When I was a kid, I was able to demolish local poker games in Denver just by entering pots with only my very best starting hands. We call that playing “tight.” It amazed me that opponents had so little patience. They were willing to sacrifice their chips to me night after night without me having to know much about poker to win. I just took advantage of their tendency to bet money on bad hands.
Of course, later I helped pioneer aggressive poker strategies that proved that the sit-and-wait era of winning was finally over. But it’s important to realize that playing tight often still wins by itself. It doesn’t win as much as my power poker tactics (a term I coined in 1978 for Doyle Brunson to use with his poker bible Super/System — A Course in Power Poker). But it wins marginally.
That’s why tight play should be the foundation of every poker player’s training. You need to have a solid, uncomplicated strategy to fall back on. And you need to be willing to return to it from time to time.
I teach that this is like having a buoy in the middle of the ocean. You can grab onto it for survival, while waiting to be rescued. You can also swim away from it to explore or for exercise. But you must never forget where it is.
Most poker players lose because they swim away from their buoys and can’t remember where to find them. Maybe they never had one to begin with, merely splashing around in an empty ocean without any sense of direction. Whatever. You need a buoy. And that buoy is simply a tight, cautious strategy that you can cling to when necessary. It turns out that you can beat most poker games against amateurs, simply by using that strategy — just by returning to your buoy. You won’t add finesse and make maximum profit, but you’ll survive. And you’ll win a little. It’s the simplest profit available.
Add more hands
So, when can you add more hands? When can you swim away from your buoy tied tightly to the ocean floor?
Actually, you can do it most of the time. You will take more risk by adding hands to your playlist, but those additional risky hands will increase your profit, when added together over time.
Playing extremely tight is the safest strategy in most poker games against weak opponents who enter too many pots. Period. Fact. Don’t argue. But, wait! Being safe isn’t why you play poker, assuming your objective is to win. Taking risk is why you play poker. You win by inviting risk when you have an advantage.
That great truth is why it’s almost always wrong to raise in order to “protect a hand.” You don’t want to protect hands. You want to put hands at risk when the odds are in your favor. That’s important, so I’ll repeat it. Don’t try to protect hands; put your hands enthusiastically at risk. That’s the key to winning.
And that’s why you can add hands to your safe, tight strategy. If your opponents are playing many more hands than they reasonably should, that means they’re averaging weaker hands. Sure, they’ll still have their share of powerful hands, but the average strength is less, because it’s diluted by unprofitable cards. When their average target hand is weak, you can play hands you wouldn’t play against skillful opponents and still win. That’s because, even though you’re relaxing your standards, your hands will remain stronger than theirs, on average. So, you have more hands that you can play with an advantage.
But you should always feel secure knowing that you can return to your basic tight strategy at any moment. When? Well, if you’re conspicuously losing, that’s a good time.
When the cards haven’t been friendly, opponents think you’re vulnerable and are inspired. They play better against you, because they have the illusion that you’re on a bad streak of cards and are vulnerable. Of course, you and I know that what’s already happened has no influence on the next deal. You still have the same chance of getting good cards as you always did. But your opponents don’t see it that way.
They’re motivated to play better and don’t even know why. They’ll feel confident in making extra bets with small advantages against you. And when you’re the target and not the one in control, your normal daring bets with small advantages backfire. You’re no longer making tiny profit by taking extra risk. You’re losing money!
It’s time to remember to return to the basic strategy you know will win. Play tight. Eventually, good cards and better circumstances will come. Then you can dance around joyously and play superior poker again. Then you can take control of the table.
Meanwhile, the solution is simple. Play tight. The profit is simple. Play tight. The safest way to win is always available. Play tight.
Mike Caro is widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. A renowned player and founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy, he is known as “the Mad Genius of Poker,” because of his lively delivery of concepts and latest research. You can visit him at www. poker1.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.