Understanding Caro’s Law of Least Tilt

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Bluff magazine.

And now it’s time for a poker reality check:

  1. In order to win consistently at poker, you need to understand which hands are profitable to play and which aren’t.
  2. Most poker players who take the trouble to determine which hands are profitable still lose.
  3. In order to earn extra income at poker, you need to consider how many players remain to act after you before committing to a pot.
  4. Most poker players who correctly consider the number of opponents waiting to act before entering a pot still lose.
  5. In order to truly get the most profit out of poker, you need to be able to interpret your opponents’ body language as often as possible.
  6. Most poker players who pay attention to their opponents’ body language and interpret it correctly with adequate precision still lose.

Long list

You know what? I could make that list quite long. All the odd numbers could cite skills and qualities that are helpful to becoming a winning poker player. And all the even numbers could discourage us by saying, quite accurately, that most players who have those skills and qualities don’t win.

You’re probably guessing that my point is going to be that you need all those skills and qualities in combination to win. That would be a sensible guess, but wrong. You don’t really need to study or understand all the various facets of poker strategy to win. And if you do study them all, if you do understand them all, you might not win, anyway.

So, what am I saying? Winning at poker is impossible? No, it’s possible – in fact, it’s often easy. You can study poker too much for your own good? No, studying poker is probably more valuable than learning by experience, since there is so much credible information available today.

I won’t leave you guessing. I’ll just come right out and say it: The reason many otherwise skillful players don’t win today is because they don’t play their best game all the time. Actually, almost nobody does. It’s so weird, really. I’ve sat in games pitting some of the most accomplished players in town against each other, knowing I was a big favorite to win.

And it wasn’t just because I was a better player, either. Being a better player against others who are highly skilled in a particular form of poker isn’t always enough to guarantee a winning expectation. There are times – in public poker rooms – where nobody has a winning expectation. That happens when the house takes rent from the players by the hour or half-hour or directly rakes the pots. Under those typical circumstances, if everyone else is very closely matched, no one may have an advantage that’s large enough to overcome that fee or rake.

More than a small edge

That underscores that fact that you need more than just a small edge to beat poker in a public casino. You need enough of an edge to beat the rake, too. Fortunately, public card rooms are the exact places where you can scout around and find the softest games — games where you do have a significant edge and can earn a profit.

But wait! When all the strongest players bump heads in a casino poker game, do any of them actually have a significant advantage? Probably not, if they all play their best games. But they don’t. They do something strange, instead. They go on tilt!

What’s tilt? That’s when – despite all the good tricks and tactics you’ve learned about poker – you let your emotions take over. They sometimes call it “steaming” in Las Vegas, but more and more they’ve adopted the term “tilt.” It’s not hard to guess what tilt means. Ever played pinball? Well, you can sometimes nudge the machine a little, trying to get the ball to roll this way or that, but if you shake it too hard, the word “tilt” flashes, the lights go out, and the flippers don’t work.

Flashing “tilt”

That’s approximately what happens to poker players who go on tilt. You can nudge them once or twice, because most players have the capacity to absorb a couple bad beats. But if those ridiculous “rivers” keep washing away their hopes and the infamous “suck outs” keep stealing pots they thought were theirs, well, it isn’t pretty. That’s when their lights go out and they quit reasoning. That’s when their flippers stop working and they seem unable to fend off their urge to wager. And that’s when the word “tilt” appears to be flashing on their foreheads.

World-class players have developed the strength to defend against tilt – usually. Still, you’ll see a strange social custom at work, even in the larger games. When strong players compete only against each other, there seems to be a tacit understanding that they will take turns going on tilt. It’s not always because they’ve gotten big hands beat, either. Sometimes I think they do it for the sheer joy of the adventure.

Tilt becomes infectious and goes round and round the table, each player yielding to it until he’s had his fill and returns to his senses. I know it sounds weird, but it’s really true. I’ve seen it a hundred times.

Caro’s Law of Least Tilt

So, now it’s time for me to define a law that many of my students cherish. It will seem so simplistic that at first you might dismiss its importance. Please don’t. Just read it:

Caro’s Law of Least Tilt: Among similarly skilled opponents, the player with the most discipline is the favorite.

Why is this important? Well, I already told you, if you’re ever in ego-driven poker games where only titans tussle, often they’ll take turns going on tilt. It’s an unspoken understanding. And you can take advantage.

The secret isn’t to stay out of those games; the secret is to pass your turn at tilt.

But you can’t be obvious about passing your turn. In that environment, you can’t avoid tilting entirely. You must feign tilt. And you must feign it conspicuously, but – listen closely – employ it less often than your opponents. That’s it! We’re not talking about “no tilt.” Instead, we’re talking about rational tilt – tilt for a reason. And, specifically, we’re talking about “least tilt.” Least tilt is what gets the money. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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  1. Hi Mike,

    That’s funny how you related it to a pinball machine! Great comparison!

  2. in cash games – all strikes true, am able to consdier each hand a new gaeme

    in Tournaments – all strikes false, once you lose bad the game is over

    perhaps that is why Caro doesnt play Tournaments anymore!

  3. Hi Mike! I read it and discover what happens when loses seems to force you to get on tilt. ¿has common sense to say that not just loses can make this? I mean, ¿Can force you to get on tilt, for example, winning a big pot when your hand is not a favourite? ¿is there so kind of “reverse tilt”? Thank you for your knowlegde.

  4. This game can truly test your will to succeed, and I agree, staying off tilt or least tilt is definately an advantage. I just got back from Vegas, and had my worst run of days in my career. It seemed every two or three outer, or runner runner you could imagine all happened to me in the span of ten days. I know bad beats and used to tilt pretty hardcore, and this trip was a true test to see if the old me would come out and go on raging tilt. I am happy to say, although frustrating, it never effected my game until day ten, which after all these beats adding up, was pyschially n mentally drained, so Iwould say I didn’t play my A game or nowhere close the last day. I’m also happy to say, as soon as I got back Missouri ( I live here to by the way, do you teach live in Missouri. Haha. Love to be an apprentice). I was back playing and didn’t let that ten day result deter me . There is not a lot for players I believe who could’ve had such a bad run and not be shaking or quit after it. This game will test every part of you, especially your heart and mind, and you got to learn to push thru the bad and not let it take u over, make you quit, or make u play bad. Take it in stride and move on to the next hand or next tourney, and always bring your best game or don’t play. No tilt.

    1. Very good observations. I’m sorry about your 10-day bad run. No, I’m not currently teaching in Missouri, but it’s a good idea for the future. And thanks for posting your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

  5. Hi Mike
    I can’t remember the last time I tilted. Years I think. My problem is that I’m getting it all in with sets too often, so far this year I’ve lost with 78% of my sets against draws (I keep very detailed records daily). Should I be folding sets in these situations?

  6. Maybe this is what I’m doing wrong?

    I like to play micro stakes cash games online, usually the one penny/two penny tables. I actually do fairly well fairly consistently, ending up with anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar profit after a two or three hour session.

    But I also do something else fairly consistently. I usually lose my first buy-in (about 80 cents) within just a few minutes of joining the table?

    Am I somehow starting out on tilt? Does that sound silly?

    1. Hi, Max —

      Welcome to out Poker1 family, now that you’ve made your first comment.

      If you’re consistently losing that much right away, and it isn’t a short-term fluke, that’s a problem. I often play very lively to advertise when I enter bigger games, but the average cost is much less (in terms of number of bets, not dollars).

      In those much smaller games, opponents are pretty oblivious about what you do, so paying significantly to establish an image isn’t something I’d recommend. I think you should play conservatively from the first hand as an experiment.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. Eureka! First let me say thanks. It’s great that someone of your stature takes time to personally correspond with folks trying to study the game.

        So I tried the experiment, joining a 1/2 penny cash table and resolving to play conservatively from the beginning. I ended up waiting about half an hour to catch a couple good hands that ended up paying me off handsomely for about 50 cents.
        The whole session only took about 40 minutes total instead of the usual 2-3 hours trying to make up initial losses.

        I’ve always read that tight play is an action killer; but as you predicted, they really didn’t seem to notice. Soon as I was ready to play a hand, there was someone willing to call.

        Oh and the best part is I didn’t waste half a session on tilt either. Obviously one session (and 50 cents) does not a career make…but I think you got me headed in a better direction.

        Thanks again.

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