Rope for poker opponents to hang themselves

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.

Some of the biggest money I’ve earned in poker has come from letting opponents hang themselves. When I have a big advantage, I usually want my opponents to bet for me. Very often, in no-limit poker games with a huge hand against aggressive foes, you sacrifice profit by betting large. Of course, in theory, the larger your hand, the more you should bet, on average. This unarguable truth is so frustrating to some players that they decide to make similar-sized bets almost all the time.

By structuring most of their bets to be approximately equal, relative to the size of the pot, they make it more difficult for observant opponents to gauge how strong their hands are. Indeed, if you always made bets that directly corresponded to the power of your hands, astute opponents could figure out what they were up against, just by counting the chips you wagered. The more you bet, the stronger your hand.

Although choosing to almost always bet similar amounts makes you less predictable, it isn’t a good solution. Solid strategy still dictates that you bet more with your stronger hands and less with your weaker ones. This should be pretty obvious when you think about products you buy in stores. Toasters cost more than tiddlywinks. And televisions cost more than either. By the way, whatever happened to tiddlywinks? Fifty years ago, I was the neighborhood champion, winning as much as 28-cents in a single session. But, once again, I’ve lost my train of thought. Where was I? Oh, yeah, in stores, stuff that has greater value costs more.

My message

So, is that my message for today: Never pay more for tiddlywinks than for a television? Hell, no! There’s more to it than that, so please listen closely. In poker, you’re selling things, just like you would be if you owned a store. Specifically, you’re selling your hands. And although you’ll bluff sometimes, most of your profit will come from getting paid when opponents call — when they buy the hands that beat them. It’s important that you think about poker exactly that way.

The difference is that in a store, people know what they’re paying for and in poker they don’t. The secrecy and suspense in poker is what makes your pricing strategy different. You’re in the business of selling locked trunks filled with rags at auctions, hoping people will buy them thinking there might be $1 million inside. Okay, that’s not a glamorous way to describe the poker profession, but it’s my way.

Now, we’ve already said that you can’t make bets that are always proportional to the strength of your hands. That could make your game too readable. But we also know that you want to bet bigger with stronger advantages and smaller with slighter advantages. How? You do it by randomizing the size of your bets so that you’re sometimes betting small or checking with huge hands and sometimes betting large with small hands. But, while you’re doing that, you’re still making big bets much more often when you have powerful cards. So, on average, you’re pricing your hands relative to their actual value, while still remaining deceptive.

Fine. But, in hold ’em,  when you begin with a pair of aces against most real-life opponents, you’ll make more money if you bet a little less before the flop than you would with a smaller pair, like queens or jacks. Although this slaps poker theory right on the butt, I’ve found this to be true most of the time. You might think that you shouldn’t bet as much with queens, because you want to reduce risk. But actually, against typical players, you want to bet enough to discourage players who hold aces and kings (with the exception of big hands that will call, anyway) from entering the pot. If you can do that and occasionally face only smaller pairs, you’ll make more money on average at typical tables.

Just as dead

One problem with this theory, though, is that you’ll sometimes chase some aces and kings out and not others. That’s actually bad, because if one ace or king calls, you usually want all of them to call. If they connect, you’re just as dead losing to one pair of kings as two. A semi-good thing about making a reasonably large raise as the first player wagering with queens is that you’ll often win the blinds. I know, that doesn’t seem good, but it’s actually a fairly acceptable outcome. If the blinds are $50 and $100, that often exceeds, equals, or nearly equals your expected average profit. In general, you’ll make more profit with queens if you play against fewer opponents or win the blinds immediately. Because of that, I often raise about two-and-a-half times the size of the blinds with a pair of queens or jacks to start. Remember, this advice is based on the way I perceive that most opponents actually play and on the assumption that you have a commanding image. Against perfect opponents, you should still average larger bets before the flop with aces than with queens.

If you hold aces, then a smaller raise — and sometimes no raise at all — usually wins the most money. That’s because you want a lot of opponents contesting. True, you have a greater chance of losing against more opponents, but when you win you’ll enjoy much larger profits. On balance, more opponents equals more money in the long run. By raising small, I’m encouraging opponents to come it. And against aggressive opponents, I’m encouraging them to reraise! Whether I’m starting with aces or have just flopped two big pair, trips, or better, I want those too-lively foes to build their own pots. Usually, I’ll make more money by letting them aggress. I want them to hang themselves, and I’ve got to give them rope.

This means I’m always conscious of how many chips an opponent has. If I bet too large against an aggressive opponent, he may run out of rope, not having enough chips left to try to raise me out of the pot with a speculative hand or a bluff. And I want him to be able to attempt that. So I check or bet small. I’m a tease: Here’s the rope; show me a trick.

Put it all together and, with the right image against standard everyday opponents, more money is lost than won by betting too large with powerful hands. Remember, until the final betting round, if you tease and don’t get a reaction, you can still bet next time. — MC

Published by

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.


8 thoughts on “Rope for poker opponents to hang themselves”

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  1. Seems problematic to me. If I slow play aces aren’t I asking to get them cracked? What about better to win a small pot than to lose a big one? If I hit the nuts on the flop, regardless of what my holdings are, then I either make a small bet or check and hope lesser holdings will pot commit themselves with a big bet or bluff. Then the old check raise comes out. And I do so believe in your adage not to play strong hands the same way during a session. Keep ’em guessing.

  2. You collaborated with Doyle on Super System. He talks about putting a play on good players when he suspects they might be putting a play on him.

    Well, that’s a type of bluff, and you’ve stated that bluffs lose money over a lifetime. Because of that fact, whenever I see a good player making a fairly obvious play on me, I’ll usually give him the pot and wait until I have a hand to call him down with.

    Would there be more profit in playing back at the good players when I suspect they might be making a play?

    1. Usually not, but timing is part of poker. So, most plays have their moments. But, as I said, more often you should decline to mimic a risky and possibly flawed opposing strategy. If I think an opponent is “putting a play” on me, I’ll call with any reasonable hand right then. I won’t try to seek revenge later. If I’m right at the moment, that will turn out to be sufficient reward.

      1. I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing in that case. It’s been working.

        I know you can’t speak for everyone but why do you think that kind of play is so ubiquitous among everyone that does this for a living?

        Isn’t it mostly discouraging your opponent’s bad play?

        1. It’s a common mistake by serious players — even many pros. They would earn more if they allowed opponents to self-destruct more easily.

          1. Great! Good to know.

            I don’t want to come off as having too many questions, because I know it can get bothersome, but I keep reading strategies that advocate exploiting people who bet-fold too often. Ed Miller advocates this. If you see someone who bets and quickly releases to a raise often, then raise him when you think he’s likely to be weak. Again, this is a bluff and I can think of 100 things that could go wrong with this play. Mostly, being wrong might cost more than the profit from being right.

            If I had to guess, you’d say that it’s not the greatest counterstrategy?

  3. One leak in my game that I found is associated with this article. Let’s hypothetically say that I squeeze the two black kings (King Kong) under the gun. Now I raise to about 4x-6x the bb in a $2-$2 NLH ring game. I often find that I get at least one short stack to shove call or to shove raise with mediocre holdings. This for some odd reason begets other short stacks to move in as well. Then it’s a tumultuous few streets as I must dodge any ace or random two pair or some combo of a four card straight or flush. All moaning aside, I did realize that my larger raises were costing me money and decided to slow it down pre flop.

    I have found that the 2.5x BB raise usually prevents the small stacks from shoving in a steal or in a desperate attempt to connect with the board. This way, I take down the blinds more often, and I lose less often by having to contend with random holdings. By playing my JJ-KK in this manner I have increased my profits with the top of my hand range. I was pleased to see the 2.5X bb raise amount mentioned in this article as it has reinforced my proclivity to continue using it effectively. Thanks again Mike, your wisdom prevails yet again!

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