Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper. This is the second of a two-part series on shifting gears.
Part 1 (optional): Mike Caro poker word is Two
Last time, I pointed out that there was a simple, magic way to shift gears in poker. Actually, there were two ways. One is the MCU Two- Gear system, and the other one is the expanded fivegear system.
If youʼre thinking the five-gear system is going to be more complicated, youʼre mistaken. If you can count to four, itʼs just as easy as the two-gear system. There are absolutely no levels of aggression to remember. How can you shift gears without dealing with different levels of aggression?
Well, last time I showed you how to do that for a two-gear system. It was an all-or-nothing system. You were either choosing the more aggressive tactic or the more conservative one. And you were doing that simply based on your borderline hands — those hands that dictated close decisions, where you wouldnʼt be faulted whatever your choice.
Now, Iʼm going to use a favorite TV technique to bring you up to speed. Youʼve seen some longer episodes of shows that continue into the next week. They often use a device of taking short video clips from the previous show, so that those who missed it will be able to comprehend the final segment, and those who had seen it will have their memories refreshed. Fine. Iʼm going to adapt that technique to this column. If you missed the last column, here it is distilled to a series of short clips…
Begin recap in preparation for today’s big secret
The three-gear methodology in poker is used routinely by many professionals, but thereʼs a much better way. Itʼs the MCU Two-or-Five Gear System. Itʼs actually two systems, but you should be prepared to use either one, depending on which is best suited for your opponents. Against unsophisticated opponents, use two gears. The five-gear system is usually reserved for trickier and more observant foes. Weʼre about to examine the two-gear option. It wins money the easy way.
You donʼt 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. Most players donʼt know when to shift – and they shift basically at random.. When you shift randomly, just for the purpose of shifting and nothing more, youʼre 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 opponentsʼ styles dictate otherwise.
Against opponents in a universe where opponents never adapt to your play, you wouldnʼt need to shift gears. You might change gears against another set of opponents, whose style of play was different, but you wouldnʼt against the same opponents who did their same old thing regardless of how you played.
A little more strength
Actually, when to shift isnʼt that complicated. If your opponents call too much, you enter pots with more hands, since you donʼt need as much strength to make a profit. Thatʼs because the hands youʼll be bumping heads with wonʼt 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 youʼre already involved in a pot. Why? Itʼs because youʼll get called by worse hands than you normally would, so you donʼt need normal strength to justify a wager. 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 youʼre conspicuously winning.
On the other hand, you must be more conservative about your bets and about which hands you play when opponents are inspired. Thatʼs when theyʼll make correct raises and calls and bet more rationally. Opponents are inspired when they’re winning or when youʼre losing – and a combination of the two can be deadly. Against inspired opponents, you need to back off – you need to gear down.
It all centers around nearly borderline hands. Borderline hands are those that afford decisions that are extremely close and itʼs not obvious to you what the better choice is. By “nearly borderline” Iʼm stretching the definition to give a little leeway, to include truly borderline decisions and those that almost fit the category. With every borderline choice, thereʼs an aggressive and an unaggressive decision possible.
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 youʼve 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. Itʼs the simplest way to shift gears there is. Donʼt let your emotions dictate which of the two gears youʼre using during the heat of poker combat. Decide before any cards are dealt. Decide whether youʼre going to play aggressively against any opponents – and which ones.
Often, youʼll shift gears by not really taking individual opponents into account. Youʼll just shift for the whole table – and that makes things simple. But, whatever you decide to do, remember: Itʼs only borderline choices you need to consider. Nothing else matters. Most of your decisions are borderline! So, shifting between the two gears will dramatically change your style of play.
Now weʼre ready to move on. Iʼve promised you that graduating to the most powerful, simplified system of shifting gears would be easy. Whenever you tell people about five gears, they immediately think, “Oh, no! More complexity. More levels of aggression to master.” Say it ainʼt so! OK, “It ainʼt so.”
The MCU Five- Gear system does shift into one of five gears whenever you choose, but you donʼt have to remember anything about each gear! Sound impossible? Well, what if I could teach you to choose between totally conservative, somewhat conservative, normal, somewhat aggressive, and totally aggressive without having to learn any tactics at all? Would that be big magic? Well, thatʼs what Iʼm going to do. You can throw away all worries about learning specific hands or specific situations.
Just like with the two-gear system, youʼre only concerned with borderline decisions. All other decisions are too obvious to mess with, and you should play them the same all the time. When thereʼs a credible choice — a truly borderline decision — youʼll know it, because your mind will automatically pause and ponder.
What to do
Now, hereʼs what to do. Donʼt let anyone tell you that the MCU Five-Gear system requires you to count to five. The system doesnʼt require even that much mathematical sophistication. You only need to count to four. Confused? Good. Now, Iʼll unconfused you. The five-gear system really is the two-gear system, except thereʼs a count built into it. You just keep track of which deal this one is in the sequence: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, over and over. All you need to do is choose which gear is most appropriate and youʼre immediately in that gear!
It’s up to you to choose which gear is most appropriate, but you can shift up or down from gears 2, 3, and 4 at any time that you believe game conditions warrant an adjustment. Follow these instructions: Gear 1 (totally conservative). Do exactly the same as you would in the MCU Two-Gear system. Always choose the more conservative tactic when faced with a borderline situation. It doesnʼt matter what stage the repeating-hand-sequence count is at the moment (1, 2, 3, 4, and back to 1, over and over). Keep counting, anyway, but it wonʼt change your play. Gear 2 (somewhat conservative). Choose the more conservative tactic on counts 1, 2, and 3. Choose the more aggressive one on count 4. Gear 3 (average). Choose the more conservative tactic on counts 1 and 2, and the more aggressive one on counts 3 and 4. Gear 4 (somewhat aggressive). Choose the more conservative tactic only on count 1, otherwise choose the more aggressive one. Gear 5 (totally aggressive). Just like with gear one, you donʼt really need the sequential count, but you should keep doing it (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2 … repeating forever, so it will be ready when you shift gears 2, 3, or 4). In gear 5, at every borderline decision, choose the more-aggressive tactic, no matter where you are in the repeating-count sequence.
Don’t bother your brain
I promise you that the mystery of shifting gears in poker will no longer haunt you. Once you try the MCU five-gear system, youʼll wonder why you ever used more complex methods — or why you never used any method at all. The entire method doesnʼt require you to memorize anything or to bother your brain with deep thoughts that require you to take your focus off important aspects of the game.
You gain maximum deceptive value. And you get to keep your head handy for other important poker decisions. The MCU Five-Gear System is amazingly effective and it doesnʼt limit your concentration upon other aspects of the game. Try it and youʼll believe! Five powerful gears can be as simple as counting to four. — MC