To Show or Not to Show

I’m frequently astounded by the number of players who reveal their hole cards haphazardly in low stakes cash games. After everyone folds to their bet, players will show everything from a monster to a big bluff, and 90% of the time it’s not part of any larger thought process or strategy.

I’m going to separate this article into two parts. First, I’ll review the obligations and rights I have at showdown when revealing my hole cards. There’s not much strategy in this first part as the rules are very clear, but it’s important to have this information in your back pocket so you don’t breach etiquette at the table. I’ll then move on to strategies for showing (or not showing) my cards after everyone folds to my bet.

I should know the rules of showdown to retain the option of concealing my hole cards when not obligated to show. Most players know that the last person to take aggressive action by a bet or raise is the first to show their hand at showdown. Since there is usually a verbal statement of “I call”, the player who got called knows to show their cards immediately. If they neglect to show quickly (which is a definite breach of etiquette) I’ll say something like “I called you, let’s see what you got.” If I’m beat, I then have the option to muck without showing.

In contrast to the situation above, showdown order is often confusing when everyone checks (or is all-in) after the dealer reveals the river card. In that situation, the first player to the left of the dealer button must show. Since there are always certain players who would rather pull their own toenails out than show their hole cards, I might need to ask the dealer to intervene and enforce the rule if my opponent attempts to wait me out.

With all that said, beginning players should lean towards revealing their cards at showdown whether obligated to or not. By showing, I am assured that my hand will be read correctly and I won’t miss out on any pots I’ve won (but think I lost). Even veteran players can misread their hand, especially on boards with four to a straight or flush. For this reason, I lean towards showing my hand even when not technically required to do so, unless there is a very compelling reason I don’t want to show my hole cards. In other words, I pick my spots carefully.

Keep in mind there is a continuous debate about the right to see mucked cards at showdown. The rule in most card rooms states that if I’m dealt into a hand, I may ask to see any hand involved in the showdown, which would include a folded hand. But there is a recent trend to limit the ability of players to see mucked hands, as the sole purpose behind the rule is to protect players against collusion. If someone is abusing this rule and asking to see mucked cards after a lot of hands, I have the right to call the floor over to intervene.   

In contrast to showdown, showing (or not showing) my hole cards after everyone folds to my bet allows for a lot of strategic planning. There is nothing inherently wrong with showing my cards after folding everyone out, I just want to make sure it’s part of a larger plan. Very broadly, I’m seeking to exploit the leaks in my opponent’s game, whatever those leaks may be. Bluffs will get through more easily if I show a few made hands, and made hands will get more value if I show a few big bluffs. Keep these two ideas in mind while we explore how these strategies can look in actual practice. Also bear in mind that while these strategies will work fairly well against poor players or beginners, more experienced players will usually sniff out what you’re doing. As with all poker strategies, you need to assess the competence of your opponents and determine what level of thinking you need to operate on.  

If I’m playing against a super tight player I’ll show only my made hands to continually establish myself as an honest, ABC type player. I want to reinforce my opponent’s erroneous belief that they are correct to fold all but their strongest hands against me when I show strength. By establishing that my bets always mean what they represent, I can extract value from otherwise useless cards when I use them as bluffs. This strategy also increases the certainty my opponent is rarely bluffing if he plays back at me, and allows me to safely fold to any significant show of strength.

On the other hand, I like to show big bluffs to the opposite type of player. Preferably, my opponent is a maniac who thinks he is God’s gift to poker. Against a player like that, I will always show a big bluff if he folds to one. Then the next time I pick up a made hand I can extract maximum value against him. One method I particularly like is to slow play a strong hand and then fire out a big raise or overbet on the turn or river. He’ll talk himself into a call with even a marginal holding in that spot as his ego won’t let him entertain the possibility of folding to another bluff.

One final note. In low stakes, friendly home games I tend to show my cards much more often.  There’s still a small amount of cash on the line, but if your main goal is socializing with your friends there’s certainly no harm in having some fun and showing your cards. Just save it for your casual games, and stop showing your cards at the casino without a plan!