Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2006) in Poker Player newspaper.
Most of my personal history is quite blurry, and I have to piece together conversations and events as closely as I can. Oddly I specifically remember an exchange I had with a young poker player 30 years ago. I remember it, because I immediately went home and solidified my thoughts regarding it. It became the focal point for much of my teaching.
“I put him on ace-queen,” Roger explained to me, years ago at the Dunes poker room in Las Vegas. “But it turns out that he had eight-five and flopped a queen-seven-six for an open-end straight draw. Then, on the damn river, there comes this ugly four and he makes this impossible straight.”
Roger paused momentarily. He was a friend who complained a lot, and he had an annoying habit of milking the misery with dramatic hesitation. Finally, he continued, “I thought he’d be playing something reasonable, and I’d narrowed him down to just a few hands. In fact, on the river, I put him on ace-queen exactly, because that was the only thing that seemed reasonable.”
In Roger’s account, only one word stood out in my mind. It was the word “put.” Haven’t you heard it said a thousand times – I “put” him on this hand or that hand? We’ll, I believe the practice of putting opponents on hands is questionable. And now I’m going to share one of my old lectures. It includes a similar conversation from another player years later. It will tell you why “put” is a dangerous word in poker…
Hurts more than it helps
Today, I’m going really aggravate a lot of serious poker players and even some experts who believe that, quote, putting an opponent on a hand, unquote, is an important poker skill. I’m here to tell you that putting an opponent on a hand often hurts more than it helps.
I believe players with just a vague notion about the possible hands their opponents may be playing and an understanding that they may encounter the unexpected will do substantially better than players who act in accordance with hands they put their opponents on.
Let’s be clear about what I mean. A few years ago, I had this conversation with a player who had just been knocked out of a 7-stud tournament.
The player came up to me, frustrated, and eager to explain the misfortune that had just happened. I usually hate to listen to these bad beat stories, but the beginning hooked me. She – oops, I wanted to keep the identity totally vague and I’m telling you too much by saying “she,” but now I’ve done it, so – OK, this was a female player, one of the better ones in fact. She said something very close to, “This was obviously the last table, so I expected him to play a sensible game of seven-card stud, not kitchen-table stuff. Just the two of us were left. He brought it in with a three showing and I raised to the $800 limit with a 10 showing. I had a pair of tens. He just called me. So, I put him on a pair of threes with some kicker higher than my pair, probably an ace. I keep betting and he keeps calling to sixth street where he catches an ace and I catch a jack to pair my other hole card and make jacks and tens – nothing showing on my board. I check and he bets, so naturally I put him on aces-up over threes. I folded my two pair.
A good guess
“Now he shows me what he had, like he’s being nice or something. Know what it is?”
Well, OK, she has passed the conversation ball to me and I have to say something, so – trying not to seem sarcastic – I say, “Apparently it wasn’t the aces over threes that you expected.”
“You guessed it!” she half screams. “It was the same friggin’ hand that always knocks me out of the tournament. He had a flush draw all the way and pairs aces on sixth street. So, he figures he has the best hand and bets.
“Now I’ve got to fold, don’t you think? I mean, it looks like he has aces over threes.”
At this point, I nod sympathetically.
Then she concludes with words that illustrate my point better than anything I could offer myself. These words have stuck in my mind for several years. She says, “If I hadn’t put him on a pair of threes in the beginning, I would have called, but I had to put him on something. What would you have put him on?” are her last words.
My reply wouldn’t have been welcome and was unnecessary. I simply tapped her gently on the nearest shoulder, a gesture that meant I commiserated and felt her pain. Then I walked away, shaking my head sadly, so she would feel better.
But, her last words haunted me. She had said, “If I hadn’t put him on a pair of threes in the beginning, I would have called, but I had to put him on something. What would you have put him on?”
The answer is: I would not have put him on anything. I never put opponents on specific hands. I put them on every hand, some being more likely than others. But, by not putting opponents on hands – by leaving open the truth that anything is possible – I can choose strategies that encompass the whole universe of possibilities.
In the 7-stud situation the woman had described, I would have left open the possibility that the opponent might have started with a flush draw, even if a pair of threes were more likely. Then, when he caught an ace on sixth street, I would have thought that maybe he really made aces and threes, or maybe he still had a flush draw and paired aces, or maybe he was trying to leverage his position with the ace – which he hadn’t paired at all. And I would have left lots of other possibilities open, because opponents sometimes do the unexpected.
After I’d pieced it all together, I would have concluded that the pot was large enough to justify a call, because there were many reasonable ways I could have the best hand now or end up with the best hand. Maybe my opponent’s most likely hand really was aces over threes, and that would be better than my jacks over tens. But, because I didn’t “put him on” that hand, I should still make a profitable call, because I put him on every hand.
So, I’m telling you that it’s often a costly mistake to figure out your opponent’s most-likely hand and put him on that specific hand. You should never do it. Leave your options open. Don’t reduce your profit by choosing strategy as if your opponent has one specific hand. Usually play poker as if your opponent might hold any possible hand, but that some are more likely than others. Do that and you’ll win more money.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC