Poker is simpler when it’s complex (Warning: Sexist)

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

This column will seem sexist. That should embarrass me, but strangely it tickles my mind in terribly diabolical ways. I’ve been told I need therapy in this regard. But I’ll always be honest with you about both my strengths and my failings, so consider this an exercise in honest self-exposure.

At the 2006 World Series of Poker, I was honored to be inducted into the Seniors Hall of Fame – the brainchild of Oklahoma Johnny Hale. In accepting the award before the start of the seniors-only event, I noted that only a decade ago many of us had worried that poker was decaying, because there weren’t enough young players. You could, back then, walk into any cardroom in California and the median age of the players was 55 or higher. Things have changed dramatically. Now, I’m often the oldest player at my table. It’s refreshing. To the tournament audience, I said something like, “Look around you. This is the way all poker tables used to be.”

And I added another remark that I should not have. In these days of super-sensitivity about what is politically correct and who will be offended, I gambled with, “The downside is that on the day you’re inducted into the Seniors Hall of Fame, you’re probably not going to get laid.” It was met with laughter, but this was a mature audience who grew up before the days when you were taught to measure every word and fear that someone will take offense. “Wasn’t that a little sexist,” a woman asked me afterward, while I was autographing my book for her. “Poker isn’t supposed to be about sex.” She was polite and didn’t seem overly offended and admitted she hadn’t been there to listen and had only heard about my words afterwards.

Can’t help it

“Generally I don’t think about women as sex objects,” said I. She seemed okay with that, so I added, “Only once in a while.” She smirked in a way that told me I’d once again stumbled into the gray area surrounding modern-day sexist speech. I just can’t help myself. And I mean nothing sinister by it. I respect women. One of my very favorite wives was a woman.

Anyway, poker has changed; times have changed.

My mother was a pioneering woman in her day, running for city council, editing a local newspaper, struggling up the ladder to prove she could succeed in fields that were seen as male-centric. Mom was ahead of her time and I grew up respecting women’s talents and advocating equality for chicks everywhere.

Later, while I was open-mindedly tending to my own damn business playing poker in the nineteen-seventies, the so-called women’s liberation movement exploded and I was surrounded by all kinds of new rules I was ill-prepared to follow or to memorize. Obviously, I still had a long way to go before I would mature as a man. Oh, well.

I continued to enjoy poker as I always had, primarily as a path to profit and occasionally as a ploy for picking up women. The latter was basically done in three ways: (1) You could tell lady players you were impressed with their play and then bankroll them; (2) you could invite them to your place to play heads-up poker; and (3) you could offer to teach them to play poker. Each of these methods was expensive. In the first case, the lady players I bankrolled simply never won or, I suspect, sometimes exaggerated their losses or minimized their wins, leaving me to fund the difference. In the second case, if I played them heads-up, I frequently accepted IOUs for the losses and was seldom paid. In the third case, I ended up having to finance the poker excursions of my female students, and that didn’t work out, either.

On the up side, or at the time considered the “up side,” these tactics were often successful in keeping me supplied with what I now reflectively refer to as female companionship. I’m not proud of the way I was in my youth and I’ll have to eternally live with the consequences that I’m sure will someday haunt me. But allow me to escape from my sad and sullen memories of shameful seventies conduct in order to explain where this is leading. (And, remember, I partially redeemed myself in the nineteen-eighties by writing my most obscure poker book — now out of print —  titled: Poker for Women – A Course in Destroying Male Opponents at Poker and Beyond.)

The poker lesson

I’m remembering a pretty young student named Martha who asked me, “What am I supposed to do with a pair of fives in hold ’em two seats before the button? If nobody has come into the pot, should I raise or just call. It’s driving me nuts not knowing the answer.” This seemed like an unexpectedly sophisticated question, coming from a student I’d recruited deceptively, with only vague interest in mentoring.

“Why not fold?” I quizzed, forgetting my primary goal long enough to be drawn into a cerebral poker discussion.

She was silent and then said, “I guess you could fold. I hadn’t thought of that.”

And so I launched into a lesson, and I’ll share it with you now. Few poker decisions are obvious. That’s why you see so many weird hands at the showdown. It’s because players are faced with decisions that aren’t obvious and they end up making spontaneous choices by whim. It’s sort of like choosing a tube of toothpaste in a rush when you don’t have a favorite brand. You reach for one and then your mind cries, “Take that other one,” and you do – for no especially logical reason.

I’ve talked about this previously when I introduced you to Caro’s Law of Loose Wiring, which states: “If choices are not clearly connected to their benefits, people usually interact in ways that make outcomes unpredictable.” That applies to both life and poker. In poker, some choices are clearer than others. If you begin a hold ’em hand with 3-2 behind a raise, it’s pretty clear you’re going to fold. And if you’re first to act with a pair of aces, you’re probably going to raise, although on rare occasions you might just call for deceptive reasons.

Fine. Now I’m going to add another horrible truth about poker, which is what I told Martha in approximately these words: “A lot of times you can choose to raise, call, or fold and it won’t make much difference in the long run. The profit will come from knowing which is right at the moment. You don’t want to make one choice too often or not often enough.”

Sound confusing? Well, think about the hand Martha mentioned. Nobody has come into the pot and you have a pair of fives two seats before the button (dealer position). If the players waiting to act were tight and timid, I’d sometimes raise. My objective would be either win the blinds right away or continue to control the action by chasing out the non-blind players and becoming the last player to act on future betting rounds. If I wanted to get the best odds I could against players who were loose but unlikely to raise, I’d probably just call. And if I hadn’t established domination over aggressive players still active, I’d probably fold, because they would often attack my small pair too assertively to make it profitable.

Three-choice hands

Actually, there are a lot of three-way hands in poker, hands that you can call with, raise with, or fold depending on your image and your opponents’ tendencies. For instance, in Martha’s position, Q-J would be another hand that could be decided in three ways. The big lesson here is that you need to learn to recognize hands that have three-choice potential. You can do this by simply asking yourself this: (1) If I saw a pro fold this hand, would I think it would be terrible? (2) If I saw a pro call with this hand, would I think it would be terrible? and (3) If I saw a pro raise with this hand, would I think it would be terrible? If you answer no to all those questions, then you hold a hand that’s in the three-choice category.

Here’s my advice, based on the fact that most players instinctive act too aggressively with their three-choice hands, even when they don’t consciously recognize that there really are three choices. If you don’t believe that there are overriding reasons to raise or call right now, usually fold. That’s the choice Martha overlooked. Against alert opponents, you’ll make more money if you stay out of action with these hands, but you need to occasionally raise and occasionally just call. If you’re the kind of player (and many are) who frequently talks yourself into a raise or a call, just to keep involved, you need a tune-up. And it’s a simple one. You need to fold three-choice hands much more often than you have been.

So, guys and gals, if you’re a guy, then the secrets I shared from my youth about how I immaturely used poker to lure women into bed won’t be of much use to you in today’s arena. But the poker advice that stemmed from that bizarre recollection might save you some money. And if you’re a gal, well, I’ve given you your damn poker lesson, so what happens now? Oops, I shouldn’t have said that, but I blurted it out before I could think. Now it’s too late to take it back. Please e-mail your outrage to — 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. I’m seeing improvement in my game already, thanks to your tips. I too have been neglecting the fold-option in the 3-way hands. Will keep paying more attention to that department. Thanks, again.


  2. This difers from what I’ve read in most poker books. Most of these so called pros say if: The choice is between raise or call, to raise. If the choice is between call and fold, fold. Oh well, most of the books just tells the basics of playing poker anyway. I’m real disappointed in most poker books. A few of the writers even said that they suggest you play the way they said too in the books but they don’t play that way. lol Mikes books of tells is the best of them all but it don’t do me any good now that I don’t play live anymore. Write one on internet poker Mike.

  3. Another good one Mike! I’ve been having a terrible run the last 6 months or so & couldn’t figure out what to do different – other than shake my fist at the Fates. I think I’m going to have to look at how I’m handling those three-choice hands, I’m thinking that I may have been going the “do-something-other-than-fold” route more often than it was warranted. Thanks

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