Why it’s wrong to soft-play friends at poker

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

Many years ago in old Gardena, I ran out of money in a poker game. I had cash at home, but not in my pocket. So, a friend offered to give me $50 – which was ample for the $2/$4 limit draw poker game I was playing.

I mean, we’re talking way back in time here. I was young. And when I was young, I did many foolish things. I remember going into a bowling alley and flashing $10,000 for everyone to see. When you’re very young, the thrill of carrying around big cash makes some of us do crazy things.

I used to even flash big money just to impress women and pick them up. You know what? It worked. I picked them up, but damned if I didn’t always end up giving them money for some sad reason or another. When I was 25, women played me better than I played poker, I guess. Where was I? I’ve gone and sidetracked myself again.

The incident I’m talking about happened before I had money to flash. This was in my earliest, bankroll building stage. My poker play was semi-superior, but erratic. I had never played larger than $3/$6 limit in Gardena. So, I wasn’t a poker star. I was obscure and unproven. But I had great hopes. I had just begun to analyze poker seriously, but there were no computers available, so most of my learning came by way of keeping notes and doing mathematics by hand. There weren’t even any calculators! The first commercially available one came years later. It was called the Bowmar Brain, which sold for hundreds of dollars and didn’t do much. I bought the first one to hit town – specifically to do poker math.

Anyway, I’m rambling again. My point is that I wasn’t terribly stable when I was young. But, I did have a firm opinion about how poker should be played. When my friend loaned me the $50, I said, “I’ll pay you later today.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “There’s a seat open in my game.”

Poker and friends don’t mix

So, I took the seat in his game and promptly bluffed him on the first hand. He didn’t say anything at the table, but afterward he told me he hadn’t been expecting my bluff. He was amused, not angry. And he told the story to mutual friends of ours.

I explained that, in my mind, him lending me money or me lending him money (which I had also done) had nothing whatsoever to do with the way we should conduct ourselves at the poker table. Once I took control of the money, it was mine, not his, and I expected to get full value from it, because I had to pay it back. Besides, I considered it unethical to play against him any differently than I would play against anyone else, no matter what the circumstances. He agreed completely, but said he was still surprised when I had bluffed him on the first hand – and then showed the bluff.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel bad,” I explained. “I just wanted other players to see the bluff, too, so I might get more calls in the future.” Even back then, I was more interested in getting weak calls from too-loose opponents than in conveying a tight image. While many aspects of my poker play and perspectives have changed and matured, I still think that early concept – getting extra calls from loose players – is the key to maximizing profit.

We were discussing my bluff when a young woman, Kelly, walked up and began to listen. About a minute later, she blurted, “But why make it hard on your friends? When I’m playing with friends, I don’t bet into them unless I have a definite winning hand. And I don’t come into hands with them, unless my cards are so good I can’t throw them away.”

“Would you be mad if I got in your game and bluffed you?” I asked. It was a sincere question in quest of a serious answer – which is what I got.

“Definitely. I consider you my friend. Why would you go out of your way to bluff me? I would never do that to you.”

Friends and enemies

“I think we can be friends away from the table and still be enemies at the poker table,” I said.

“But, why?” she wanted to know. “There are plenty of players we don’t know and don’t care about. Why should we make it hard on each other?”

At this point, the friend who had lent me money walked away, leaving Kelly and me to complete our verbal skirmish. While the conversation cited is only approximate, because my memory is imperfect, what I told her next is still vivid in my mind.

“Why don’t you just play me tough and then, if you feel sorry for me later, you can always give the money back.” And that has become a staple of my teaching ever since. While you’re playing poker, there should be no favorites. If you still feel sorry for someone after you cash out, you can return your profit to them.

Now, I’m not naïve about today’s topic. I know many readers think they shouldn’t make it hard on their friends at poker. “Proposition players” (aka “props”) who get paid by the house to play on their own money often take it easy on each other.

But, just like Kelly, they don’t see the evil in what they’re doing. They think it doesn’t harm anyone else, but it does. Let me explain.

An outsider, a stranger, doesn’t know who’s friends with whom. He expects that everyone will be playing poker with only self-interest in mind. When players make it easy on each other, invariably there is less money in the pots than there would be otherwise. A superior player assuming all opponents are playing in their own best interest – which defines the spirit of poker – may make very aggressive value bets. He may push hands that are borderline in quest of maximizing profit on later rounds of betting.

So? I’ll tell you “so.” So, when friends play each other softly, other opponents take the worst of it. The friends may not think they’re doing anything wrong, but they can sometimes be making it impossible for the superior player to win. They don’t think they’re cheating, but they might as well be. The superior player has the illusion of being in a game where all players are out for themselves, but some players are really protecting each other by making themselves more comfortable. The agreement may be tacit, but it’s still an agreement – an unspoken understanding. “I won’t make it hard on you, if you won’t make it hard on me.”

The best aggressive player gets the worst of it

This means that the superior, aggressive player has the worst of it on many borderline hands where he assumes he has the best of it. He’ll often get only one caller when he otherwise might have gotten more. If he’d known that, he may not have bet the hand to begin with. He may have called after the friend in the middle folded, not realizing that the bettor was less likely to be bluffing out of deference to his friend.

Let me repeat that big secret: In games where opponents soft play each other, the skillful, aggressive player often takes the worst of it. I believe there are games with slow playing where a superior player can’t win, but a much weaker, but tight, player can. That superior, aggressive player will fare much worse than the somewhat-inferior, tighter player, merely because opponents are staying out of each other’s way.

I have previously explained that when partners unscrupulously and illegally play best hand against unsuspecting opponents, it’s the superior and aggressive player who gets hurt the most, not the tighter player with weaker poker skills. Now, I’m suggesting that the same is true, to some degree, for friends or props who “harmlessly” soft-play each other.

For this reason, my friend who lent me money shouldn’t have been surprised when I bluffed him. For this reason, Kelly was wrong. And for this reason, you should complain loudly whenever you see opponents soft-playing each other. Their actions can affect your game in terrible ways that they don’t even understand. — 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.


7 thoughts on “Why it’s wrong to soft-play friends at poker”

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  1. When I go to Vegas with my friend and we end up heads up, we always check it down. Since we are the only ones in the hand at that point, it does not hurt anybody. It’s my money, and I can play my hand as I please.

  2. Something else I’ve noticed over the years. Loan money to another player and they will come back and kick your butt. Not always but often enough that it’s become an axiom at our home game. Same with soft playing a friend or someone who is obviously out of their league. They will chop you off at the knees later. Just my opinion.

  3. Hi Tom,
    There is a strategic reason not to bet when a third player is all in. Basically the side pot is what the two live players are now competing for, and it may well have no money in it. It is as if you are playing a poker game with no ante or blind bets. Only the strongest possible hand should bet. A number of Poker writers have suggested not betting in this situation unless you have the nuts.

    This is a bigger problem in proportional pay out tournaments. In a ring game or a shoot out tournament, there is more temptation to get greedy if you have a strong hand.

    Any way, I would not object to what they are doing since if the side pot is empty, I would likely do the same thing.

    Warm regard, Rick.

  4. mike, i play in a home game where two or three players always check it down when they get down to heads-up on any hand whether it is holdem, omaha, 7 stud or whatever game we are playing. i have told them that i think it is wrong and that they sholuld bet there hands. do you agree? is this unethical? the rest of us in the game bet our hand when we are headsup even when against these players.

  5. (Vivek Rajkumar has just taken a bathroom break from his match between Vanessa Rousso.

    Instead of blinding Rajkumar out, Rousso decided to not act on her hand and wait until Rajkumar returned.

    Her very sportsmanlike gesture didn’t go unnoticed as Rajkumar thanked her on return as they continue their match with Rousso holding a 840,000 to 120,000 chip advantage.)

    What would you have done Mike? This was a couple of days ago in the 10k heads up at the WSOP.

    1. Hi, Stan —

      I would have done the same thing. However, it’s a decision you need to make for yourself. It’s not cheating to let the opponent be blinded off, since the rules allow it and the circumstances might have been reversed.

      Good for Vanessa. She’s one of my favorites.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. This exact thing happened to me while playing The High Heel Poker Ladies Event in January. I have Multiple Sclerosis and often have issues with going to the bathroom. I had to go soooo bad! The floor would not allow anymore breaks for the rest of the tourney b/c he wanted to go home for the night so he refused even though the other 2 that were left said yes. Well I ran as fast as i could, barely made it there and they played as fast as the could to steal my blinds. How horrible was that? I honestly feel as if I would have won this tourney had the floor allowed me a bathroom break. Maybe I should have just went right there and made him clean it up huh? LOL just kidding but dont think the thought didnt cross my mind LOVE your books Mike just found this site and I have a LOT of reading to do

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