Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Bluff.
Jack sat with me in my cabin, watching NFL football. During halftime he began to babble. At first his words were inaudible, but then his voice grew assertive. I turned down the volume on the TV.
“Do you agree?” he wanted to know.
“I’m sorry. I only heard the last part about never getting involved. Could you repeat it?”
He shrugged, exasperated, then reconstructed his words. “Mad Genius, could you please listen this time? I said that I’m thinking of leaving for Vegas to play poker. I figure I can drive there in two days.” Indeed, Jack believed he had developed quite a name for himself here in the Ozarks, having beaten his friends out of $50 two Friday poker nights in a row.
“Are you sure you’re up to that?” I challenged. “Remember, you’ve only had one poker lesson, and I graded you a C.”
“Well, I know I’m still short on finesse and don’t really know the odds or which hands to play in every situation, but I have a plan.”
“I already told you. I’ll sit in the toughest poker game I can find and, if I’m lucky, I won’t get any cards to play.”
“Listen closely, Mad Genius. Even though the other players might be better than I am, if I don’t hold cards and don’t play hands, how much damage can they do? If they bet, I’ll just fold every time. I’ll never get involved. That’s my plan.”
Do you believe what I just wrote about Jack? Well, you’re right. It didn’t happen. And you should know for certain that it didn’t, because in the whole history of the poker universe, nobody ever went to the effort of driving to a casino thinking, “I hope I don’t get to play any hands. I hope I don’t have to call any bets.”
Want to call
Quite to the contrary, every opponent you’re ever going to face will sit at the table hoping to play hands, and they will want to call your bets. In fact, they will want to call your bets so badly that – for most of them – it’s going to be a compulsion. Every tactic you use, every decision you make, every mannerism you convey should be based on the presumption that your opponents come with a predisposition toward calling.
The more things you do, the more likely they are to grow suspicious and call. I’ve termed this the “calling reflex.” The calling reflex in poker players is so strong that, whenever you bet a strong hand, you can dramatically increased your chances of being called by simply doing anything. Any action is likely to be viewed by an opponent as suspicious and as justification to call. Remember, most of your opponents’ decisions are not made logically; they are made at the last moment, by whim. And whim is something you can manipulate. You are wizard of the whim.
If you knock over some chips, sip your coffee, or shuffle in your chair, players are more likely to call. On and on. Don’t accept fold as their answer. Even when they’re in the process of throwing their cards away, it’s not too late. Do something. Do anything! Usually it won’t change their decision, but it might. It costs nothing to try.
Since I began this column with a fabrication, I’ll end it with the truth.
This happened almost a decade ago. I’m at the Hollywood Park Casino near Los Angeles. The game is $75/$150 limit hold ’em. I don’t remember the exact board; it’s something like king, queen, 10, 4, 3, with no flush possible. I bet a pair.
Here’s where my very loose opponent threw his uncompleted-flush cards face-up on the table in disgust — 8-5. He was putting me on notice that I shouldn’t bluff in the future, because he would call if he could. But I saw an opportunity. Those face-up cards were not folded.
I quickly gasped, “That would have won. I had 6-5.” If I were telling the truth, his eight would be good! He hesitated and I realized I was playing for a trophy call that I could brag about forever. But, of course, he isn’t going to do it just because I claimed to have 6-5. That sounds like a con. You seldom get people to do what you want in poker by seeming to be conning them. You need to be doing the opposite, in this case talking the man out of the call. That seems suspicious.
I had nothing to lose. I knew I had a pair, and I knew he had nothing. So, feigning slight concern, I said, “You folded, right?” He smiled and kept thinking.
“You don’t think I have six-five, do you? I would hardly ever even play a hand like that.” Notice that I seem to be talking him out of the call now. In truth, I was doubling his doubt, making him wonder.
He wanted to call, but it wasn’t enough. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it – not with just an eight. I told him he was holding up the game, even though this entire transaction took half a minute. “All you have is an eight. Let’s move on.”
Finally, he again decided to fold. But before he could release the cards, I said, “You saw me play all those garbage hands earlier, but I probably have a big hand right now.” Once more, I succeeded in making him hesitate. I hadn’t really played any garbage hands earlier, but I knew in his confused state, he wouldn’t think about that. They were just words meant to bewilder.
Then he made the call proudly, probably thinking it was his greatest decision. That was an extra $150 I’d manufactured from nothing. And it’s my best example of the calling reflex in action. When they begin to fold, go to work. Try anything. It probably won’t work, but there’s nothing to lose. It’s a free roll. — MC