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Playing poker, there are two ways to win the pot: One is to hold the best hand at the showdown; and two, be highly skilled at deception.

But if you play in a casino, relying only on catching the best hand, you are bound to be a loser in the long run. That’s because the cards are randomly dealt out and in the long run everyone has an equal opportunity. On that basis, with nine players at the table, you can expect to be dealt the best hand 1 out of 9 hands on the average.

But the casino rake and drop for the Bad Beat Jackpot, plus your tip to the dealer, will cost you about $25 per hour (the cost-to-play). That will make the difference, in the long run, between essentially breaking even (perhaps winning a bit if you are more skilled than your opponents) or losing.

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Of course, you can get lucky and win more often — in the short term. You might even go on a roll, winning several hands in a row. But long-term, luck evens out for everyone. And it works both ways. I have experienced an occasion when I was rivered three times in a row. That’s got to be the ultimate in bad luck.

While playing your hands skillfully is very important, deception is the only way to overcome the cost-to-play and come out ahead. There are two forms of deception:

1. Bluff out your opponents

2. Build the size of the pot when you have a monster hand, most likely the winner, or if you hold 12 or more outs.

We are all familiar with the concept of bluffing — betting or raising to force out your opponents. If they all muck their cards, you win by default.

To be successful at bluffing, there are some rules and practices you should follow:

• Some players are “calling-stations” — prone to stay in the hand to the end once they invest in the pot preflop. Don’t try to bluff them out.

• Use tactics such as the Esther Bluff (see my book, The Art of Bluffing) to reinforce your bluff by convincing your opponent that you have a better hand than he.

• In a late position, when a “scare card” falls on the board, and everyone has checked before you, bet out while displaying lots of confidence (the Esther Bluff tactic).

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• Do not give a tell when bluffing. On the other hand, always seek such tells against your opponents.

Some examples: Covering your mouth with your hand; leaning back in your chair; stroking your neck; making a noticeable departure in your normal behavior, such as speaking more than usual.

Do not speak while the hand is in play; otherwise the tone of your voice could give information to your opponent.  Alternatively, you might use these as “reverse tells” when holding a monster hand and want your opponents to call your bet/raise.

• Saving money — With a marginal hand after the flop, open-betting or raising can earn you a free card on the next round of betting when the bets will be larger (twice as much in limit hold’em).

• Bluffing frequency — Don’t bluff too often. Bluffing more than one out of four hands can result in making your opponents suspicious, and more likely to call your subsequent bluffs.

• Never show your hole cards when bluffing unless forced to.

In Part II, we will discuss semi-bluffing, stealing the pot, and how to use deception to build the size of the pot you expect to win.

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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