The biggest secret to poker success

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

Today, I’m going to teach you the biggest secret about playing poker profitably in the whole universe. When you hear it, you’ll snicker, because it will seem too obvious to be worthwhile. But when you’ve snickered yourself out and returned to your senses, please let me explain why it’s so totally important. And before we get to that secret, I want to tell you about me and the Army Corps of Engineers. This true happening also helps your poker bankroll. Just indulge me for a couple minutes and you’ll see why.

Fine. So I moved from an active social life among the giant poker rooms in Los Angeles to become a hermit in the Ozarks. Now I live in a forest on a lake in south Missouri, walking my miles of private trails, muttering “never discourage a bet you intend to call” to any furry creatures that will listening. You might think this is a sad and lonely existence for the Mad Genius of Poker, but it gives me a chance to finish poker books and videos I never would have produced in the big city.


People sometimes visit. Hollywood Park poker executive Phyllis Caro came to visit with legendary player Marsha Waggoner. And just last week one of poker’s premiere ambassadors, Linda Johnson, dropped by along with poker teacher and columnist Jan Fisher and two members of a women’s poker group out of Tulsa called the Hold ’em Hotties. One of poker’s principal advocates, Wendeen Eolis, has come here, and Doyle Brunson promises to show up “any month now.” So, when you picture me in the forest, think Henry David Thoreau by the pond on steroids. Here I’m more productive than ever in doing poker research and creating poker products. It’s long months of intense isolation broken by sudden appearances of poker celebrities. Get the picture?

And here’s where the Army Corps of Engineers enters the scene. The Corps determines where boat slips can be located. My lakefront isn’t zoned for slips, so I own ones that are off my property. But I like to beach a boat here. The previous owner always kept a boat in the water on premises, but told me that the rule was that it had to be moved every seven days. Keep following along; we’re coming to something. His solution was to move the boat occasionally from a cove on the property to the main lakefront and back again. He thought that met the Corps requirements.

Poker with the Corps

Well, shortly after moving here, I began doing that and was never bothered by anyone. But I wanted more; I wanted a dock permit. So, I visited the Corps offices near Branson, Missouri. It turned out that it would take years to process the request, so I put that plan on the back burner. But I told the woman representative from the Corps of Engineers that I was trying to obey the rules, that I did have a slip, but I liked keeping the boat fast at hand and was moving it from one side of my property to the other quite regularly.

“Actually, that’s against the rules,” she said, quite soberly.

“What could happen to me?” I persisted politely.

“We don’t get up that way very often, but if we see your boat moored there without a slip, we could issue a fine,” she explained.

How much?

“How much is it?” asked I.

“It’s $25 every time we write you up, which could be twice a month!” she warned.

“Well, if I open an account on deposit, would you notify me when it runs low?” I quipped.

“We can’t do that,” she responded quite seriously.

Okay, readers, what do you think was going on there? I’ll tell you what I think. A poker game was in progress as we competed for the pot, and she thought the stakes were important and I didn’t. We were playing the same poker hand, but from two entirely different perspectives. I didn’t care at all if I was charged $50 a month, and she was seeing this possibility as a serious matter. This is what often happens when world-class poker players compete for stakes too small to make much difference whether they win or lose. They stop playing their best game, because they’re not motivated and don’t care who takes the pot.

The secret

Some experts tell you never to play games in which the stakes aren’t very important to you. I don’t think that avoiding such games is the best answer. Every week, I play in a bounty tournament online at Doyle’s Room ( There are typically anywhere from three to five bounties, usually world-class players, including Doyle Brunson and Hoyt Corkins, but also sometimes non-poker celebrities. Even though everyone is shooting to knock me out of these $25 buy-in events, I play them as if my life depended on the results. Whoever eliminates me wins $500 — or $5,000 for eliminating two bounties and $25,000 for three. (Note: The prizes were raised to $1,000, $10,000, and $50,000 after this entry was written.)

It’s serious business to those players, and it’s serious to me, too, because I pride myself on trying as hard as I can. Recently, I was the last bounty sitting six weeks in a row and managed to collect some “grape money” along the way. I call it grape money because I like grapes and I go to the nearby Wal-Mart Supercenter and buy them with whatever money I win. If I don’t make the money, no grapes. See? Instant motivation.

A question

Now let me ask you a question. What single thing would you guess has gained me the most praise over the years? It’s not Caro’s Book of Tells or any other book that I’ve written. It’s not a seminar or a TV appearance. It’s not a column or article. It’s not a video. What could it be? Well, it’s an audio cassette tape (no longer sold) that I created over 20 years ago called Positive Poker. It’s 40 minutes of me saying affirmations on one side and giving a lecture on the other. And it’s all about poker’s biggest secret.

Here it is: Play your best game all the time. You’re thinking, everybody knows that! But apparently everybody doesn’t know that, otherwise top players wouldn’t take turns going on tilt or playing extra creatively when straightforward decisions are more profitable. You see, that’s really poker’s most important winning secret, because moderately skilled players who practice playing their best game all the time make more money than world-class players who don’t.

The amazing truth is that poker’s biggest winners aren’t necessarily those with the greatest skills. Among accomplished players, the ones who come closest to playing their best game all the time make the most money. Think about it. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

Visit Mike on   → Twitter   ♠ OR ♠    → FaceBook

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.


22 thoughts on “The biggest secret to poker success”

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  1. Depending on your current slip fee, yout best bet is to moor your boat in the same spot and pay the ticket on the odd chance a ranger finds your boat. You could even hedge that bet by putting a,”Back in 30 minutes,” sign on the bow.

  2. hi mike–my book is in outhouses all over the world. can it be in yours ?? you can preview it at email me your address and it will be in the mail as soon as my mailman sobers up. tony korfman [ personal email address deleted by Poker1, because it might have been intended to be in a private message ].

    1. Funny stuff at your website. I would be honored to add your book to my library. Use the “Contact” link at the bottom of any Poker1 page and Diane McHaffie (my director of operations) will email you to provide shipping instructions. — Mike Caro

  3. Thank you Mike, I really enjoy your insights. For the last decade I have read every poker literature and video, and I now play Omaha professionally and manage to consistently make money. It takes a lot of control not to just chuck it n like the guy who just stacked you with a random hand, but the long term odds will eventually catch up with him. I find that watching educational videos or Ted Talks at the table, or just listening to Songza keeps me from getting bored, irritated and unprofitable. Your well thought out and grounded insights allow me to reanalyze every remote corner of my game, so thank you!!

  4. Yo Mike!

    Thanks for a great read yet again. You should buy a camera and post pics from your miles of private trails.. It would be neat to see some of the creatures you see from out in your neck of the woods.

    I’m walking trails more than playing poker too. I want to get back into the game but can’t until I get my house in order.

    Good luck Mike and I hope you make a final table soon.

    (Oh Mike, do you have an article/advice on playing for a living “meager” at 3/6 or 5/10 LIMIT?) My homes are paid for and wife wants me to get a real job WORKING in a casino. OMG!

  5. As one of your newest fans, I really enjoy your updates via facebook. It seems like a weekly article is just enough to allow time for your poker students to absorb the information and start putting it to use. I too, am awaiting a CD version of Positive Poker. I’ll be first to order when you make it available.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  6. Hey Mike.. I stumbled upon your poker tips page with your affirmation about being lucky. I was in a game and just started to feel that negative sinking feeling as my stack was getting shorter. I just googled up poker affirmations and found it. Ofcourse we cant control what cards are coming but we can control how we react to them and our perception of the whole table/game. I felt immediately calm and very happy once I was affirming the “I am a very lucky poker player” and a few other quotes too. It got to the stage where I felt that I could not loose and was playing very good poker. I was winning many hands and even got a royal flush. I did bust out in the end before the buble but all the way my game was much more fun and relaxed and I actually had a very stark realization of exactly what it takes for someone to take down a big tournament. The focus and positivity they have along with there skills of course is phenomenal. In fact if we all want to do well at anything we cant allow any room for negative feelings. I think most people feel silly saying that they are LUCKY as that kind of make them feel they dont have much skill, and to admit to being lucky is somewhat damaging to there ego. So these same people will be happy to tell everyone they are soooo unlucky bla bla bla as to somehow get some sympathy or respect from the opponents. That just leaves there skillfull plays that will help them. This is quite twisted logic as skill plays a significant part as we know. Being lucky is just the positive outcome that we do need and should be happy to embrace. I notice some players with the nickname lucky usually have a good run. Last nights game was a revelation to me and i now know the thinking behind many successful player… Thanks for the article mike

  7. Hello Mike,

    I am a French player and I have started to play poker very recently in internet games ( Sit and Go , 1 dollar buy in). I have loose many tournaments. I first start to play following the common sense advice given in all books ( try to re-raise with a strong and in order to fight with few players, and improve your statistics ratios to beat them…). Then, I buy your book “Caro’s Most profitable Holdh’em Advice” (French Version), I read it carefully, and I have apply your Tips in my games.
    The most profitable one : avoid a re-raise with a strong hand and with bad players on the table on the left . I change completely my strategy, and i avoid to chase players with a strong hand, and I play more often in late position. The results are incredible and very good ;) I succeed in winning my first Sit and Go tournament with your very simple and strong strategy. I started to analyse the players in order to know where are the tights and loose players , and where are the strong ones. One other strong tip is the betting level. I have stopped to send 5 or 6 BB and I try 2,5 to 3 BB , and its works also well , with less loss when something is wrong.

    Thank you very much
    Strasbourg (France)

    NB : do you make seminar in France ?

  8. It is great information about tournaments and it only confirms my suspicions that profitable strategy is not to chase first place in tournaments( despite that all the “experts” suggest playing for 1rst place).

    1. Hi, Shirley —

      Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      I ended up buying an extra 10-acre parcel adjoining my hermitage. It’s going to be developed soon and members in that association have road rights and access to the dock that will be put there. This means I’ll link up directly to their private road by golf cart and get quickly to my slip.

      I’m happy about it. Meanwhile, I still have a slip 6 miles from here and I’m getting along excellently with the Corps of Engineers.

      That’s more information than you wanted, right?

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  9. Thank you so much Mike.
    I’ve read and I understand your reason for not regularly playing proportional payout tournaments.
    Since I have not read everything you have written I don’t know if you have put these thoughts in one spot before. I am grateful that you took the time to organize your reply to me.

    1. Hi, Rich —

      Actually, what I teach about poker tournaments and the reason typical proportional-payoff events bother me is something I’ve written about many times.

      The following entries at Poker1 all say pretty much the same thing in different ways:

      I found these in the Poker1 library (left sidebar) — POKER / Tournaments.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  10. Mike: Thanks for the article. During your productive time in the Ozarks could you put the cassett out again in CD form. One of my affirmations now will be “Is this an A Game decision?” Stan J’s second reply brings up a question. Are the goals exclusive? That is if your goal is to win will your decisions be different from “just” making the money. Also I might take a slightly “riskier” position to make the final table than to just make it half way through a tourney.
    Love the Corps of Engineers. They are the quickly forgotten heroes if the levy holds. They are the long remembered goats if the levy fails.

    1. Hi, Rich —

      You asked whether your decisions will be different if you’re trying to win a poker tournament, rather than just making it into the money.

      If your goal is to win the tournament, meaning take first place, then your decisions will be dramatically different. You’ll pretty much play your very best everyday poker, making risky bets that earn a little extra money when averaged over time.

      The only major modifications you’ll make will be in accordance with how your opponents are playing the tournament. If they’re locked down tight, trying not to bubble (be eliminated just before the money), you’ll bluff often. You’ll also modify your everyday tactics in accordance with the size of their stacks and yours, but only because of the way that might influence their play, not how it affects your chances of making the money.

      When playing to win, you might also occasionally forgo a big risky bet with an advantage if you think it’s very likely that your opponents are so weak that you’ll get better opportunities.

      Other than that, you’ll take every risk and use every finesse you would in a live poker game. Playing as if you’re in a ring game striving to make money is precisely the correct win-the-tournament strategy, with only a few exceptions.

      Doing it this way, you’ll win more first-place bracelets and trophies. But if your want to win the most money playing typical proportional-payout poker tournaments, then you won’t play the way you would to make the most money in a regular game.

      Instead, you’ll resist making many of your very best plays that make long-term profit at high risk. You’ll try to move up the money ladder, but you won’t target first place.

      Sometimes, you’ll stumble into first place, but you won’t succeed at that nearly as often as you would have by playing your best everyday game. You’ll make more money overall, but you won’t win first place as often.

      Put it all together and you can see why I seldom play poker tournaments. What’s the point, if the object isn’t to win? Why play if winning the trophy and making money are out of sync? Of course, I’ve proposed solutions, but they haven’t been implemented yet, despite a few key people promising to do so.

      When these changes are implemented, I’ll play regularly, because I’ll be able to try to win a lot of tournaments and still make money at the same time. Until then, I’m a hermit in the Ozarks.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  11. Tks for your reply. I thought that was it. That is my number one goal also in tournaments. #2 make the money. # 3 final table. #4 win.

  12. Txs for the reminder Mike, read it from u before… but I need reminding LOL… hope yr boat is safely moored, you might want to put some camo netting over it in case they try a chopper surveillance…

    1. Hi, Makwa —

      Oddly enough, choppers do fly over here occasionally.

      Thanks for posting your first comment at Poker1.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  13. re@doyles bounty tournament: Once long long ago I was keeping an eye on you playing this tournament when you asked the tournament director if you all had gotten to the half way point yet. And when she said yes. You got kind of upset and told her that she was suppose to tell you. I have been wondering all this time, WHY? Do you remember?

    1. Hi, Stan —

      You’re talking about my friend, Trish, who was the Doyle’s Room host/administrator for the bounty tournaments.

      We were just being playful, because I always try to make the halfway point.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. OK..So, Where’s Trish?? This Looks Like an Oldie But Goodie…Or I Would say (Privately, What’s Up???

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