We best succeed in life – and at poker – when we have well-defined goals – both short-term (immediate) and long-term. Our immediate goal at each decision point is important.
Recently, as I was re-reading Mike Caro’s classic book, “Caro’s Fundamental Secrets of WINNING POKER” (Cardoza Publishing; www.cardozapub.com), I was troubled by his “General Winning Advice” that describes his “Magic Best-Profit Tip” on how best to play your strongest hands on early betting rounds: “If a raise looks natural, raise. If a call looks natural, call. Do what opponents expect.” Quite frankly, I don’t know what “looks natural,” and can only guess what my opponents expect; so this is one advice from Caro I do not use.
Mind you, I have the highest regard for Mike Caro (“The mad genius of poker”). I have read his books, and attended many of his poker seminars. All were excellent. I usually heed his words of wisdom – his advice – but not this.
In fact, over the years I have developed my own “Magic Best-Profit Tip: Play your hand based on your immediate goal.
That’s my advice; and, it applies to all betting rounds.
You have been dealt pocket Aces in a low/middle limit hold’em game. If you don’t carelessly reveal your holecards, your opponents have no idea as to the strength of your hand. (You can expect pocket Aces only one out of 221 hands dealt to you.)
In this case, my immediate goal would be to play against two or three opponents, never more than four. The reason is clear and simple: If four or more opponents stay to see the flop, according to basic poker math, your pocket Aces – beautiful to behold – becomes an underdog. In that case, most of the time your A-A will lose. So, your immediate goal at that moment should be to reduce the size of the playing field, preferably down to two or three opponents.
The tools at your command are betting and/or raising. If you are in a late position, and only one opponent has called to see the flop, it is best to just limp along, hoping one or two others will stay to see the flop. If you are in a middle position and two or three players have already called, you should raise to persuade others to fold, in order to best realize your immediate goal. It would be wise to rely on the Esther Bluff tactic to improve the probability of achieving that goal.
On the flop, you have connected with a beautiful set – say, three Queens. The board is not threatening in any way; you are almost certain you’re a strong favorite to win that pot. Now, your immediate goal is to build the pot as big as possible. Were you to raise (which may well be your first inclination), undoubtedly some opponents would fold; that’s not to your advantage here. There would be fewer chips in the pot for you to win.
The best way to play this hand is to just call along – do not raise. Keep the others in the pot to help build it for you.
Yet another example to illustrate how best to use your immediate goal as the hand is being played out:
With J-10 offsuit in the hole, the flop brings J-10-K rainbow. You have caught two pair, but not top pair. Your hand may be the best at that point, but it is still quite vulnerable. For instance, an opponent with a small pair could catch a set on the turn or river. Another has three-to-a-flush; he could catch runner-runner of his suit to slaughter your two-pair. In that case, your immediate goal should be to protect your vulnerable hand. The only way is to bet out; or, if there is a bet before you, raise to reduce the size of the playing field.
To make key decisions as the hand progresses, always consider your immediate goal – in addition to your long-term goal to win the pot.