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.
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