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April 19, 2015

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Mike Caro: ‘Mad genius’ of poker

Genuine thinker, poker philosopher, real character offering up free tips to help players raise their game


Steve Marcus

Mad Genius” Mike Caro gives poker playing tips during a Power Poker Seminar series at the Rio on Sunday June 14, 2009. The event is part of a series of free weekend seminars hosted hosted by Caro and ten-time World Series of Poker champion Doyle Brunson.

If You Go

  • What: The next installment of Mike Caro’s poker seminar series at the World Series of Poker, featuring a question-and-answer session with Doyle Brunson
  • Where: The Rio, Pavilion 9 in the convention area
  • When: 10 a.m. June 27 (Caro’s tells, psychology and manipulation) and 10 a.m. June 28 (Caro’s 50 best poker tips)
  • Admission: Free, although seating might be limited

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Beyond the Sun

Long before “the Unabomber,” “the Professor,” “the Mouth” and a dozen other cutesy poker nicknames largely derived from TV shows, there was “the Mad Genius.”

Mike Caro, a genuine poker character since way before contrived poker characters came to dominate basic cable, first made his name at the poker tables of Gardena, Calif., in the 1970s.

He contributed the section on draw-poker strategy to Doyle Brunson’s original “Super/System” book and later published his own influential “Book of Tells.”

Another example of Caro’s innovative thinking was his noble experiment in attempting to replace the traditional deck of cards in poker with a four-color deck (featuring green clubs and blue diamonds).

In an ongoing series of poker seminars during this year’s World Series of Poker at the Rio, Caro has demonstrated he remains in top form more than a quarter-century after those iconic photos of “tells” were shot at the Bingo Palace (later renamed Palace Station).

If anyone should be showcased as a commentator on one of those big poker TV programs, it’s the Mad Genius. He has experience, knowledge, an opinion and a willingness to back it to the hilt — not to mention a colorful, carefully cultivated countenance that has changed little through the decades: Think Larry Fine meets Allen Ginsberg meets Bozo.

Each installment of the seminar series — the final two are scheduled for June 27 and 28 — ostensibly carries a theme (tournament poker, online poker, psychology of poker and the like).

Those really just serve as an excuse, though, for Caro to launch into his Mad Genius spectacle, dispensing rock-solid gambling theory with a touch — or, perhaps more accurately, a sendup — of revival-show hucksterism.

This past weekend Caro took the stage in a well-appointed conference room at the Rio and announced he would detail a series of 18 poker tips.

Before each tip the crowd would have to shout, “Mad Genius, show me tip number 18,” or whatever number was next.

When the assemblage tried to get away with mumbling its collective way through, Caro was having none of it. It was as if we were pupils in a classroom being scolded for not saying “Good morning, Sister” with enough enthusiasm.

Many of the tips focused on technical aspects of tournament poker. The payout structures used in most tournaments these days, for example, mathematically encourage a “survivalist” style, by which players should largely avoid unnecessary early risks in favor of trying to make it into the money. The exception comes any time you’re playing specifically for a trophy or an endorsement deal attached to first place.

Other tips veered into the philosophical realm. Caro introduced one segment by declaring that he hates “affirmations.” Good, I thought. I hate affirmations too.

Oh, except for this one affirmation, the Mad Genius continued, and it’s a two-parter. (Uh oh.)

The first part: “I am a lucky player.” It sounded like nonsense, until Caro explained he was riffing on the gambling adage that you should never complain about “running bad” — sustaining a losing streak — because most people don’t care and the few who do are just glad it’s not happening to them.

In the real world of poker, when you complain about being “unlucky,” you can bank on one result: Poor to mediocre players will be inspired to play better poker against you. “They think, here’s somebody I can beat,” Caro said. “He’s even unluckier than I am.”

The second part of the affirmation: “A powerful winning force surrounds me.” Again, initially it sounded as if Caro, of all people, was embracing the kind of soft-in-the-head superstition that pervades huge swathes of American society.

Then he explained that the force in question is “the power of probability.” Base your decisions in gambling on the laws of statistics and probability, and that force will work in your favor.

It turns out the so-called affirmation was in fact a sort of anti-affirmation affirmation, or a parody of affirmations. Mad Genius, you got us again.

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