What not to bet in a nuclear winter

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.

Knowing for certain when not to bet can save you thousands of dollars every year. On the more esoteric side I teach:

  • You shouldn’t bet into frequent bluffers, because you’ll usually average more money by checking and calling;
  • You shouldn’t bet with small advantages when your image isn’t dominating, because your opponents will respond more rationally and get maximum value from their hands when they have you beat; and
  • Closely related — You shouldn’t value bet when you’re losing, because opponents are inspired by your suffering and play better, making otherwise-moneymaking bets unprofitable.

Fine. There are other complex reasons not to bet, also. But what I want to teach you today is much simpler. I first published this strange explanation in 1988, and it remains a core concept at Mike Caro University of Poker today. Please pay attention…


You wake up and everything’s like an icicle. Out your window, the world is frozen everywhere. The mailman, the policeman, the fireman — all stand rigid and white.

“That’s a shame,” you tell yourself. Then you realize why it’s so cold! “Wasn’t there a nuclear war last week?” You think back. You suddenly remember. “That’s right! It was on the evening news!” Who says gamblers don’t keep up on current events? So, putting two and two together, you guess this must be the nuclear winter scientists were nagging about.

“Brrr! Sure looks cold!” And then a horrible thing occurs to you. It isn’t just men who are frozen. They can take it. Unfortunately, there are also innocent women and children frozen. Your whole being is quivering with that gruesome thought when something even more appalling comes to mind. What about the poker players?

It doesn’t take a physicist to figure out that if poker players are frozen, there won’t be a game tonight. So, you bundle up quickly and go searching for poker opponents. It takes days. Finally you find one and, by golly it’s me. (You didn’t think I was going to freeze, did you?)

“Let’s play,” you suggest.

“No cards,” I point out.

So, you leave, and after a week, you come back to our campfire with the ace of spades.

Not enough

“That’s not enough cards,” I tell you. “We won’t have enough to deal two hands. Besides, one card is hard to shuffle.”

You think about this, and pretty soon you see my point. You scurry away, seeking more cards. A week later, you return with the king of spades.

“Still not enough cards,” I explain. “The ace would always bet and the king would always fold. There could be no bluffing, because if you held a king and bet, you’d know the ace would call. With only two cards, we’re missing a key element of poker. In poker, your hand must be your own secret.”

You rapidly refresh yourself with a cup of coffee and leave the campfire, returning a week later with the queen of spades.

“Now?” you ask.

“Got any money?” I go on to explain that even though we can create an element of suspense with three cards, and each player will have a secret one‑card hand, there’s no sense playing unless there’s something in the pot when the cards are dealt — something worth fighting over.

Another week goes by and you come back with some money. “Got any for me?” I ask. Another week and we both have money.

“Good, now we can play poker,” I declare.

No motive

With three cards, an ante and more money to bet with, all the elements of poker are present. You can never bet with a king. That’s because your opponent will always fold with a queen and always call with an ace. You have no motive to bet with this middle hand. And, in fact, that turns out to be a governing concept in poker. Unless there are powerful reasons pushing you to the contrary, you should never bet a hand that is exactly average for the situation.

It might sometimes be worth bluffing with a queen, hoping a king folds. How often to bluff depends on the size of the ante and the habits of your opponent. For every poker situation there exists an exact frequency for betting, bluffing, calling and passing. Finding the frequency is fun. When you know it and your opponent doesn’t, you simply cannot lose.

Now, in the coldest hour of the nuclear winter, you shuffle and begin to deal. You realize how resilient life on earth really is. There may be ice and devastation, but in tiny pockets throughout the planet, poker probably survives. While you’re thinking that, I resolve that if things ever get back to normal, I will write a column again. And sometimes I’ll teach money‑making concepts using a reduced deck of cards. It only takes three cards to prove one of the most profitable truths about poker.

The big point

Okay, that’s a concept I began teaching 25 years ago, and you’ve just read how I explained it in decades past. That’s back when we feared atom bombs and the resulting freeze more than global warming. So, unfortunately, my vision has gone out of fashion.

But the big point endures: You simply lose money when you bet poker hands that have average prospects of being best. Don’t do that! — 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.


2 thoughts on “What not to bet in a nuclear winter”

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  1. “You simply lose money when you bet poker hands that have average prospects of being best. ” in theory yes, like in war, you dont expect suicide attacks, but they happen , and 82 will call your KingAce and you will lose! and 82 wins for a short time but doesnt matter for you – you are busted!

  2. I love reading this blog and I don’t even play poker. The truths remain so in many aspects of life. You are indeed genius.

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