The Trips Game

I play in a private PLO game where you get $25 from everyone if you get dealt trips. If you win the hand, you collect double.

I like this rule for a few reasons. First, it adds a new wrinkle to the game, which presents an opportunity for an edge. I don’t think most people adjust to this rule correctly. Second, it gives me an excuse to bluff. I tend to be viewed as a conservative player – a nit, in poker terms – which isn’t the sexiest image to have. The truth is, I try to do whatever works, and since my opponents are so vulnerable to a conservative, straightforward strategy, I can’t justify doing anything else.

This does present a problem in the trips game, because the reason they’re so vulnerable to a straightforward strategy is that they don’t fold nearly enough. In effect, they’ve already inoculated themselves against bluffs. In theory, my tight image should give me an edge in the trips game, because my bets should get more respect, allowing me to get more bluffs through with trips. In practice, many of the players in the game don’t seem to particularly care who’s doing the betting, they just don’t fold.

Nonetheless, I enjoy looking for opportunities. Nothing gets me more engaged in the hand than looking down at trips. While just about no one in this game folds enough, there are spots where they’re very unlikely to have a strong hand (but don’t know it), or are too credulous of a raise. It’s a lot of fun trying to set up one of those spots.

In one hand, several players limped and the button made a small raise. Everyone called and he ended up showing trips when he folded later in the hand. To my mind raising small in his position is the absolute worst play; it would be better to either limp or raise big.

To understand why, we have to think through how the presence of the trips game changes the incentives associated with bluffing. In a normal poker game, the rewards on a bluff scale with the size of the pot. The bigger the pot, the more you stand to gain with your bluff. But the risk also scales, because to bluff at a big pot you usually have to make a big bet (someone’s unlikely to fold to a $10 bet if there’s $1000 in the pot). So the risk/reward of bluffing stays fairly constant regardless of how much is in the pot. A pot-sized bluff has to work at least 50% of the time to be profitable, whether there’s $50 in the pot or $5000.

The trips game introduces a non-scaling reward to bluffing. At an 8-handed table, if everyone is playing the trips game, you win an extra $165 for winning the pot with trips. That $165 stays the same no matter how big the pot is. If you hold trips and you make a pot-sized bluff at a $10 pot, you win $175 if it works, but only lose $10 if it fails. That means it only need to work more than 10/185, or 5.4% of the time to be profitable. If there’s $1000 in the pot, you win $1165 if your bluff works and lose $1000 if it doesn’t. This bluff needs to work 1000/2165 = 46% of the time to be profitable. In short, the trips bonus makes a much bigger difference in small pots.

This is why raising small pre-flop with trips is such a bad play. A small raise is likely to get called by everyone, keeping the same number of players involved but bloating the pot. As we’ve seen, if you’re planning on bluffing with trips, you’d prefer to keep the pot small. It would make more sense to limp behind. If you do decide to raise however, it would be better to raise big to try to knock some players out. Then when you continue bluffing on the flop, you’ll have a better chance of success because there will be less players to get through.

Being able to think logically is perhaps the most important trait of good poker players. Introducing a new rule like the trips game can force you to think in unusual ways, which is good for your overall game.

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