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The Most Important Thing In Poker

Is it the Law of Averages? Certainly not! Well, surely it isn't The Law of Gravitation? No. How about the Law of the Jungle? Funny, guess again! Oh, I see. You're tired of guessing because you don't know what the question is. Okay, I'll repeat it:

"In a poker game among eight equally matched world-class players, what very powerful law dictates who will eventually win and who will lose? "

You're thinking, "Who cares? How often am I in a poker game made up of eight equally matched world-class players?"

Ah, but this principle has a much broader importance. It ranks among the most powerful laws in the gambling universe. Great poker pros are governed by it. So are Henry, Jack and Felix at your Friday night game. So are blackjack players and golfers, craps shooters and backgammon superstars.

The black hole.
I'm talking about The Power, baby. It's a black hole in the poker table that can suck up all your chips and send you Doyles Room - All USA Players Welcome home whimpering. I'm talking about a merciless, ubiquitous, universal law that will never leave you alone until you honor it.

I'm talking about Caro's Law of Least Tilt. Exactly What is Tilt, Anyway? You might not know the meaning of the phrase "going on tilt." Turning to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (unabridged), we find on page 606 that "going on tilt" is not defined.

A pity. But checking a more credible source, Doyle Brunson's Super/System - A Course in Power Poker, we see that the term "on tilt" is defined on page 539. Quote: "When a player starts playing bad (loses his composure), usually after losing one or more big pots, he's said to be on tilt."

There are other slang ways to express this phenomenon. Vegas regulars call it "steaming." In my favorite Denver game, we used to say a man had "flipped a pancake."

It happens to players and pinball machines.
Going on tilt describes it best. What happens to a pinball machine when you shake it too hard? The lights go out, its normal mechanical functions are short-circuited, it stops playing its normal game, and suddenly the word Tilt flashes on its scoreboard.

Isn't that what happens to a poker player when you shake him too hard? Most players can take their bad beats graciously for a while; but when they suffer one blow too many, something usually snaps. Their lights go out, their brains malfunction, they cease to play their best game and, if you look really close, you can see the word "Tilt" etched on their foreheads.

Suddenly the most dedicated scientific poker players are babbling and bluffing and barging into pots with inferior hands. You've seen it happen, and it's a pitiful sight to behold.

The law defined.
Write this law on a piece of paper, tape it to the wall and study it. Caro's Law of Least Tilt: Among similarly skilled opponents, the player with the most discipline is the favorite.

Gee, that seems too obvious to bother saying. Obvious, hell! Ask around and see what the best poker players think is most important. Their opinions will vary. To save you the trouble, I actually surveyed ten tough players. My question was: "In a poker game among players whose ability is about equal, what do you think is the most important winning edge?"

Using a little judgment, I placed their answers into the following categories-

Knowledge of mathematics: 4
Psychological skill: 3
Knowing when to quit: 2
Alertness: 1

Had I undertaken a larger survey, other things would have appeared. But the point is made by this small sample. Incredibly, nobody mentioned the Law of Least Tilt! Everything listed is important.

Knowledge of Mathematics. A very weak player who knows nothing about probabilities or mathematics will be at the mercy of a knowledgeable opponent. However, a player with an outstanding grasp of odds and statistics is only a small favorite over a player with a pretty good understanding.

Of course, in some poker games even a small difference in mathematical ability can be critical. Seven-card high-low split is such a game.

Psychological Skill. Very important. But, in a game involving contestants of equal overall talent, is it likely that there will be much difference here? No.

Knowing When to Quit. For a bunch of reasons which I don't want to discuss now, it's better to quit when you're losing than when you're winning. Most players get this backwards and play longer when they're losing. Anyway, seldom does one player secure an important edge over his peers by quitting at the correct times.

Alertness. You'll seldom find a game among equally skilled foes where one is substantially more alert than his opponents.

Tilt by Mutual Agreement.
Tour the card rooms of Las Vegas, the poker parlors of California, the private games in Texas. Try legal seven-stud in Washington and Oregon. Play Hold 'em in Montana.

Yep, poker's booming everywhere. Look for the toughest, meanest game in the area. Ask around, you'll find it. It's usually a medium or high-stakes contest and it's often comprised of the same regular players night after night. Sometimes there's a stranger to throw off some money; but usually it's survival of the fittest - hometown heroes battling for regional honors.

I'm talking about a poker game where players of approximately the same expectations wage a war of egos. Listen to me, you seven-card stud superstars - I'm talking to you!

Almost every ego contest I've witnessed has an unspoken rule that goes like this: Weak players are timid and we're not weak, so let's bet our hands like crazy. Nobody will get hurt if everyone does it.

There's more to this tacit understanding. Any player who suffers two bad beats in a row is expected to play more recklessly than usual.

Oh, I almost forgot, there's another part. If a stranger gets in the game and tries to take advantage of our generous bets and raises, we'll play conservatively.

This last part is consistently violated. Take these poker pros and near-pros aside and ask what they'd do if a solid, talented player from Milwaukee sat in their game.

"We don't give action unless we get action." Snail slime!

The sad thing is, these guys really believe this! Gosh, you take your skilled sever-stud prayer from Topeka and put him in the $30 and $60 limit seven-stud game at the Sahara and . well, I like his chances.

Ego, Ego, Raise 'em Up!
The talent in this game is awesome. Gathered here at the Sahara is some of the keenest seven-stud talent that ever sprouted West of the Rockies. But, yes, they do play too recklessly and when they lose too many pots and get on tilt they play really recklessly.

Naturally, you'd expect this to stop when Fred from Sacramento sits in the game. You guys remember Fred, don't you? Following my instructions he won $3210 in one session. You probably don't remember, since that isn't a milestone win. And, of course, you don't remember Charlie since he won only $1530.

These players were sent in the game as an experiment; and they both reported the same thing. The regular players did not lighten up on their raises. Instead, they made these new players a target and tried to intimidate them with a barrage of irrational raises.

Following my advice, both Fred and Charlie called timidly for the first several pots, letting the aggressors establish an image. Then they counter attacked for three consecutive hands. They'd been instructed to get the last bet in at every opportunity (within reason) no matter what cards they held. Although Charlie managed to lose all three pots, Fred won two of his, once making an inside straight down the river against queens-up.

Controlled Tilt - the Cruelest Weapon.
According to plan, Fred and Charlie never got out of line after that. They had established an early reckless image. The image stuck, even though they played solid poker from then on. The regular players felt confident that the tacit loose-play agreement was not in jeopardy. No one, they reasoned, was taking advantage.

Although these two sessions are not significant enough to prove the point, let's make believe they are. What the hell, we're talking about more than 400 hands, and only a statistician would demand a larger sample.

What it proves is this: In a game where everyone goes on tilt some of the time, the player who spends the fewest minutes on tilt wins the most money.

(Since some tilt plays are horrible and others are merely bad, you could argue that it isn't the time of tilt, but the quality of tilt that determines the winners. It's really both.)

Controlled Tilt is simply doing the things that a player on tilt does, while being motivated rationally rather than emotionally. The strategy is to appear totally berserk while remaining thoroughly in command. This is the cruelest, most profitable tactic I know.

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