Bad poker: Shifting gears at the wrong time

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Casino Player.

Most people drive cars with automatic transmissions today. When the poker term “shifting gears” became popular, the average driver operated a manual stick shift with three forward gears — first, second, and third. First gear was the slowest and third gear was the fastest.

You shouldn’t play at the same speed all the time. Sometimes the circumstances surrounding the game dictate that you should modify your usual style of play. And sometimes you shift gears just to bewilder your opponents. But if you don’t shift gears correctly, you shouldn’t shift at all. And, unfortunately, most players shift gears incorrectly — and often for no clear reason at all.

In my mind is an echo of faint praise I’ve heard at the table. “Joe is always changing his strategy.” “You never know what Bob is going to do next.” But, in truth, Joe and Bob may be losing players. They’ve learned to mix up their play and they probably enjoy it when opponents can’t predict what they’re going to do next.

Sadly, unpredictability by itself isn’t enough to win at poker. And shifting gears can often cost you money. Let’s focus on one central truth: When you’re winning you have built-in intimidation. Players won’t counterattack as readily. They tend to be terrified by you and call more often because something deep in their psyche doesn’t want to be bluffed. But at the same time that they call more often, they abandon many profitable bets and raises against you. They’ve seen you win and they’ve been beaten up a little, so they don’t want to tempt fate or play with fire.

Value bet

When this happens, you can value bet at every opportunity. To value bet means to press hands with small advantages for every penny’s worth of profit. You can do that when you’re conspicuously winning, because you have psychological control of the game. You shift into third gear and stay there, betting and raising aggressively, because most opponents won’t get maximum value from their hands when they have you beat. That means your value bets are profitable.

But when you’re luck is bad and you’re losing, you need to shift into first gear and play slow. It’s okay to be a wimp when you’re losing. Have patience until the cards eventually bring you back into the spotlight.

Now, here’s the deal. If you’re in third gear and dominating the game, it doesn’t pay off to shift down one or two gears just to change your style. That may confuse opponents, but it also works to their advantage by lessening the pressure. So, as long as you maintain your psychological advantage and keep winning, stay in third gear.


Shift into first gear when you’re losing and opponents are inspired. That’s when they view you as vulnerable and push their advantages. When that happens, you’re value betting works against you. Stay in first gear. The second, middle gear, should be reserved for times when you’re neither in control of the game or being targeted.

Some players will tell you that you should play aggressively when the cards are running hot, because you’re on a streak that’s apt to continue. And, they say, you should play cautiously when the cards are running cold, because that bad streak isn’t over. They’re half right. That’s how you should play, but not for that reason. In poker, the next deal is independent of past events and just as likely to bring good cards as bad cards, no matter what’s happened in the past. The real reason you use first gear when you’re losing and third gear when you’re winning is because of the way opponents perceive you and respond to your actions.

When you’re winning, use third gear and don’t shift. When you’re losing, use first gear and don’t shift. — 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.


6 thoughts on “Bad poker: Shifting gears at the wrong time”

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  1. Mr.Caro,
    I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your articles. Thanks for sharing.

  2. not the problem ! – problem is those level 0 who dont even think what cards you hold, that their JT offsuit can beat AA is what they go for- dont know ranges etc but they reraise with Q9 offsuit out of position and trash your KK.

  3. Mike, this might be the most useful poker article I have read.
    This is a BIG hole in my game. I have known there have been problems when I have played a rush and shifted out of my aggressive posture before. Conventional poker wisdom always informed me that this was the right move! Your words make sense though.
    The question I have is, what do I have to look as far as slowplays?

    1. Hi, Sean —

      Thanks for leaving your first comment and joining our Poker1 family — and for the kind words.

      I can’t advise in general about slow playing during a rush. Generally, slow play is more profitable when your opponents are overly aggressive, though.

      There are many entries at Poker1 about slow playing and about checking and calling. You might try the search box at upper right. Hope you find what you’re looking for. If not, I’ll be adding more on that topic in the years ahead.

      Straight Flushes,

      Mike Caro

  4. I find that one of the most profitable times to change gears when a full or almost full table suddenly has 3-4 people leave. Suddenly an eight-handed table can be only four-handed. While I usually widen my starting hand requirements in this situation, many tighten up because they are nervous and uncertain about the changed environment.

    1. That’s an excellent observation, Harry.

      Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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