Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Poker Digest.
“I never show my hand unless you pay to see it,” fast-action young Kenny tells Paula, throwing his hand almost hostilely facedown into the discards.
Poker Paula folds, surrendering the pot to Kenny, and politely requests, “Let me see what you have.”
Was Kenny’s reaction appropriate? Not if he wanted to impress Paula with his poker prowess, charm her, date her, marry her, chew on her earlobes, or whatever. But what if all he wanted was to extract the most money from her in the future? Then was his resolve not to show his hand profitable?
Stop asking questions I can’t answer. I simply don’t know. To give you the right answer, I’d need to understand more about Kenny’s style of play, how skillful he is. Does he dominate Paula at poker or she him or neither? It all matters, you see.
And what kind of hand did Kenny bet? Was it a strong hand and, by not showing, he wanted to instill doubt so that she might call next time? Was it a bluff that he didn’t want to show because that would make him more vulnerable to calls in the future? Kenny might have furthered his cause by not showing – but probably not, for reasons we’re about to discuss. And one thing’s for sure, his statement about never showing his hand unless paid is wrong-headed. And now we’ll discover why.
The way I handle it
I always show my hand when asked. Why? It’s because a big chunk of my game plan consists of making opponents feel comfortable playing against me. If I don’t want to show a hand, I’ll often try to mix it in the muck as soon as my opponent folds. That way, it would be pointless for my opponent to request to see the hand. It has already vanished. (Some professionals recommend that you hold your winning cards until the dealer pushes you the chips, but I don’t do this every time, and I’ve never encountered a problem.)
When is it right to show poker hands? There are lots of times that you can gain psychological leverage over an opponent by showing a hand. In general, you should consider doing so whenever you can steer an opponent into a mode of behavior that’s most likely to help you in the future. I’ll explain that in a minute.
But, there are other reasons to show a hand. One of my favorite plays in poker goes like this. It’s just me and another player on the river. My opponent has bet. I’m studying him, trying to decide whether to call or fold. I’m looking for tells, but the darn guy just won’t give me any clues whatsoever. Now, I could accept this happenstance as my fate and just randomly decide whether or not to call.
Asking my opponent for advice
But I don’t. Instead, I turn my cards face-up on the table and ask, “What would you do with this hand?” This unexpected action sometimes triggers the reaction I’m seeking. Often my opponent has bet a borderline hand, and neither of us has a firm grasp on who holds the winning cards. It’s hard to read an opponent who’s in doubt about whether he wants a call or doesn’t want one.
So, I make certain he knows what he wants. I spread my cards face-up and ask him what he would do if he were in my place? And you know what? I’m not really as interested in his answer as in how his body reacts (although his answer can provide clues, too). Keep in mind that a player who’s bluffing is likely to remain unmoving and do nothing to trigger a call. That advice is straight from Caro’s Book of Tells – The Body Language of Poker. Also, in the book is the corollary: A player who has you beat will usually be more animated.
So, if I show my hand and my opponent becomes less animated, I figure he now realizes I have him beat. He may have previously been betting for value, but now he’s essentially bluffing, because he can see with his own eyes that my hand is better than his.
Additionally, I will try to pick up a tell from what he tells me. Players who know they have the best hand are not under stress. Their choice of wording will seem natural. Players who know they can’t win if you call are under stress. They will struggle with their words, and what they say often will sound unnatural, strained, and less precise.
A formula for showing hands
Are there a best-profit formulas for when to show hands? Sure. Here’s mine:
- I almost always show hands when asked. Although I sometimes may be showing cards I don’t want to reveal, complying with the request usually helps to keep my opponents in good spirits, promotes harmony, and averts hostility.
This is precisely what you should do if you want to extract the most profit from opponents. Anything you do that makes opponents take the game more seriously works against you. And hostility makes them take the game more seriously. Promoting fun and good humor tends to give permission to opponents to continue being carefree gamblers who don’t mind losing to you as much and are not needlessly inspired to play their best game.
- I try to show weak hands or bluffs when my opponent’s main weakness is that he calls too often. I often bet weak hands into opponents who call too much. Yes, it’s true that you don’t get away with many bluffs when your opponents call too often, and that fact makes bluffing unprofitable. But I often bet weak hands anyway?
How come? It’s because I take advantage of opportunities when I know – usually through a tell – that my opponent has lost interest in a hand. Let’s say all the cards are dealt and it looks like my opponent has missed a flush. Fine. So have I. We both have nothing, but one of us will win the showdown. I almost always bet in this situation. In limit poker games, this is strategically the best decision, because rather than win half the time in these showdowns among equally weak hands, I’ll win almost all the time by betting.
Of course, there’s risk. My opponent may not have the weak hand I’m expecting; but in general this weak-hand-versus-weak hand bet is one of the most profitable in poker. But what happens after your loose opponent folds? If he’s good natured and you can show your hand playfully without upsetting him, you should. You want to exploit his weakness of calling too often by giving him reason to call even more often in the future. You won’t be encouraging him to call in similar situations where he has nothing (he still won’t), but you will be encouraging him to call your legitimately strong hands with even more losing hands than he would otherwise.
So, you should seldom sacrifice an opportunity to show weak hands against too-loose opponents. Also, anytime you make a weak call because you were trying to catch a loose opponent bluffing, make sure you show the failed hand. The more you can do to make your opponent think you play weak hands, the more he’ll call in the future.
Now, I’ve heard the argument that loose players call by nature, so you don’t have to do anything to encourage the mistake. That’s false. Loose players have their cutoffs, just like tight players do. Loose players will expand their boundaries and call even more against you specifically if you can convince them that you’re the one they should make exceptions for. A great deal of my profit in poker can be accounted for by the fact that loose players call me much more often than they call other opponents.
- I try to show strong hands against opponents who are too tight. Yes, despite the fact that I often employ a “wild” image in a poker game – an image that encourages lots of calls – I do bluff. But I pick my targets. The target is typically a tight player who prides himself on not being gullible. This type of player thinks he can see through my “act” designed to make weak, loose players call. OK. So, I bluff him occasionally, but I seldom show these bluffs when they succeed. Instead, I show the strong hands when I bet legitimately and he folded. That makes him proud of his decision and determined to repeat the behavior in the future – giving me an opportunity to bluff.
Sometimes, I’ll only flash the hand to the tight player (unless others request to see it, too). Showing my strong hand encourages the too-tight player to remain bluffable in the future. Now, you might think that occasionally showing a strong hand harms my chances of getting calls from the loose players. That’s not how it works.
What unconsciously registers in the loose players’ minds is the ratio of strong hands I’ve shown versus weak hands. When they’re faced with a call, they believe that there’s a very good chance they can win a big pot for the price of a much smaller call, because they’ve seen with their own eyes that a great deal of the hands I’ve shown are weak or hopeless. That fact that I’ve shown some strong hands doesn’t do much to discourage their calls.
In general, show weak hands when you’re against loose players and strong hands when you’re against tight players. And don’t worry much about the opposite-type players seeing the hands. They’re paying less attention and not as likely to be impressed by the exposure when they’re not involved in the pot.
- Also, when I’m heads-up in the course of a poker hand, I sometimes show some of my cards in an effort to see how an opponent will react. The example we discussed previously is a powerful one: A player has bet into me and I can’t decide whether or not to call. So, I show my cards face up and ask what he would do. Suddenly my opponent knows for certain whether he wants me to call or not, and this often provides the tell I need to make the right decision.
- I don’t show a hand if it will antagonize an opponent. If my action is not likely to be taken in good spirit – especially when I show a bluff – I don’t do it. Your main goal in a game should be to promote goodwill and make opponents enjoy playing against you. If you make opponents your enemies, they’ll try harder and play better against you. (The reverse is sometimes true of players who lose emotional control temporarily when they’re angry, but that’s not the general rule, and even when true, it’s better to keep the atmosphere friendly for the sake of your other opponents, because there’s more profit in happy games.)
The point is that when Kenny told Poker Paula, “I never show my hand unless you pay to see it,” he was creating a hostile poker environment and losing potential profit. He should have realized that showing cards is just another optional weapon in your poker arsenal. It’s an option you can use correctly or incorrectly. And now you know the correct way. The rest is up to you. — MC