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:
- In order to win consistently at poker, you need to understand which hands are profitable to play and which aren’t.
- Most poker players who take the trouble to determine which hands are profitable still lose.
- 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.
- Most poker players who correctly consider the number of opponents waiting to act before entering a pot still lose.
- 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.
- Most poker players who pay attention to their opponents’ body language and interpret it correctly with adequate precision still lose.
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.
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