Here’s something that you should know for certain: Poker is about cost. In fact, cost is the foundation of every poker decision. So, I’ll talk about that in today’s self interview. I want you to think about poker in a new and profitable way.
Question 1: You’ve previously explained, at various times, that poker is about strategy or about discipline or about finding weak games or even about understanding opponents. So now you’re telling us that poker is about cost. Which is it?
Please don’t be confrontational. I’ve said all those things about poker. That’s true. It depends on what you’re focusing on at the time. It’s loose and undisciplined communication, I guess. But that’s how I am sometimes. I might describe a flower as being about beauty. Or about love. Or about obscuring a less-pleasant reality. Each of those is true. Each fits one point of focus.
So, although picking one important facet about something and saying “it’s about this” is technically misleading, it’s also potentially correct. But saying that poker is about cost isn’t merely potentially correct; it is correct to the very core of the universe.
Question 2: Fine, if you say so. Now would you tell us why poker is about cost?
It’s because there’s no decision you make in poker that isn’t based on cost. When your opponent makes a bet, you have to decide whether to call or possibly to raise. And you decide that by weighing your chance of winning against the cost of pursuing. In doing so, you consider the size of the pot and the potential action that will follow.
When it’s your turn to act first, you need to decide whether betting is profitable— whether it’s worth the cost.
All that is obvious, but there’s much more. And that “much more” is why I say that every poker decision is about cost—that whether to play poker is about cost. And that’s what I want to teach you to do, to start thinking of everything you do in poker in terms of cost, whether it’s an obvious matter of estimating the value of a bet or call or something much less obvious.
Question 3: Okay, so what’s the “much more” you’re speaking about? What things have a cost that isn’t obvious?
First you need to understand that we’re dealing with value that can be both positive or negative—and very rarely exactly neutral. You can toss out the neutral values, though, because in practice almost no decision in poker is exactly even money. There are, of course, many borderline decisions that are close to even-money. And actually that includes a huge portion of your decisions. Often you can force a seemingly slightly negative decision to be profitable by employing psychology and enticing an opponent to respond poorly.
Fine. But just about every decision has a positive or negative value, once all factors are considered. That’s cost. Every decision has cost.
And now let me answer your question about what the “much more” is, beyond the apparent cost involving poker wagers. Let’s start with checking. Checking has a cost.
Question 4: Let me interrupt. How can checking have a cost?
The cost of checking is positive if by doing so you’ll either save or earn more money than you would by betting. Everything you do in poker has value, positive or negative.
Maybe by making a small bet with a huge hand, you can tease an opponent into raising. I like doing this against flamboyant or playful opponents. I once was waiting for my main game, playing $1/$2 blind no-limit lowball against Steve, who was also waiting for the same game. I was dealt the perfect lowball hand—a pat wheel, 5-4-3-2-A. I raised his $1 blind by $1. He raised a dollar, too, being playful and totally in sync with his personality. I raised a dollar again, laughing. He said, “oh, well” and raised me $150, also laughing—as if he’d just ended the silliness of the $1 raising war. So, I moved all-in. He said, “no kidding!” and finally called with a pat 7-6-4-2-A. Each one of those raises— his and mine—had a cost. But the cost wasn’t a dollar each. It was the cost of risking not raise more with big hands in pursuit of prompting a mistake and a surprise ending.
I might check to tease a bet from an opponent. There’s a cost and a risk to doing that.
Question 5: What else has a cost in poker?
Choosing a game. If you choose the wrong one, that costs you money. Everything you decide to do in poker has a cost. Folding a starting hand has a cost, but the cost is positive if you would have lost money by playing. The cost is negative if that hand would have made money.
Here’s the deal: Every decision except the correct one at the moment will be costly. And that brings us to a monumental truth: You should only take an action in poker if the cost of doing it is less than the cost of not doing it.
So, here’s the method I want to teach you today. Before you make a decision to do anything in poker, practice asking yourself first: Will I be better off if I don’t do this? That applies to folding, as well as betting or raising. That simple question works, if you actually pause and ask it.
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.