The poker and real-life power of “Caro’s Conception”

  • By Mike Caro | Exit

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Poker Digest.

Today, I want to talk about the most mysterious truth that affects our lives and our poker profit. This column is based on a theory I proposed over 25 years ago, and on a recent lecture. The text of that lecture, modified for Poker Digest, begins below whenever you’re ready.

A lecture that will change your poker outlook

It is a concept that takes us far, far beyond just the basic strategies of winning at poker. “Caro’s Conception” makes us aware that there is a level of poker prowess that is very real, yet nearly not definable.

This mysterious force doesn’t just appear in poker, but in real life, too. But, I’m getting ahead of the story. First, I’ve got to tell you what the Conception – or concept – is based upon. It’s based upon a puzzling truth, long known to those who ponder such things – the truth that strengths are not always ordered by hierarchy. Sometimes strengths can overlap and some people can’t even beat opponents that those they conquer could beat.

Have you ever played rock-paper-scissors? It’s a guessing game where you make up and down motions with your right hand three times in unison with an opponent. At the end of the third time, without stalling or looking to see what your opponent is doing, you show a tight fist – indicating a rock – or a flat, open hand – indicating paper – or two fingers – indicating scissors.

Rock, paper, or scissors. Those are your choices. Fine. But who wins? Well, if both of you show the same type of object, obviously it’s a tie and nobody wins. But if the two objects indicated by your hands are different, somebody wins.

It goes like this. A rock loses to paper, because paper covers it. So, paper is better than rock. And, scissors beats paper, because scissors cut paper. So, at the low end, you have rock, which gets covered by paper, which then gets cut by scissors, making scissors the overall champ in the hierarchy of this game. Right?

No! It doesn’t work that way. Scissors get smashed by rock. So, if I let you choose which you wanted – rock, paper, or scissors – no matter which you chose, I could always beat you. OK, but that’s just a contrived game.

Beyond the scissors game

Does this strangeness, where there is no strongest choice, happen outside this made-up game? Yes! When I first wrote about this in Gambling Times magazine in the early 1980s, I used examples with cards. Since then, I and others have spent hours coming up with compelling poker examples of this phenomenon.

My favorite example comes from hold ’em. Here are three hands:

4♣ 4♦

J♥ 10♥

A♣ K♠

Suppose I put those three hold ’em hands on the table and gave you your choice. Then I would pick a hand to challenge you from the remaining two. Which would you choose first? Well, it doesn’t matter which you’d choose first, because you couldn’t win. There is no best hand!

You see, jack-10 of hearts wins about 53 percent of the time against the two fours. So, let’s match that winner, J-10 of hearts, against the ace-king unsuited. Now ace-king wins almost 59 percent of the time. So, we’ve got two fours on the low end. They can’t even beat the J-10 suited. And, in turn, J-10 suited gets annihilated by ace-king. So, it looks like two fours is the worst hand in the group and ace-king is the best. But, just for fun, let’s put the lowly two fours against the champion – ace-king. This should be no contest.

You’re right, it’s no contest. The two fours win 54 percent of the time. Huh? I thought the two fours couldn’t even beat J-10 suited, and J-10 suited was trounced by ace-king, so how come ace-king loses to the weak two fours.

When strengths overlap in poker

It’s because strengths can overlap in poker and in life. Certain hands, certain people, certain teams, certain organizations, certain strategies can be ideally suited to beat others. And still, they can fail time and time again to win against whatever could be beaten easily by those they conquered.

But “Caro’s Conception” isn’t about selected cards or rock-paper-scissors. I’m sure people made puzzles out of similar overlaps in strength centuries ago. “Caro’s Conception” takes this a step further and suggests that these overlaps in strength exist all around us. It will help you succeed in poker or in life if you can identify when this puzzling force of nature is happening.

In poker, I believe that different playing styles can be ideally geared to destroy certain types of opponents. For instance, let’s take three different players. Arnold is ultra-tight and unobservant. Betty is moderately tight and easy to manipulate. And Craig is looser and playful.

Other poker skills being similar, Arnold could lose forever to Betty. Why? Although Betty is too tight, she’s not as tight as Arnold and gains ground by stealing some pots. She’s easy to manipulate, but Arnold – who is unobservant — doesn’t take advantage by manipulating Betty. Therefore, Betty’s weakness – being manipulable  — doesn’t harm her, because this isn’t exploited. So, let’s put the winning player, Betty, who is moderately tight and easy to manipulate, against Craig — our looser and playful foe. Well, here it’s no contest. Craig looses a little ground to the moderately tight opponent by playing too many hands. But Betty is easily manipulable, so she falls victim to Craig’s carefully crafted, playful image. This gives Craig the advantage overall. So, now we have a champion, right? It’s Craig.

Why Craig can’t beat Arnold

But, wait! Let’s match him up against that ultra-tight and unobservant opponent named Arnold. Stangely, Arnold now dethrones Craig. Arnold is too tight and Craig is too loose. This part of their game is a push. But Arnold isn’t falling for Craig’s playful image. And Craig wastes money time and time again trying to be manipulative.

Here’s the key. You should look for similar overlaps in strength whenever you play poker. Adjust your game specifically for the opponents you’re facing right now. You’ll be much more successful if you do that than if you use a one-size-fits-all strategy. And you’ll stop wondering why Morris loses day in and day out, but usually takes your money. Stop feeling singled out and just change your tactics.

But the really big truth behind “Caro’s Conception” is that these overlaps are happening all the time in real life. That’s why Adam is domineered by Bob and Bob is, in turn, in the control of Carla, But Carla, who would seem to be at the top of the leadership ladder, is putty in the hands of lowly Adam.

Start looking around and you’ll see this happening everywhere. You’ll also understand why one person, whom you’d like to be pals with, gets along with all your other friends, but not with you. Just like in poker, the trick is to modify your behavior to interact more successfully with that individual. But you can only do that if you contrast your traits with the other persons’ to pinpoint the collisions. Then it’s easy to steer around the obstacles.

“Caro’s Conception” defined

Remember “Caro’s Conception.” It states: “In life, strength is sometimes circular. Therefore, the conqueror can be an underdog to an entity too weak even to defeat what has been already conquered.”

In poker and in life, there are game plans that are ideally suited for certain opponents that fail against lesser ones. Once you realize this and adapt, you’re taking your game to the next level. — 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. It’s too bad the heads-up championship was canceled. I always thought it was interesting to watch how strengths and weakness in each player changed completely from a full game situation. A super aggresive player can now become the dominant force against a tight player that cannot adjust. Changing conditions turn some weaknesses into strengths.

  2. When I was a kid, I knew these two brothers. David was older than Jimmy, yet he was smaller. I was inbetween the two in age and stature. I could whip David but could never whip Jimmy. But Jimmy even though he was bigger than us both could never whip his smaller yet older brother David.

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