This article first appeared in CardPlayer magazine.
“Somebody’s got to keep him honest,” Tom said, calling the bet. The next player to act raised. The original bettor reraised. And poor Tom folded.
“Betting is more a matter of feel than science,” Dick explained to me years ago in Gardena. I had folded before the draw. He had drawn two cards to queens with an ace kicker and made aces up. I knew this for a fact, because he showed me. Because he didn’t want other players around us to hear, his voice was low and conspiratorial. He immediately was raised by a pleasant 97-year-old woman in a frayed pantsuit — well, maybe not 97, but close enough. He called reluctantly, and lost. Poor Dick.
We were playing hold ’em and young Harry said, “I’m going to fold. You’ve been bluffing too many times. I think this time you’ve got it.” He threw his cards away proudly. The man he was addressing then said, “You shoulda called me, son,” turning over a jack high with a smirk. He had missed a straight. Poor Harry.
I’m not singling those three players out for ridicule. Sometimes it seems as though these same mistakes are made by practically every Tom, Dick, and Harry you meet at the poker table. And because these mistakes are so common, I think we should examine them today.
How many times have you heard that “Gotta keep ’em honest” line? Well, there’s a bit of truth in it, because if you never call with questionably strong hands, your opponent can bluff whenever he chooses and will beat your brains out. Now, I tend to be a guy who thinks getting your brains beat out is bad poker, so I advocate calling sometimes to “keep ’em honest.” But when?
The simple answer is that you should call whenever you calculate that if you made the same call in the same situation a million times, you would show an overall profit. That sounds obvious to experienced players, but it’s important that beginners grasp the concept. You don’t much care about whether you’re going to make money by calling right now. In fact, most of the time, you’ll lose money by calling. And that’s how it should be, because — at least in limit poker — the rewards of winning the pot are always much greater than the cost of the call. Therefore, you’re risking much less by calling than the reward you’ll receive if you win. That means you can call and lose lots of times for every rare time you call and win — and you’ll still make money.
Catch a Bluff and Lose
So, sure, keep ’em honest at the river. You don’t want to be bluffed very often in limit poker. But the weaker your hand, the less likely you should be to try to catch a bluff. There comes a point where your hand is so weak that you can catch an opponent bluffing and lose. And, of course, if your hand is relatively strong, but not strong enough to catch most “legitimate” bets, you might unexpectedly beat opponents who are too exuberant in their value betting. So, even when you think you’re trying to catch a bluff, the stronger your hand is, the more likely you are to win.
This is even more important when you’re in a situation like Tom’s. Tom made the mistake of trying to catch a bluff without considering how many players remained to act behind him. One of the simple techniques I teach is to decide in advance when you’re the cop and when you’re not the cop. You’re the cop — and in a position to keep opponents “honest” — when you’re heads up or when you’re last to act and nobody has called. Hey, when nobody else calls, we’re all counting on you! Otherwise, we don’t get to see if the bettor is bluffing, and that can drive us crazy, right? But even if you’re in the last position and everyone else has passed, you still shouldn’t call all the time, and the stronger your hand is, the more likely you should be to call. Everyone knows that, but did you know that you often need a stronger hand to call in the last position after everyone has passed than you would if you were heads up?
How come? It’s because most opponents are less likely to bluff into many opponents than they are just one opponent. Not only is this how most opponents play, they are correct in playing this way. Yes, the pot is usually bigger when there are more players. That means there’s more to win by bluffing and more to win by calling. But the success rate for a bluff is greatly reduced against many opponents. What happens in practice is that potential callers at the river, when there are many of them, do not adequately take into account how significantly overcalls diminish the value of a call. This lack of correct handicapping is true whether it applies to the original call or the overcall.
You Must Call Most of the Time
As I’ve explained before, if a single player would call only 50 percent of the time, it’s always a good idea to bluff. The pot is likely to be five times the size of the bet. So, if you lose your bet half the time and win the pot half the time, your profit is enormous. You lose $100 on one failed bluff; you win $500 on another bluff that works. That’s $400 profit on two attempts, or an average gain of $200 on a $100 bet — a 300 percent return on investment or a 200 percent gain. It’s what skilled players live for.
But what if there are two opponents who can call? What if they are oblivious to the fact that they should be more careful with their calls when there are several opponents in the pot? What if they continue to call half the time? Now, half the time that the bluffer survives the first opponent, he loses because the second opponent calls. That comes out to only a 25 percent chance of success — still enough to merit a bet, especially since the pot he’s shooting at is likely to be larger with more players. What if there are four potential callers? Then, there’s only a 6.25 percent chance (50 percent times 50 percent times 50 percent times 50 percent) that the bluff will succeed against opponents who won’t adapt. The odds are then 15-to-1 against success, and the bluff is unprofitable unless the pot is at least 15 times as large as the wager. And it gets worse if there are more players.
Also, it gets worse because most opponents call more than half the time. When heads up, they better, otherwise they’re likely to get bluffed out of their bankrolls. Another important point about overcalling is that it takes a much stronger hand to justify an overcall than a call itself. Suppose the pot is $100. If you’re the last caller and it costs $10, you’re getting 10-to-1 odds, and you’ll break even by winning just one out of 11 times. But if there’s already been a call and you’re the overcaller, you’re facing a $110 pot while getting 11-to-1 odds. Unfortunately, if you think you have only the same chance of winning as the first caller, you’re going to win the pot only half the time that you beat the original bettor. That means the pot that you’re going after is theoretically only half as large — $55. So, you’re investing $10 to win $55. You need to have a hand that’s strong enough to beat the bettor one out of 6.5 times to break even.
Trust me, there’s a lot of difference between a hand that will win once in 11 times and one that will win once in 6.5 times. The lesson learned: You need a hand that is much stronger to overcall than to call, even though the pot is bigger when you overcall.
Here’s another factor: Players don’t correctly adjust to the additional strength that’s required to overcall. Therefore, you need to be more cautious than you theoretically should be when you make that first call with players waiting to act behind you. This was Tom’s mistake. It might have been better had he raised with his medium-strong hand to prevent calls behind him. This is a powerful tactic that you should occasionally choose when you think there’s a reasonable chance that you’re facing a bluff and several opponents could overcall with mediocre hands if you merely call.
Dick’s mistake was thinking that you should just bet at whim — whenever you feel like it. In fact, there is great science that governs when you should bet and when you shouldn’t. Here are just four of dozens of major factors that guide you wisely toward the right decision:
- Oftentimes you shouldn’t bet a strong hand if your opponent bluffs too much. You’ll sometimes make more money by checking and letting him try to bluff when he holds a weak hand.
- The more liberally your opponent calls, the more medium-strong hands you should bet for value.
- If a player is threatening to call, you should bet all medium-strong hands. When you see this, the player is trying to prevent your bet. That means he’s weak and looking for a cheap showdown, but will often call reluctantly if you bet.
- You should not bet medium-strong hands into very tight players. You won’t get called by weak hands that you can beat, and are only likely to lose when you get called.
Harry’s mistake is very common. He thinks opponents attempt to randomize, but in non-random and predictable ways. He thinks that if they’ve been bluffing a lot, you can “time” them and figure they’re not bluffing this time. While there are some players who do that, acting on the assumption can be costly. Sure, there’s a good chance that the player will have a strong hand this time, but that’s usually so regardless of previous actions. Players who bluff too much are always profitable to call unless you have a specific reason, usually a tell, to believe they almost certainly aren’t bluffing right now.
My advice: When you hold questionable hands against opponents who have bet and who bluff too much historically, keep calling. When you hold questionable hands against opponents who have bet and who don’t bluff often enough historically, keep folding. Don’t try to time your opponents.
So, we’ve learned:
- An overcall must be done with a much stronger hand than a call.
- A first call must be done with a stronger hand than you’d theoretically consider calling with if opponents waiting to act behind you are oblivious of point No. 1 above.
- A first call should indicate more strength than a call with nobody to act behind you, assuming the pots are the same size.
- In practice, it’s less profitable to bluff two players than one player, and even less profitable to bluff three or more players. All attempts to bluff four or more players, throughout the history of poker, have been massively unprofitable, on average.
- Sometimes it’s better to raise than call with a medium-strong hand with players yet to act behind you.