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Recognizing hold ’em hands quicker

By Mike Caro
For more than a year, I’ve been giving hourly poker lessons by Skype. My students come with a wide variety of skills, from absolute beginners to established professionals.
So, naturally, I tailor the lessons to their needs. But, here’s something strange. I was puzzled that so many beginning hold ’em players had trouble identifying what hands were possible after seeing the board. It turned out that most weren’t able to see all of the basic threats that were possible.
As we went through play-by-play analysis, using random hands generated by Advanced Poker Training, I would stop them in the middle of their decisions and ask, “What hands could your opponent have?” And “What’s the very best one?” Then “Next best?” And so on. Their mistakes were far greater than I’d expected.
Then there was this shocking discovery: Experienced players couldn’t do it perfectly, either! Previously in teaching more-advanced students, I’d assumed that over the years they had acquired the ability to see all possible hold ’em hands quickly. But, although they were much better at this than students with average skills, they couldn’t nail the exercise. They skipped possible opposing hands again and again, failing to list them.
This failure on the part of experienced hold ’em players didn’t just astound me, it astounded them, too. They had no idea that an important part of their game was substandard. I’m guessing what happens is that earlier in their poker careers they were able to almost instantly recognize the possible hands that could threaten them. Not only did they know which cards could beat them, they knew how likely it was that opponents held those winners. But as years went by, they got lazy. They stopped concentrating as much on specific hands and began playing routinely, using their past experience. So, they quit itemizing which hands were possible at all stages of the action. And their skills deteriorated. And they didn’t know it.
Part 1: Name the terrain
So, I developed a simple — almost silly — method to help beginning, average, and advanced students know for certain that they aren’t overlooking hold ’em hands. The hope is to eliminate those rare times when players don’t immediately see the threat of a full house, flush, or straight.
I call this the Caro Terrain method. It goes like this…
After seeing the flop (first three board cards at once), the turn (fourth board card), and the river (fifth and final board card), ask yourself these three questions — no matter how obvious the situation seems to you: (1) Is a full house possible? (2) Is a flush possible? (3) Is a straight possible?
If none of those three things is possible, you’re in a desert. If one of them is possible, it’s a prairie. Two, forest. All three, jungle. Desert, prairie, forest, jungle. The “vegetation” increases with each terrain, just as the threat from opposing hands increases.
Things to know:
  • You can never have a jungle on the flop, because only two, one, or none of the three tested conditions can be true. Beyond the flop, a jungle is possible.
  • Anytime there’s a pair on the board, a full house is possible (and so is four of a kind, unless your cards prevent it).
  • Anytime there are three cards of the same suit on the board, a flush is possible (and a straight flush might be).
  • Anytime time there are three cards of different ranks in one of the 10 straight ranges (A-10, K-9, Q-8, J-7, 10-6, 9-5, 8-4, 7-3, 6-2, 5-A), a straight is possible. This one takes a bit more practice to always see immediately.
  • Although players frequently describe dry boards, in which nothing is possible, they don’t tend to exist very often in nature. So, don’t expect many deserts at the river.
I know that doing this exercise seems beneath you, if you’re a serious player. But you’ll benefit if you do, just as beginning players will. You might prevent yourself from overlooking a threat that escaped your thoughts momentarily. Think terrain. Think desert, prairie, forest, jungle.
Of course, itemizing the exact hands possible within each category is also a necessary skill. But, for now, stick to the method.
Part 2. See five cards
The second modification I’ve made to my teaching is to look at five cards. Both beginners and experienced hold ’em players seem to go through complex mental gymnastics, trying to piece together the ingredients of their hands. They relate their cards to what’s on the board. That sometimes means seeing fragments instead of whole hands.
So, as an exercise, beginning with the flop, practice always seeing your best five cards in front of your face. It’s as if you’re holding a hand in draw poker. You’ll be surprised at how efficiently this quick method is in keeping you from ever overlooking a hand.
And finally
So, this time we haven’t discussed advanced strategy, psychology, or statistics. We’ve gone basic. I know that these two methods will seem too obvious and simplistic to some. You think you’ve already got that part of your game under control, right? Well, don’t be too sure that you’re not overlooking stuff. You’d be amazed how often skillful poker players misread threats — or rarely even their own hands. But, even if you see everything, these elementary tools should help you see them faster. — MC


Editor’s note: Mike Caro (known as the “Mad Genius of Poker”) is widely considered to be today’s foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. Over the past three decades, he has contributed hundreds of articles to Poker Player newspaper. This one is special, because he is dedicating it to Stan Sludikoff, the great pioneer gambling who died this year. And by special arrangement, it won’t appear on his own site,, for two weeks after being published here first — as a Poker Player exclusive.

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