect your play any more than it would if you’d taken that same money and bought a ham sandwich with it. The seat-rental (often called “collection”) and your wagers are not related.

Now today’s update. Some casinos around Los Angeles have begun to earn their poker profit in a new way. Many readers have asked me how to handle the situation where the player in last position (dealer button) puts up an extra $3. The answer is simple. This should not affect your play at all. It is the equivalent of a collection charged every eight hands or so.

This money is NOT coming out of your pot, even though it may look like it. Imagine that there’s a converted parking meter that the casino has put in the center of the card floor. In order to play a hand, somebody needs to walk up and feed it $3. Everyone at the table agrees to take turns doing this. Would that have any affect on the way you played your hand? Of course not. It’s just the same as if you took $3 and bought a magazine. There’s no correlation to how you should play your poker hand.

What about a drop?

Finally, what about a drop where the casino takes a fixed about of money OUT OF THE POT, usually a portion of the antes, before the betting begins. Should this affect your play? Yes! Here, you should play considerably tighter because the initial pot – the prize that you’re fighting over – is smaller and there’s less incentive for you to play. So, here you DO tighten up on your opening standards. After you’re already involved in a pot, there’s no more penalty and decisions should be made by taking into consideration the size of the pot, the size of your wager, and the value of your hand.

Always keep these concepts in mind, because it really matters to your bankroll how you approach these different types of games. Repeating.

  • Hourly, half-hourly rent = Play your normal best game.

  • Extra money paid by player with dealer button = Play your normal best game.

  • Percentage rake = Play more conservatively throughout.

  • Percentage rake with a cap = play more conservatively before the cap has been reached.

  • Drop taken from the blinds or antes = Be more selective about your starting hands.

Of course, you could quibble and point out that the original situation has bearing on later play, even after a cap has been reached, but that isn’t a major factor. Stick to the advice I just gave you.

The real worst play

Some players treat poker as a purely analytical job. They make their decisions only in regards to the cards they see, the odds they know, the tactics they’ve taught themselves. Perceived tiny edges become monumentally important to them, and, at the table, they argue with each other about whether a raise was right.

They seem often oblivious to the behavior of others. The thought that there can be as much profit in manipulating opponents emotionally as in outmaneuvering them with an all-purpose strategy offends them. You’ll sometimes hear these guys grumble loudly after losing a pot to an inferior player who made a mistake.

“How could you call? What did you think I had?” they’ll whine. Deep inside this whining is a far, far greater poker error than the one they’re criticizing. They’re making it uncomfortable for their opponents to play poorly, and in doing so they’re costing themselves thousands of dollars.

On the Internet is a free discussion group called rec.gambling.poker. You’ve seen me recommend it before. Although I haven’t had the chance to visit in the last two months, I often spend time there, and if you’re online with a newsreader, you should make RGP a regular stop. Here’s one message I posted there a few months ago, in answer to a question about what to say when an opponent asks you about what cards you threw away…

Money grows wild

Beyond the basics — well, maybe FAR beyond the basics — exists the land of psychology and manipulation. It is the land of poker where money grows wild.

After you’re comfortable that you’ve mastered superior skills, you should always seek to enhance your image in a way that will bring maximum profit. Usually (not always), this means developing an image that will bring you extra calls when you have an edge.

Many will argue that you really want to be able to bluff, and — because stealing a whole pot can be so valuable relative to just winning an extra call — they believe you should strive for a tight image, instead of a loose one. Sometimes that’s right. But, the problem with their approach is that your opponents’ main weakness is usually that they call too often. You should take advantage of that weakness, and try to convince them to make their favorite mistake even MORE frequently. This can be a gold mine of extra profit.

If you are in a loose game and you try to create an image suitable to bluff with, you must FIRST condition your opponents to ignore their weakness of calling too much, then take them through a time when they are calling about the right amount, then — finally — into a time where they are bluffable. It takes a lot of work to do this magic in a loose game, and you make less money than you would if you simply went after the calls in the first place.

Why even play in that game?

What about enhancing your chances of successfully bluffing in a tight game by creating a conservative (tight) image? Fine. But do you really need to be in that tight game in the first place? (Unrelated point: By the way, it’s much easier to manipulate tight players into becoming loose players than vice versa.)

Now to answer your question. What should you say when an opponent asks what you had after you threw your cards away? Since I’m always trying to establish my most profitable image, anytime someone ASKS me to say something, I consider that an invitation to add to my stack without having to work hard.

If it’s a loose, wild, unpredictable image I’m working on (which is usually the case), I’ll say something playful like, “I wasn’t bluffing that time…oh, don’t give me that look [speaking to nobody in particular, but implying that someone is questioning me], I don’t ALWAYS bluff,” or “I’m embarrassed to tell you, but he [again speaking about no one in particular] saw what I’ve been playing. I was going to bluff, but I didn’t have to — I caught the perfect card. You made a good laydown.” That latter bit, if delivered right, makes an opponent feel friendly toward me AND determined to call me the next time.

There are hundreds of things I say, but the lines must be delivered smoothly. Your opponents must feel that they’re being confused, but not conned, by your words. What you put in their heads is very important. You are planting doubts for future use. As you sow, so shall you reap.

Huge profit

This is an art, and it will take a lot of practice to develop, but you have a great opportunity to add to your bankroll whenever an opponent asks about your hand. I know, I know. Many of you think this part of poker is frivolous and not in the same league with careful statistical analysis of how to play strategic situations.

I’m as fascinated by statistical analysis of poker problems as anyone. And I’ll continue to research, publish, and analyze in this area for a long time. However, when we argue statistically about the best play, we’re usually dealing with a situation that is close, and the resulting extra profit from making the right choice is sometimes small. But when we talk about the right image, the profit can be huge, and even the proper tone of voice can mean the difference between getting a call and not getting one, or making a sale and not making one. — 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. Love your website. Have a question for you. Do you adjust and play more suited broadway hands if the casino pays a bonus for a royal flush? I’ve been limping in early pos. with any two suited broadways just because i dont want to fold for the min. if it cost me a shot at making a royal flush. Is this worth taking a shot at or not?


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