The cruelest deception in poker

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2009) in Bluff magazine.

In poker, few things are more deceptive than the concept of deception itself. It’s easy to confuse deception with secrecy. Poker cannot be played without secrecy. It’s a primal force. If your hand weren’t your secret, then there would be no doubt about what you were betting, and intelligent opponents could always make the right decision.

Of course, except on the final round of betting after all cards were known, weaker players might still choose to wager wrongly and to call with the worst of it, hoping to get lucky. But the soul of poker would be missing. No secrets, no soul.

Not the same

Fine. But deception isn’t the same as secret. When you use deception at poker, you’re usually choosing an unusual tactic in an attempt to cause opponents to make bad assumptions and play poorly.

You check and then raise. That’s deception, because you momentarily pretended to be weak in order to trick an opponent into betting. You bluff. That’s deception, because you’re misrepresenting your hand, hoping opponents will fear that it’s stronger than it actually is. Sometime you just call with very strong hands, hoping opponents will do your betting for you. That’s deception. You raise with a flush draw after seeing the flop, hoping to discourage a bet if you miss, thus getting a free chance on the river. That’s deception. You occasionally play weak hands, hoping opponents will notice and think you’re loose. That’s deception.

Today’s lesson

Okay, sophisticated players use deception quite often. So what? Doesn’t everyone know that? Probably. But today’s lesson is very important, and I’ll start if off by saying this: In poker deception isn’t usually a direct means of generating profit. Think of deception as often being an expense, like advertising when you’re trying to build your business. Deception is often a necessary nuisance.

Yes, you can check into overly aggressive opponents and they’ll often bet. That’s the direct-profit side of deception. But when you check just to vary your play so observant opponents won’t find you too predictable, that’s the expense side.

I’m about to share today’s really big secret. Before I do, you need to understand that, in most cases, you’ll make the biggest profit by choosing the obvious straightforward play. That’s why it is the recommended play.

Good reason

Whenever you stray from that first choice, you’d better have a good reason. And that reason must not be simply to deceive. Deception has no value by itself; it must lead to profit. Now here’s the secret: In poker your entire quest should be to play straightforward as much as possible. That’s where the money is — in making the decisions that are the most obvious, assuming you fully understand the situation.

Checking into an opponent who always tries to bluff is a form of deception, but it’s the best straightforward choice. Bluffing into someone who doesn’t call enough is a form of deception, but it too is the best straightforward choice. However, the majority of deceptive tactics require sacrifice, because they aren’t the best straightforward choices. You’re hoping to change an opponent’s mindset and win extra money in the future.

Did you know that just making the most obvious choice can be deceptive? This happens when you’ve conditioned opponents to think you’re tricky. They’re confused and bewildered and are afraid of deception. When this happens, playing a hand in the clearest way becomes your most profitable option. You deceive opponents by doing the obvious.


I used to specialize in draw poker. When you had three of a kind before the draw, it was standard practice to draw one card, suggesting to opponents that you were either trying to make a straight or a flush or that you held two pair. You drew one for deception. The cruelest trick in draw poker was to request two cards when you were dealt three of a kind and then bet.

Opponents were put off guard, calling at an astonishing rate, hoping you had just one pair with an ace kicker. By drawing two, you were doing what was obviously the best thing and making the most money without having to sacrifice by acting deceptively. Oddly, you were being deceptive and acting routinely at the same time. In any form of poker, you should always strive for that.


My advice? Go ahead and use deception if you’re sure you’ll appear looser and that opponents will reward you with bonus calls in the future. Go ahead and use deception by checking strong hands if you think you’ll earn extra money against a particular player by letting him bet before your raise. And go ahead and use deception by doing all sorts of weird stuff, by advertising, by lying — whatever it takes to make more money.

But don’t — that’s don’t with an apostrophe, in case you didn’t hear me right — don’t use deception unless the situation screams for it. Not because it’s been a long time since you did it. Not because you feel inspired. Not because you want to gloat. Not because it’s fun. Never use deception without a clearly profitable motive.

Apt to remember

One big problem is that players are more apt to remember their deceptive plays when they succeed. In fact, it’s hard to measure the value of deception. You’re just guessing. Take the act of bluffing, for example. Bluffing is always deceptive, but it’s difficult to know how well or how poorly you’ve fared.

If you bet a weak hand and your opponent folds, you’ll probably give yourself credit for a successful bluff. But what if your hand would have won the showdown had you checked? If you keep track of the results of your bluffs in that way, you’ll get a distorted notion of the true value. The same is true with any form of deception at poker. While it’s hard to deceive your opponents profitably, it’s easy to deceive yourself about the results.

Never make it your mission to be deceptive. Money materializes while finding inexpensive ways to make deception unnecessary. — MC

Published by

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.


7 thoughts on “The cruelest deception in poker”

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  1. When I drive west on I-70, along the way I see the sign “Lake of the Ozarks” and Mike Caro comes to mind, to the point, a few years ago I FB messaged my FB friend and told him so. To my surprise, he messaged me back and wished me best travels, especially to his “old stomping grounds, Denver.” Sometimes, it is ok to just say “hay:” it means, I was busy, but took the time and thought of you. Much like the long lost art of sending a postcard. Remember getting one as a kid? I do. Driving to some circuit event I have sent many to my grandsons; they are learning and not knowing it by getting a postcard. I keep addresses of friends and family, with postcard stamps, and mail one just to say “hay.” Once, I asked my FB friends, the same ones that publicly post “check ins,” food, partying pictures, embarrassing pictures, stories of wild youth, on their fb timelines: I asked them “if you want a postcard this summer, message me a mailing address.” Only 6 did. 6!! I still think they think I want something from them. No, it’s just nice to know, and yes I know, someone is thinking of them. It’s the little things…..

  2. 1 so delete the “offensive post” yes its a non sequiter, but meant to attract attention 2 reply to ron, was terse, I knew you had not played Tournaments, but his reply was also not a debatable format -3 you think this forum seeks discourse? 4 who said I was mad? I am mad that wants to run Adobe Flash and crash my system. 5 topic is cruelest deception – I posit that is not true, cruelty is beguiled into thinking playing correctly is a path to winning. the lifetime is not long enough.

  3. none of this advice is USEFUL NADA! getting AA rivered by 99 , by 87 offsuit, etc and you lose big tournament is the PROBLEM, no wonder he cant sell his shack in the ozarks

    1. This type of comment is wholly inappropriate at Poker1 when replying to others (and that includes me). I’ve left it here as an example. The rule is that you should think of Poker1 as a place for polite discussion — a conversation among friends in your living room. Check some of the thousands of other comments here for guidance.

      You may, of course, use rational words to challenge anything I write. You’ll probably be wrong, because I take pride in the accuracy of my teaching and research. But you’re welcome to try, and you’ll be treated with respect.

      In this case, your belligerent comment doesn’t address anything presented in the entry above. What does getting aces beaten by nines or 8-7 offsuit have to do with the concept presented? I know it can be frustrating when that happens, but why are you mad at me?

      And your comment — “no wonder he cant sell his shack in the ozarks” (Take THAT, Mike Caro!) — will confuse people. That announcement appears randomly along with other Poker1 messages, so most won’t see it. For those who didn’t, I’ve retreated to a lake on 41 acres in the Ozarks to do poker research in solitude. The “shack” is a 3,000 square foot house, a 1,200 square foot cabin, and a 2,400 square foot extra building with five miles of golf cart paths and almost a quarter miles of lakefront. I’ve moved and am offering it for sale. Now that I’ve explained that, how does the “can’t sell” remark advance your argument?

      I notice you have a habit of trying to irritate people on the internet. But Poker1 isn’t the place to do that.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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