Tony raises in the cutoff and you look down to see pocket fours on the button.
You call. The blinds fold. You are heads-up to the flop.
Tony is a solid player. If he has it he will raise; if he doesn't he will fold.
He checks and you decide to take a stab; he calls.
He checks and you bet. A grimace appears on his face as if he has just sipped a sugarless cup of coffee. He calls.
He checks and you make a pot-sized bet. He folds KQ face-up. Dragging in the pot, you tell Tony that he made the right fold.
Tony taps the felt, “I knew you had the flush. You always have the flush.”
We always have the flush? Do we?
Welcome to the world of Scare Cards.
What is a Poker Scare Card?
A Scare Card is a card that changes the texture of the board in such a way that it makes your bones rattle like hangers in a cheap man’s closet.
In our example above the scare card was the K on the turn. Although it made Tony a two-pair hand it also completed a possible flush.
The betting action, coupled with Tony's fear and his perception of his opponent's holding, made the card scary for Tony. It lead to the final fold on the river.
It's not easy to write a definition for Scare Cards because the definition means different things to players of different skills. In this piece we'll focus on their meaning for absolute beginners.
We also bring in World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet winner Gavin Smith, PokerListings Spirit of Poker award winner Luca Moschitta and former PKR sponsored pro Dan O'Callaghan for some advice.
Poker Beginners are Pessimists
"I think the most important thing to point out," says Gavin Smith, "is scare cards are equally scary for you and your opponent."
Dan O'Callaghan explains why:
“The key thing to take away from the Scare Cards philosophy is how everyone is concerned with how they can lose.”
There are two ways to view a Scare Card:
1. You can believe the card scared your opponent and then use that to your advantage by going on the attack.
2. You can think the card helped your opponent and take a defensive approach.
When starting out poker players often fall into the latter category. In the beginning their line of inquiry is one dimensional. They become more pessimistic about their chances.
Don't worry; it's a biological reaction designed to prevent you from being eaten by some prehistoric monster. Over time, though, you learn that all the monsters are dead.
But some people are always afraid of the monsters. Take Tony for example. Tony has been playing poker for 20+ years and yet when a scare card hits he still sees shark smiles and the horns of the devil.
Zig when everyone else is zagging. Don’t think negatively; think positively. Respect the fact that the card may have helped your opponent, but focus on how it helps you progress positively.
One of the Most Profitable Moves in Poker
When you talk to someone who knows nothing about poker the general reaction goes something like this:
“It’s all about bluffing, right?”
No. It’s more about folding. But bluffing is an integral part of the game. Scare Cards are the springboard you'll use to complete your reverse triple somersault with a smile.
“Incorporating bluffs into your game when the board contains Scare Cards," says Luca Moschitta, "is one of the most profitable moves in poker. But you do have to remember a few things.”
We'll get to those few things a little later.
There are two ways of thinking about the concept of bluffing on boards containing Scare Cards. The least obvious of the two is how your opponent can use the Scare Card to bluff you.
“If the arrival of Scare Cards fits the way you have played your hand," Smith says, "then outstanding, because you are likely to be raised by worse.
"But, if it is a card that doesn’t fit your betting pattern a bet becomes suicide because it’s now very easy to bluff-raise you. So in these spots check-calling is a much better play.”
Let’s pick on Tony again. Using Smith’s philosophy, if Tony did attempt to run a bluff after a Scare Card hits the board, a bluff-raise would have a high probability of success because we know Tony always believes we have it.
The point that Smith is making is to ensure that your story makes sense and that the story of your opponent makes sense. To do that we have to consider perception.
We took a slight detour so Smith could explain the complicated way that bluffing enters the arena when talking about Scare Cards. Now let's get back to Moschitta's 'we have to remember a few things.'
One of those things is perception.
“Always think about your opponent’s perception of you," Moschitta says. "For example, if they see you betting the turn and river often they will adjust their game and start calling you more frequently.
"In this case, betting scare cards too often might be very expensive.”
Back to Tony (who it seems isn't cottoning on to our moves.) Using statements like 'you always have it' confirms this. But you will face better opponents who will work you out -- especially if they start calling you down on river bets and seeing your hands hit the muck.
Another point to remember is that sometimes a Tony simply runs out of patience. He still thinks 'you have it' but is so tired of being beaten up that he makes the call out of desperation.
In both instances understanding your opponent’s perception of you is crucial. But how does this work exactly?
Perception rules the roost. Think about pain and suffering. Physical pain aside, 100% of the suffering comes from the way that you perceive the world.
Your thoughts become your emotions. Often, if you want to change your outcomes, change your perception. This is a key concept in poker and especially so when applied to the idea of Scare Cards. Back to Moschitta:
“Bet on scary cards more often when you are able to put your opponent on a certain range of hands.”
Moschitta is pointing out the difference between playing against a weaker, one-dimensional opponent and playing someone who is advanced.
With players like Tony, hand ranges are irrelevant. You bully them into submission and use their fear against them. But with smarter players you need to create a compelling story.
To do this you need to put your opponent on a certain range of hands and make sure that your betting patterns fit into the perceived range of hands your opponent has applied to you.
Perception isn't limited to hand ranges. Body language and image is also essential. A bluff with confident body language is stronger than the reverse.
Imagine if Tony was to turn his game around and start incorporating a few bluffs on Scare Cards into his arsenal. The perception that he is a one-dimensional rock will help force folds from his supposedly wiser opponents.
"Scare cards are strange," says O'Callaghan. "Sometimes they favor the aggressor and encourage barrelling and other times they are better for a check-caller's range.
"When a flush or straight completes I think too many amateur players put their opponents on a flush precisely. They forget about all the other hand combinations that the villain makes it to this stage of the hand with. This presents a great spanking opportunity."
I hope that helps you understand the concept of Scare Cards more precisely. Now go out and find someone to spank.