Sunday, May 09, 2010

Thanks, Mike!

I've read lots of stuff from Mike Caro over the years, in both books and columns in periodicals. I think it's safe to say that I've learned more from him than from any other poker writer.

By far the most profitable single piece of strategic advice I have picked up from him has been how to deal with a bully or maniac at the table. (I think there are some differences between the two, which I briefly considered pontificating about, but I think I'll let it slide for now, so as not to veer too far off-topic.)

One temptation is to try to out-do the bully, to punch back even harder than he is hitting. The problem is that you are pretty much reduced to flailing away wildly, like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he finally loses it and goes nuts on the bully Scut Farkus. (Can't embed that clip here, but it's always worth a re-watch, don't you think?) It might work, but it's risky and costly. In the poker setting, it also leaves you wide open to being exploited by other players who are smart enough to wait to trap the two of you with a monster when you're trying to out-bully each other with mediocre holdings.

The other temptation is to cower, to go into highly defensive mode, to tighten up even further, waiting for the rare premium hand before playing back at the bully. There are two problems with this. First is that you're missing out on lots of money that the bully is putting into pots with weak hands which you could win if you were braver. Second is that even minimally intelligent bullies will notice the guy who punches back only once an hour. He'll just fold, giving you one pathetic little pot for all your patience and consternation.

Caro's solution is both simple and obvious, once pointed out: Just call more than you otherwise would. He has written about this countless times, in all of his outlets, but here's one example--a column that was first published in Bluff magazine in 2006, but was recently reposted at Caro's newly revived web site,, here. Here's the essence of the formula:

Now, listen up. A poker bully is by definition too aggressive. In order to
be a bully, he must make a fundamental mistake – he must bet and raise too
often. When an opponent makes a mistake, there’s always a way to take advantage.
Here’s how to take advantage of a poker bully:

Call more often. Because a bully is betting more hands, it’s obvious that
he must be betting more than just the ones you would normally bet. This means
you can relax your calling standards and still make a profit.

Bet less often. A key to defeating a poker bully is to let him hang
himself. Since his major mistake is betting too liberally, you should give him
every opportunity to defeat himself by repeating that mistake. You should check
and call frequently. You should also bet less often when a poker bully checks
into you, because a bully likes to check-raise a lot. Therefore when he foregoes
the opportunity to be a betting bully, you should be wary of a check-raising
bully. Just check along.

When you do these two simple things, the bully has a losing expectation
against you. And, in the long run, he cannot win. Sometimes it’s tempting to
“out bull” the bully by being even more aggressive than he is. That’s the wrong
answer. You can’t win at poker by exaggerating the same mistake an opponent is
making. Stick to the one-two formula I just presented.

Last night I was ever so grateful to have taken this advice to heart. I was playing at Hooters again. The place is a rathole of a poker room, but I've been heading there more often recently, since they stopped allowing smoking at the table. It is chronically populated by bad, drunk, fun-loving players. There's a lot of annoyances to be tolerated, but it has proven to be highly profitable.

One guy at the table last night raised the first five hands in a row after I sat down. I can be a slow learner, but that was enough to get even a clod like me to realize we had a bully on our hands.

My first action was to change seats, taking an open one two spots to his left, so that I had position on him eight out of ten hands. He stole my blinds liberally, but I didn't mind. Except for maybe the top ten starting hands, I did not want to play against him from out of position, so I just conceded the nothing pots.

Then I gave him the Caro treatment. A little observation revealed that the bigger his bets, the less he had, and the more he was trying to just push opponents off of pots. When he occasionally had a big hand, he made smaller value bets, trying to induce calls. That meant that I had to screw up the courage to call three big barrels with ace-high, or middle or bottom pair. But it worked to perfection.

I did deviate from the prescribed plan twice with raises on the river. Once I had, well, less than nothing--draws that had missed. But I had gained some decent amount of respect and reputation, so when he bet $40 on the river in a situation where I couldn't give him credit for much, I raised to $120, and he folded in about three seconds, saying, "I can never beat this guy." The other time was when I rivered a queen-high flush that I was certain was good. This was one of the rare times I was out of position. I checked. He bet $100, and I check-raised all-in. He folded, this time saying, "I'm done trying to bluff you."

The result? Uptick $399 in 1.8 hours, or $218/hour. If you don't think that's pretty good for a $1/$2 NLHE game with a $200 max buy-in, you haven't played it much.

The really interesting thing was how my reaction to him changed how the other players handled him, too. I rather quickly acquired the table's biggest stack, and once while stacking the chips from a sizable pot that I won from the bully by calling him down with just a middle pocket pair, one of the other players looked at me and said, "You're my hero!" It was obvious that the bully had been frustrating them for quite a while before I came along. But they picked up on what I was doing and started emulating it.

By the time I concluded my relative short session, the bully had gone from big stack to busto, and had had to rebuy twice. He was becoming the one who was frustrated, because he was being called down much more frequently than before. The bully had been exposed to be a weakling in disguise--a fraud. The one thing no bully can endure is being stood up to. Once the bully's victims see that he can be beaten, they are eager to get their licks in, too. It gave me considerable emotional satisfaction to see them join in taking his money, and to watch his frustration mount. He wasn't a sophisticated enough player to adjust profitably; he had only one shallow bag of tricks, and kept resorting to it even when his losses were accelerating.

I love the simplicity of the strategy of just calling the bully. Of course, sometimes he gets lucky and hits something big, and you look pretty foolish calling three times with not much of a hand. But in the long run, those instances are far outweighed by both the monetary effect of his too-frequent bluffing and by the psychological effect that you have on him by not backing down to his attempts at intimidation.

Bob Ciaffone, in a Card Player magazine column a few years ago, penned a wonderful apothegm that neatly sums up the concept: "We know you can fight fire with fire, but what is wrong with fighting it with water sometimes?"



The Blue Knave said...

Thanks for posting this. I've been frustrated by the hyper loose aggressives, and I've tried both of the not-recommended approaches with the expected results. I've settled into an intuitive approach similar to Caro's, but it's nice to have it articulated so clearly. I'll try it more mindfully next time.

HighOnPoker said...

This is why I love Caro. I too forgot his advice on this subject, but just rehearing it makes me want to find a bully to deflate. Caro is one of the most underestimated poker strategists out there.