Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2007) in Poker Player newspaper.
Should you check or raise? Should you just call or fire all your chips at the pot? Should you play a hand or fold it? In poker you face these and other decisions routinely. Top poker strategists correctly will tell you that you shouldn’t make the same decision every time the same or a very similar situation arises.
You need to randomize so that alert opponents won’t be comfortable in planning a counter strategy based on your predictability. The more opponents can correctly guess how you’re playing a hand, the more likely you are to suffer financially. This is true in both limit and no-limit poker games. In limit hold ’em games, if you always raise with aces from an early position and never with anything else, skillful opponents will eventually grow wise. They will fold most big hands when you raise, denying you the profit you expect.
If you never play small, unpaired cards from the dealer position, opponents can discount any possibility that you might have combined with the board to make a small straight. But if you play those unlikely cards occasionally – even just once in a hundred opportunities – your opponents can never be absolutely certain what you hold at the moment.
The science that accompanies this randomization of decisions is steeped in careful analysis of both decisions and opposing responses — and in game theory. The truth is, if you hope to compete in the high-tension world of big-league poker, you’ve got to do the unexpected sometimes.
But you can’t do it too often. If you do, you’ll stray so far from what are the best, most-obvious choices that you’ll be playing too poorly to win. So, yes, randomize. But don’t be cute more times than are dictated by your need to confuse opponents. The choice you should make most often is the one that seems the most compelling. Some players – even world class players – fall into the bad habit of mixing up their play more than they must. Doing that just eats away at their bankrolls. It becomes what I’ve defined as “Fancy Play Syndrome” (FPS) – the practice of too often looking for an unusual way to play a hand when the most obvious, straightforward choice is better. FPS is a contagious disease – one that you should take precautions not to acquire.
Now that I’ve told you that it’s necessary to be versatile in your poker decisions, while sticking to the basic best choices as much as possible, there’s something else you need to know. There are times when you shouldn’t randomize your poker decisions at all. And nothing drives home this point better than a short lecture I gave years ago. Here is the text of that lesson…
When not to randomize
Today we’re going to talk about randomizing your poker decisions. You’ve heard it time and time again, right? In order to win at poker, you’ve got to randomize your actions, don’t do the same thing all the time, change speeds, shift gears.
But I’m going to tell you a secret. Sometimes it’s wrong to change gears. Sometimes it’s not profitable to randomize. Listen. The truth is that most of the time the only reason we should randomize is to put our opponents off-guard and to keep them guessing.
For each common poker situation, usually there’s a very strong play we’d like to use every single time, but if we use it too often, we’re afraid our opponents will catch on and adapt.
So, we choose to be deceptive. One way to be deceptive is to randomize our poker decisions. Maybe we want to raise every time we have strong hands and never raise otherwise. Fine, but we’re afraid our opponents will soon catch on. We fear they’ll fold whenever we raise, because it’s obvious that we have them beat.
What to do? The answer, of course, is to sometimes just call with these monster hands and sometimes raise with weaker hands. That will fool our opponents.
But what if our opponents are too unaware to be fooled? What if they’re just weak players who aren’t paying any attention at all to what we’re doing? Ah, there’s the point. Against weak players who aren’t paying attention, it’s almost always better not to randomize. Just make that raise every time with your strong hands.
Everywhere, on every planet, every place poker is played, it’s a powerful truth that players who randomize their decisions without having a good reason are simply costing themselves profit. That’s important, and I’ll repeat it. Players who randomize without a reason lose profit.
If you know what your strongest play is, but you randomize and you’re not sure why, you’re usually costing yourself money. When you’re against weak opponents, be less deceptive, choose your strongest play, stick to it, don’t randomize.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro. And that’s my secret today. — MC