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If Kenny got it right, it must be easy

14 September 2007

Dear Mark: What do you think is the most important decision recreational Texas Hold'em players have to make to be successful at the game? Is it what limit to play on, playing tight versus loose, something else? Andy I.

Poker is a unique game in that it allows you to use the laws of probability to maximize the value of your decisions. All Hold'em players begin each hand with this choice: With these two hole cards, should I stay, or should I fold?

You choose at this moment whether to invest money in your hand or not. If you fold, you lose nothing (unless you're on the blind), but you also gain nothing if you fold unnecessarily. So, arguably (I await debate), I believe this is the most import decision you make in Texas Hold'em. You'll find that players who make the correct decision here seem to win most of the money. It's as simple, Jay, as Kenny Rogers sings, "You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

I just finished John Gollehon's newest book, Strike the Casino with Winning Strategies (available in any bookstore), and he also sums it up pretty well: "In the casino (poker), you must have the ability to recognize an opportunity, the wisdom to know you can't force it to happen, and the discipline to quit when it's gone."

Dear Mark: How often do pocket aces appear in Hold'em? It seems I never get the opportunity to bet such a great opening hand. Jay M.

On average, pocket aces will be dealt to you once out of 221 hands. But — there's always a "but" — Jay, I was once on a game where, although they weren't aces but the second best thing — kings — happened to appear in the same player's hand three consecutive times. Yep, I found another table.

Dear Mark: Last week's column you wrote; "That bonehead splitting 10s has no idea what the next card is, so bonehead's poor play will have no consequence on the game in general, just on the outcome of bonehead's hand." I'll buy that, but I was under the impression that on select hands splitting 10s was the appropriate thing to do. Was I wrong in thinking that? Ken G.

There is but one time when it is proper basic strategy to split 10s, and that is if you happen to be on a Face-up Blackjack game. In Face-up Blackjack, all the cards dealt are exposed, including both of the dealer's cards. Only here does correct strategy call for splitting 10s against a dealer's 13, 14, 15, or 16.

But you'll never see a savvy player on any Face-up game splitting those tens, since the fee involved for playing it is quite prohibitive. The house edge on regular blackjack, using perfect basic strategy, is 0.4%. On Face-up it's five times that — 2.0%. Why so high? Because in Face-up you lose when you push (tie).

There is also one gaming writer, John Scarne (Scarne on Cards), who did recommend splitting 10s in the standard version of blackjack. But Scarne's book was first published in 1949, well before computers could analyze blackjack with multi-million hand simulations. Since 1962, when Edward Thorp (the first blackjack specialist using a computer (IBM 704)), published his book, Beat the Dealer, no blackjack author has recommended splitting 10s — under any circumstances.

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Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.