Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2006) in Poker Player newspaper.
In the early nineteen-eighties, I defined a concept that would become central to my teachings about poker and the world beyond. It explains the enigma of relationships. It defines a world of comparative talents that isn’t always easily listed in ascending order. Understanding it will make your life less confusing.
Here is a lecture I delivered about a decade ago on the subject…
Caro’s Conception: The lecture
It is a concept that takes us far, far beyond just the basic strategies of winning at poker. “Caro’s Conception” makes us aware that there is a level of poker prowess that is very real, yet nearly not definable.
This doesn’t just happen at poker, but in real life, too. But, I’m getting ahead of the story. First, I’ve got to tell you what the Conception – or concept – is based upon.
It’s based upon a puzzling truth, long known to those who ponder such things – the truth that strengths are not always ordered by hierarchy. Sometimes strengths can overlap and entities can’t beat opponents that those they conquer could beat.
Have you ever played the rock-paper-scissors game? It’s a guessing game where you make up and down motions with your hand three times in unison with an opponent. At the end of the third time, without stalling or looking to see what your opponent is doing, you show a tight fist – indicating a rock – or a flat, open hand – indicating paper – or two fingers – indicating scissors.
Rock, paper, or scissors. Those are your choices. Fine. But who wins? Well, if both of you show the same type of object — a rock, paper, or scissors — obviously it’s a tie and nobody wins. But if the two objects indicated by your hands are different, somebody wins. But who?
What beats a rock?
Well, it goes like this. A rock loses to paper, because paper covers it. So, paper is better than rock. And, scissors beats paper, because scissors cut paper. So, at the low end, you have rock, which gets covered by paper, which then gets cut by scissors, making scissors the overall champ in the hierarchy of this game, it seems.
But no! It doesn’t work that way. Scissors get smashed by rock. So, if I let you choose which you wanted – rock, paper, or scissors – no matter what you chose, I could always beat you. OK, but that’s a contrived game.
Does this strangeness, where there is no strongest choice, happen outside this made-up game? Yes! When I first wrote about this in Gambling Times magazine in the early 1980s, I used examples with cards. Since then, I and others have spent hours coming up with compelling poker examples of this phenomenon.
My favorite example comes from hold ’em. Visualize these three hands. A pair of fours – clubs and diamonds. The jack and 10 of hearts. And an ace of clubs and the king of spades.
Choice #1: 4♣ 4♦ | Choice #2: J♥ 10♥ | Choice #3: A♣ K♠
Suppose I were to put those three poker hands on the table – a pair of fours, jack-10 suited, and ace-king offsuit – and gave you your choice of hand. Then I would pick a hand from the remaining two to challenge you. Which would you choose first?
Well, it doesn’t matter which you’d choose first, because you couldn’t win. There is no best hand! You see, jack-10 of hearts wins about 53 percent of the time against the two fours. So, let’s match that winner, J-10 of hearts, against the ace-king unsuited. Now ace-king wins almost 59 percent of the time. So, we’ve got two fours on the low end. They can’t even beat the J-10 suited. And, in turn, J-10 suited gets annihilated by ace-king. So, it looks like two fours is the worst hand in the group and ace-king is the best. But, just for fun, let’s put the lowly two fours against the champion – ace-king. This should be no contest.
You’re right, it’s no contest. The two fours win 54 percent of the time. Huh? I thought the two fours couldn’t even beat J-10 suited and J-10 suited was trounced by ace-king, so how come ace-king loses to the weak two fours.
It’s because strengths can overlap in poker and in life. Certain hands, certain people, certain teams, certain organizations, certain strategies can be ideally suited to beat others. And still, they can fail time and time again to beat whatever could be beaten easily by those they conquered.
But “Caro’s Conception” isn’t about selected cards or rock-paper-scissors. I’m sure people made puzzles out of similar overlaps in strength centuries ago.
A step farther
“Caro’s Conception” takes this a step farther and suggests that these overlaps in strength exist all around us. It will help you succeed in poker or in life if you can identify when this puzzling force of nature is happening.
In poker, I believe that different playing styles can be ideally geared to destroy certain types of opponents. For instance, let’s take three different players. Arnold is ultra-tight and unobservant. Betty is moderately tight and easy to manipulate. And Craig is looser and playful.
Other poker skills being similar, Arnold could lose forever to Betty. Why? Although Betty is too tight, she’s not as tight as Arnold and gains ground by stealing some pots. She’s easy to manipulate, but Arnold – who is unobservant — doesn’t take advantage of manipulating Betty. Therefore, Betty’s weakness – being manipulable — doesn’t harm her, because it isn’t exploited.
So, let’s put the winning player, Betty, who is moderately tight, and easy to manipulate, against Craig — our looser and playful foe. Well, here it’s no contest. Craig looses a little ground to the moderately tight opponent by playing too many hands. But Betty is easily manipulable, so she falls victim to Craig’s carefully crafted, playful image. This gives Craig the advantage overall. So, now we have a champion, right? It’s Craig.
But, wait! Let’s match him up against that ultra-tight and unobservant opponent named Arnold. Strangely, Arnold now dethrones Craig. Arnold is too tight and Craig is too loose. This part of their game is a push. But Arnold isn’t falling for Craig’s playful image. And Craig wastes money time and time again trying to be manipulative.
Here’s the key. You should look for similar overlaps in strength whenever you play poker. Adjust your game specifically for the opponents you’re facing right now. You’ll be much more successful if you do that than if you use a one-size-fits-all strategy. And you’ll stop wondering why Morris loses day in and day out, but usually takes your money. Stop feeling singled out and just change your tactics.
But the really big truth behind “Caro’s Conception” is that these overlaps are happening all the time in real life. It’s why Adam is domineered by Bob and Bob is, in turn, in the control of Carla, But Carla, who would seem to be at the top of the leadership ladder, is putty in the hands of lowly Adam.
Start looking around and you’ll see this happening everywhere. You’ll also understand why one person, whom you’d like to be pals with, gets along with all your other friends, but not with you. Just like in poker, the trick is to modify your behavior to interact more successfully with that individual. But you can only do that if you contrast your traits with the other persons’ to pinpoint the collisions. Then it’s easy to steer around the obstacles.
Remember “Caro’s Conception.” It states: “In life, strength is sometimes circular. Therefore, the conqueror can be an underdog to an entity too weak even to defeat what has been already conquered.”
In poker and in life, there are game plans that are ideally suited for certain opponents that fail against lesser ones. Once you realize this and adapt, you’re taking your game to the next level.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC