Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper. This is the first of a two-part series on shifting gears, but it doesn’t require the second part, which is linked to at the bottom.
“You need to shift gears,” Taffy teased me years ago. She had just made a daring call and guessed right – I had been bluffing. She knew I made shifting gears a cornerstone of my poker teachings, and she was speculating that I’d been bluffing too often and needed to back off – to shift into a lower, less aggressive gear.
“How many gears do I need?” I asked.
“Just three,” she said. “First, second, and third. You should stay in second most of the time and go only to third when you want to play more aggressively. When you need to tighten up, you go to first. Isn’t that right?”
Taffy seemed genuinely proud of her answer. She reasoned that it was in accordance with my teachings and that I would be impressed.
I was impressed, but only mildly. You see, the three-gear methodology in poker is used routinely by many professionals, but there’s a much better way that is taught at Mike Caro University of Poker – or, I should say, is about to be taught on our latest training videos, still in the scripting stage. It’s the MCU Two-or-Five Gear System. It’s actually two systems, but you should be prepared to use either one, depending on which is best suited for your opponents. Against unsophisticated opponents, I generally use the MCU Two-Gear System. The five-gear system is usually reserved for trickier and more observant foes. The three-gear system that Tammy defined is fine, and I recommend it, too. But at the university level, we often use two or five gears. We’re about to examine the two-gear option. And it flat out wins money the easy way.
The five-gear solution is so profound that I even thought briefly about keeping it to myself. Although I’m committed to sharing all secrets in the coming years, this one puts strong opponents off balance so much that I argued long and hard with my other self about whether to reveal it while I’m still playing poker regularly. I should wait another 10 years, my other self asserted. But, although the debate was lively, my real self prevailed, and I’m going to explain the system to you in my next column. First, let’s look at something that can devastate weak and average opponents.
Keep in mind that the main reason you need to shift gears is to confuse opponents and keep them off guard. You don’t want to give alert opponents an advantage by being too predictable. A secondary reason to shift gears is to adapt to a different group of opponents or to game conditions. This second motive means you’re not trying to confuse opponents as much as adjust to them. Taffy was right in saying that a three-gear system works OK for these purposes, assuming you know when to shift.
Ah, but that’s the problem! Most players don’t know when to shift – and they shift basically at random, in the chaos of battle. When you shift randomly, just for the purpose of shifting and nothing more, you’re shifting away from your most obvious strategy, sometimes unnecessarily. Your most obvious strategy is usually the most profitable and you should use it unless a need for deception or opponents’ styles dictate otherwise. Against opponents in a universe where opponents never adapt to your play, you wouldn’t need to shift gears. You might change gears against another set of opponents, whose style of play was different, but you wouldn’t against the same opponents who did their same old thing regardless of how you played.
Actually, when to shift isn’t that complicated. If your opponents call too much, do you play more hands? Yes, you enter pots with more hands, since you don’t need as much strength to make a profit. That’s because the hands you’ll be bumping heads with won’t be as strong, either. Generally, you just need to average a little more strength than your opponents to have an edge, and that means if they play more hands, you can, too. You only need to stay a little more conservative than they are in your hand selection. And, of course, you can bet more hands against them once you’re already involved in a pot. Why? It’s because you’ll get called by worse hands than you normally would, so you don’t need normal strength to justify a wager.
There’s more to the topic of when to shift gears – so very much more, and we’ve talked about some of it in the past. Essentially, you need to bet more often and play more hands when opponents are timid or intimidated by you. This happens when you control the game, usually when you’re conspicuously winning. On the other hand, you must be more conservative about your bets and about which hands you play when opponents are inspired. That’s when they’ll make correct raises and calls and bet more rationally. Opponents are inspired when they’re winning or when you’re losing – and a combination of the two can be deadly. Against inspired opponents, you need to back off – you need to gear down. You must play more conservatively.
The MCU Two Gear System
There are more factors, of course, but that’s not my primary topic today. What we’re talking about now isn’t when to shift gears, but how. I’ve given you a few pointers about when, so here comes the moment when I fulfill my promise of giving you a simple solution. Once you’ve decided that you either want to gear up to a higher speed or gear down to a lower one, here’s the easiest way to do it.
It all centers around nearly borderline hands. Borderline hands are those that afford decisions that are extremely close and it’s not obvious to you what the better choice is. By “nearly borderline” I’m stretching the definition to give a little leeway, to include truly borderline decisions and those that almost fit the category. With every borderline choice, there’s an aggressive and an unaggressive decision possible. For nearly borderline play-or-don’t-play decisions, play is more aggressive. For nearly borderline bet-or-don’t-bet decisions, bet is more aggressive. For nearly borderline call-or-fold decisions, call is more aggressive. And for nearly borderline raise-or-call decisions, raise is more aggressive. Beyond the scope of this discussion are times when you might want to check-and-raise. But, if you choose to include that as part of this lesson, anyway, consider that check-raising with a strong hand is a more aggressive choice than betting straight into an opponent. Also, there are times when you might consider raising, calling, or folding. Though it isn’t intuitive to most players, poker offers some situations where any of those three choices is about equal in value. If you’re in such a situation, raising is the aggressive choice, and if you choose not to raise, then this system leaves you at your own judgment about whether to call or fold.
Fine. Now here’s the secret: You’re going to know when you’re faced with a borderline decision, because it will always feel somewhat close. You’ll realize that you could either do the aggressive thing or not do it. All you have to do is pause a moment before acting and ask yourself, “Does this feel like a close decision where I could act aggressively or not without seeming ridiculous.” If the answer is yes, this is a nearly borderline decision.
Either acting aggressively or not acting aggressively would be acceptable. But which is better? Under the MCU Two-Gear System, you shift up by always taking the more aggressive action when a decision seems nearly borderline. If you feel that you’ve become too aggressive against a certain player or that game conditions in general dictate a more conservative approach, you always take the less aggressive action. Period. Nothing more to it. End of story. And it’s the simplest way to shift gears there is. Again, it all centers on borderline decisions and whether – against a player or a whole table – you’ve shifted up or shifted down. There is no middle gear – and you’ll find you don’t need one if you’re prepared to shift when necessary.
Hiding in low
When I’m using the MCU Two-Gear System, I usually hide in low gear until conditions allow me to open up. And then I’m always watching to see if I’ve overdone it. If so, I gear back down. But I need to caution you: Don’t let your emotions dictate which of the two gears you’re using during the heat of poker combat. Decide before any cards are dealt. Decide whether you’re going to play aggressively against any opponents – and which ones. Often, you’ll shift gears by not really taking individual opponents into account. You’ll just shift for the whole table – and that makes things simple. But, whatever you decide to do, remember: It’s only borderline choices you need to consider. Nothing else matters. You’re going to quickly realize an amazing truth about poker. Most of your decision are borderline! So, shifting between the two gears will dramatically change your style of play.
Next time, I’m going to tell you about the more sophisticated five-gear system. If you’re guessing it’s going to be about five different levels of aggression, you’ve guessed wrong! It’s a truly world-class winning weapon.
But, for now, I want you to concentrate on just two gears. Never shift unless there’s a reason. But often, you’ll find yourself either playing too loose or too tight – and that’s when you’ll shift. When Taffy said you needed three gears, she miscalculated. Try two gears. It’s an all or nothing approach that centers only on borderline hands. But it’s pure profit. — MC
Next part, 2 of 2 (five gears): Mike Caro poker word is Five