Selectively revealing your cards is a legitimate strategy – providing you’ve judged the quality of your tablemates correctly
|Only truly great players should show cards, as only they understand enough about the game and their opponents to gain from it|
The late, great poker writer Andrew Glazer never showed his cards. IE contributor Andy adamantly advocated players should never give anything away when it comes to their strategies, adhering to the well-known axiom: ‘Make them pay to see.’ Yet, we often see top pros revealing their uncalled hands in televised tournaments and on the GSN network’s acclaimed High Stakes Poker show. Talk to the best players in the game, and it’s clear that they have differing opinions on this subject.
Since poker is a game of incomplete information, many believe you should never give away any more information about yourself than is absolutely necessary in case it helps your table-mates to detect patterns in your play. Others contend that poker is a form of art, thus variation is rewarded, and picking spots to show cards can enhance your game. Of course, showing cards indiscriminately and thoughtlessly will do yourself a great disservice. Let’s take a look at both sides of this issue.
Glazer makes his case
In one of his many terrific articles, Andy recounted an incident with Kathy Liebert where he continually re-raised her with (he claimed) strong cards during a tournament. She folded every time, but began questioning whether ‘The Poker Pundit’ was pushing her around. The 39-year-old pro and winner of more than $3.3 million in tournament earnings told the table that if Andy really held big tickets he would show them occasionally, as she often does. Kathy was dead wrong. Andy never showed cards unnecessarily. He once wrote, ‘A fierce competitor seeks every edge, and even if I can’t see any reason for not complying with a request to show my cards, the mere fact that the opponent wishes the information is enough.’ He also advised: ‘The more information you have about your opponent, the better your chance to defeat him. Although some players whom I respect disagree with me, I believe only truly great players should show cards, because only truly great players understand enough about the game and their opponents to gain from it.’
In addition to Glazer’s opinion, a professional who never shows his hands once told me that eventually players will begin to call his frequent raises because they become puzzled as to the strength of his hands. They realise the only way they can find out what he is so proud of is to call him down. Of course, while the callers may reduce their standards, this could easily become a doubleedged sword, since the inquisitive opponent may satisfy his curiosity when the pro is bluffing.
Although I’m the first to admit I’m not a truly great player, I do show my cards occasionally. Why go against theory analysed and espoused by Glazer, one of the best poker minds in history? Because poker is a game of relative abilities and few absolutes. If I am playing at a table comprised of inexperienced players, my relative skill level increases to ‘one of the truly great players in this weak game.’ In this instance, I will be able to gain information by showing hands selectively (when I believe it is advantageous). One of my most frequent ‘reveals’ occurs after I raise from late position and win the blinds. If I have a good hand, I may show my cards (not every time because even inexperienced players would catch on if I was too consistent in this area of my game). I don’t want players to defend their blind when I raise since I push frequently from late position, and often hold marginal hands. Turning things around, when I am in the small blind or big blind, I want to play my hands inexpensively. Thus, if I defend my blind with an inferior hand, such as 8-6 offsuit, I’ll often show the hand needlessly. Let’s say I call and catch a piece of the flop. I’ll play aggressively and show my marginal hand if my opponent folds. I might say something such as, ‘I got lucky on the flop.’
These strategies are designed to alert my opponents to the fact that they’ll have to wrestle me to the ground to get my blind money. My ‘display messages’ often give me free cards in the big blind for the rest of the game. In addition, I have noticed that I’m able to read my opponents’ raises more easily after revealing that I will contend for my blind chips. They will usually stop firing at me with garbage type hands, thus I can put them on better cards than J-8 or K-7. Again, the stronger my competition, the less I show cards voluntarily, knowing astute opponents will often see through my strategies while gaining free information.
Finally, a phenomenon I refer to as ‘monkey see, monkey do’ often occurs when I begin showing hands. Whether others feel they should show me some of their hands in ‘tit for tat’, or they simply believe they can outplay me in mind games, I have found competitors often begin revealing their hands after I show mine. I’d like to believe I am getting the better of the deal since I am careful to show only when I believe I am setting them up or providing information that will put them on the wrong track going forward.
Showing big hands
I rarely show my best hands when play has graduated to the turn or to the river and I have taken down a pot with a bet. When you raise and that action wins the pot uncontested after several skirmishes before the flop and after the flop, showing your strong hand will make your opponent(s) feel good about their fold and it will boost their confidence. In addition, if they review the betting action immediately, they may be able to piece together some valuable information about your play.
Think about what happens when a player puts himself in this position and you are his opponent. Since the play of the hand is fresh in your mind and you know the player held a big hand, you can often recall how he looked when he initially picked up his cards. You can, for example, recall his demeanour when he made his first bet or raise. You can also ask yourself questions that will lead to undressing your opponent. How long did he take to make each bet or raise during the hand? Before acting, where did he look? What was he doing with his chips prior to betting? How did he place his chips into the pot? Did he bet silently or in conjunction with making a speech? How comfortable did he look after he raised? This sort of instant recall is your best opportunity of connecting legitimate strength with an opponent’s actions and demeanor.
In response to a question concerning how great players separate themselves from second-tier contenders, Jennifer Harman once told me exceptional players not only play their hand, but they play your hand as the betting evolves. While most of us cannot perform this type of advanced poker magic, after a player reveals his hand, we can certainly replay his moves and get a better read on how he may play this type of hand in the future.
Those who show bluffs are generally planning on betting only with strong hands in the near future. Their modus operandi is to assume their combatants will see that they bluffed and will jump at the opportunity to call or raise them the next time they put in a bet. Additionally, these opponents may be trying to put others on tilt, since no-one likes being pushed off a hand where they held the best cards.
Players that voluntarily display only their big hands are generally trying to set up an image that they wish to convey as, ‘I’m solid and reliable; when I bet or raise I always have the best hand.’ Those that show bluffs are promoting their supposedly fast and loose style of play. Of course, if either were truly the case, why on earth would they want to give you that information completely free of charge?
A rudimentary rule of thumb that I have used with success is to presume a player has an ulterior motive for showing his hand. When I see a player needlessly reveal his strong hands, I theorise he is trying to get opponents to fold more when he bets in the future. If he reveals his bluffs, I suspect he’s trying to encourage future callers. I stay with this hypothesis until proven wrong, and in the case of many opponents, that has been forever.
All of which leads me to recommend you do not show your cards unnecessarily unless you have a good reason for doing so and you are also confident that you can alter your subsequent play in such a way that revealing your cards will not hurt you.