Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2006) in Poker Player newspaper.
Sure, I’m the one who creates solid guidelines governing which poker hands you can play profitably. That’s me. But, even though I stress these standards that tell you which hands to call with, raise with, and fold with in which positions under which circumstances, I don’t usually stick to them myself.
I expand these standards and define more hands as playable. How come?
Well, today I’m going to tell you why that’s so. If you’re still an average player or a beginner, I want you seldom to stray from a predetermined, conservative set of standards. But you still need to understand what I’m about to say for the future. And if you’re already a sophisticated poker player, please pay particular attention.
This is the transcript of one of my lectures…
Winning by playing hands you “shouldn’t”
One thing I teach beginning players is to stick to a rigid set of standards. Don’t vary from them. These beginning standards are necessarily tight, because I don’t want students who are unfamiliar with the subtleties of poker to encounter difficult situations that may cost them money.
Fine. But as you progress as a player, as you begin to grasp the subtleties, something almost the opposite happens. Instead of staying away from danger by avoiding hands that require more finesse, you play these hands and the beginning players, inexperienced players, and poor players all lose money to you on the very hands that they themselves cannot profitably play. You play and win with the same hands they lose with.
So one of the key secrets to mastering poker isn’t to just play those same basic hands for more profit, it’s to find more hands that you can play profitably. The truth is, you can play more hands profitably when you are able to outplay opponents on later betting rounds. Once you develop a good understanding of later-round play, you can play hands that you used to think were unprofitable – and you used to be right.
What if you can’t outplay opponents on the betting sequences after you enter the pot – if you don’t know when to bet, when not to bet, when to call, and when to raise with more certainty than your opponents? Then you must stick to a rigid and conservative set of starting hands to have any hope of winning. That’s the key. That’s why I teach beginners to only play premium hands.
If they only enter pots with these premium hands, then they’ll average a profit on all the hands they play, even if their understanding of when to bet, call, raise, and fold on later rounds is inferior. Those select hands are just too powerful to lose money by playing. But that doesn’t guarantee them that they’ll win overall.
You see, every hand you don’t play costs money. That’s obvious, because you’re anteing or making blind bets and losing that money if you never play a hand. So, you have to find enough hands to play to overcome the cost of the antes or blinds. Most beginners can’t do that, even if they stick to just their most powerful hands, because there aren’t enough of them, and because they aren’t getting the same value from these rare strong hands that a skilled professional would.
Also, some beginners can’t even make money with hands that are only semi-strong, but not premium. That’s because, even average opponents outplay them.
So, beginners – if they try as hard as they can – should only play premium starting hands or those where they got into the pot cheaply or for free and found themselves with excellent chances to make straights or flushes – or managed to make strong pairs or better. They should fold on early betting rounds when their hands would otherwise figure to be about break-even or slightly profitable, because they’ll be outplayed and these hands will lose money under their control.
So, you can see how very dismal poker can be for beginners. They can’t play many hands, and because they can’t hold their own against most opponents, they must forego the opportunities to make profit with hands of secondary strength. It’s a mess. They don’t even make as much money as they should when they do play premium hands.
Average and world-class players
What about average players. Well, they can play more hands, because they won’t get beat up as badly on later betting rounds.
And what about truly world-class players? Ah, now listen closely. Truly world-class players can enter pots with hands that are theoretically losers. In other words, if I simulate poker on a computer and give everyone the same degree of skill, there will be hands that are clearly not playable.
But in non-raked games, meaning home games or games where the casino charges rent by the hour or half hour, a really strong player can enter pots with some of these substandard hands. You won’t usually be able to do this in rake games, because the cost of the rake tends to swallow up the advantages gained from later round strategy.
But you can play some of these otherwise substandard hands in non-rake games. The theoretical loss in a medium limit game for playing one of those weak hands might be $2.
But, wait! If the player can out maneuver his opponents on subsequent betting rounds while they make mistakes, there may be $4 worth of value in pursuing the later betting rounds. That means a hand that would lose $2 if everyone played equally or, similarly, when played by an average player can win $2 under control of a world-class player. And a hand that might lose $6 when played by a weak or beginning player, can win $2 through expert play. Those dollar amounts are just used to convey a point and aren’t meant to be precise.
So, what does this mean? It means that a beginning poker player can’t play a specific hand because it loses $6. An average player can’t play that hand because it loses $2. However, a world-class player should play that same hand, because it wins $2.
Am I saying that strong players can play more pots? Absolutely! And you’ve always heard that strong players play tighter than weak players, right? Well, OK, now don’t get confused. Strong players do usually play tighter than weak players – as far as starting hand selection goes. But that’s only because many weak players enter pots that they have no business playing. They play hands that even the world-class players couldn’t make profit from by using correct strategy on the later rounds.
So, yes, world-class players do tend to play fewer hands than weak opponents. But if the weak opponents were trying to win, then they’d have to play much tighter than the world-class opponents, because they wouldn’t know what to do on later betting rounds.
The simple fact is, the best players can enter pots with hands that would be theoretically unprofitable in games where everyone has their same skill. The extra skill allows them to play more hands. So, you shouldn’t criticize them for playing hands you think are losing, because in their control, these hands might win.
The better you are, the more hands you can play profitably. I know that runs contrary to the notion that the best players have the most discipline and play the tightest, but it’s the truth and you need to know it.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC