Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Bluff magazine.
Something is missing from your poker education. It’s like a gaping hole in the universe, a river of white torn through the pure dark sky. It’s like… well, I don’t exactly know what it’s like, but I’m here to do something about it.
I figure you can’t play poker at a world-class level if you only know 10 things. So why are there so many top-10 lists? Is the 11th tip so much less credible that the 10th? I say no. I say that there’s sometimes little difference between the best tip and the 53rd “best” tip.( There might be a significant gap between 53 and 54, though – I haven’t analyzed it that far.) Wanna share a secret? Okay, I suspect that experts don’t pay a lot of attention to what goes where in their top-10 lists. In fact, they could probably just take 20 tips, write them on 20 playing cards, shuffle that short deck and deal out #1 through #10 and leave the rest off. It would still seem like a credible top-10 list, and nobody would know the difference.
Another thing: Why exactly 10? Wouldn’t you think a presentation of “The 11 keys to success” might be more credible than “The 10 keys to success.” You’ve got to suspect that the latter is often a phony group, either truncated by leaving off some keys or padded by adding contrived ones. But let’s stop obsessing and move on.
Today, I’m presenting my choices, in selected categories, of the 11th-most-powerful tips in poker. Great care has been taken not to consider what the top 10 might be. Instead, I’ve chosen the actual tips that seemed somewhat like 11th-place finishers at the precise moment of selection. Few other authorities can make this claim.
Poker psychology: 11th-most-powerful tip
In poker, an erratic image is more powerful than a stable one. The more predictable you are at a poker table, the more apt opponents are to figure you out and take advantage. When opponents can gauge accurately how you probably will play a hand, they feel comfortable. When they feel comfortable, they’re more of a threat, because they can focus on finding the right tactics to take advantage. Conversely, when opponents are unsure of what you’re apt to do next, they’re disoriented and they play worse.
The most profitable type of opponent you can play against is “weak and meek” one. Used in this context, “weak” means that the player calls too many hands. “Meek” means that the player doesn’t take full advantage of his winning hands. When you have the combination of weak and meek, you get maximum profit by betting your good hands into players who call too often, while your suffering is reduced when you’re beat. It’s the best of everything. Obviously, you should seek out week-and-meek opponents, but it isn’t always possible to find a game heavily populated with them. The next-best thing is to weaken the threat of opponents who are originally playing more adequately.
You can do this quite simply. Your image needs to be erratic. That doesn’t mean you should play foolishly. It means that you should stick pretty much to your most basic winning strategy, while making it appear that you aren’t. You can do this by being a lively personality and by showing just a few hands you’ve played in strange ways. The impression you’ll convey is that of a player who doesn’t know himself what he’s going to do next. Nothing makes otherwise aggressive players behave more than that does. When they think you might do anything, that you’re erratic, they’ll surrender the stage to you. And you can then bet and raise in accordance with the strength of your hands, getting extra calls, because they’re suspicious, and not having to pay off as many extra bets when they have you beat, because they fear you.
Many players think it’s appropriate to appear professional in a poker game. But seeming steady and stable only makes your opponents comfortable – and empowers them to play better. Usually, you want your poker image to be erratic.
Poker statistics: 11th-most-powerful tip
It’s 110-to-1 against a hold ’em player holding either a pair of aces or kings before the flop. More precisely, it’s 109.5-to-1 against. Are these odds large enough that you should have little fear when you raise with a pair of queens with a lot of opponents waiting to act? Of course not. First of all, queens get conquered quite regularly even if there isn’t a bigger pair out there before the flop. All it takes is one ace or king hitting the board, and then an unimproved pair of queens is in sad shape. But, more importantly, especially in no-limit hold ’em games, is the monumental fear of having to call an all-in bet from a trailing player when you hold those queens.
Let’s say it’s a 10-handed game. You’re first to act and there are nine players waiting to act behind you. What are the chances that one of them has you beat? First of all, the odds aren’t 110-to-1 against each opponent anymore. They’re only 101-to-1 against a single opponent holding a pair of aces or kings, because you already hold two cards. That means the deck has been reduced from 52 to 50 and all aces and kings remain. Second, consider that there are nine opponents who have shots at beating you. That means that the chance of someone shooting down your queens is almost nine times what a single player’s chance would be. (I say almost, because this isn’t a precise way of calculating. Actually, we need to consider the chances of two or more opponents having you beat.) You’re going to be beat before the flop more than one in 10 times.
It’s tricky determining how to play queens when you consider this statistic. I believe in a no-limit game, you should usually choose to raise significantly, but not so large that you can’t make a considered laydown if you get raised all-in. For instance, if the big blind is $100 and I had $10,000 on the table, I might raise from $200 (making it $300 total to play) to $400 (making it $500 total to play). Of course, this varies depending on the nature of my opponents and many other factors. And I won’t always make the laydown if I’m raised all-in – I’ve just left enough room to do it by not raising too much. The exact amount of my raise also depends on how I gauge the opponent. The risk of making a huge raise with queens is that most serious opponents are then likely to throw away a pair of jacks and the over-10-percent of the time that an opponent starts with aces or kings, you will get called. Even if you figure someone might call with an ace-king, that only gives you a slight advantage.
Because there’s a greater chance of someone holding a pair of aces or kings than most players suspect, a pair of queens is vastly less profitable than a pair of kings. And a pair of kings only turns out to be about 70-to-75 percent as profitable as a pair of aces.
Poker tactics: 11th-most-powerful tip
Seldom bet a hand that seems average for the situation. This practice of betting medium hands drives me crazy. Listen. When your hand seems about average for the situation – right in the middle of what would be defined as a good hand or a bad hand – you should almost never bet. The few exceptions tend to center around wanting to stay on stage and maintain the pressure. This especially happens in seven-card stud, where if you’re the previous bettor, pairing your board might drive an opponent out on the next bet, even if you have the worst hand. But, in general, it’s unwise to bet middle hands. There – it’s simple and I said it. There’s almost never a motive to bet a medium hand. You can bet weak hands for posturing or as a bluff and you can bet strong hands hoping to be called. But medium hands are the perfect hands to check.
I’ll prove it. Suppose you played poker with only three cards: an ace, a king, and a queen. You shuffle and deal a single card each to an opponent and to you. You each have anted and now you look at your card and decide whether to bet. Well, if you have a queen, you must have the worst hand, but you might bet, hoping to bluff a king. Obviously an ace would call. And if you have an ace, you might bet hoping a king would call. Obviously a queen wouldn’t call. But what would be the purpose in betting a king – the middle hand? No purpose at all. You’d get called when an ace beat you and never get called when you were the best hand against a queen. Betting this middle hand would be foolish. And that’s what I want you to remember, because the same concept applies throughout poker.
Finally, I want you to know that it wasn’t always easy choosing these 11th-place tips. Some players may argue about the rankings. Maybe someday I’ll share the runners-up that finished in 12th place to appease those with contrary opinions. — MC