01/25/2006 1:00AM

Wise plays against wise guys


Poker is a game of: 1) people; 2) raise or fold, never call; 3) always make the correct decision; and 4) . . . ? Quick, what is the fourth, "first" rule of poker? This is an easy one, should roll right off your tongue if you've ever played for more than five minutes where the tough guy to your left raises every other pot.

Play tight? Good answer, but that falls under the second first rule of raising or folding. Or maybe it's never bluff against a player who doesn't know how to fold. Another good answer, except that one is a combination of rules No. 1 and No. 3.

But the fourth rule of poker is as simple as where you are sitting. It's position: the number of players between you and the button - the dealer's position - and then who is the player on your right and who is the player on your left. It's all about position.

If poker were played in a vacuum and you always had the button and were therefore last to act, you would win every time, because people would only raise with strong hands and fold weak ones and all you'd have to do is act accordingly. Easy game. But of course there wouldn't be a game, since our vacuum game ignores the No. 1 rule of poker: people.

How a person will play and what they might do, with what hand when, is revealed during the normal course of play. And the way to take full advantage of his play is to have the person act before you. If, for instance, you know a certain player is a level-one wise guy, and he is under the gun and just limps in by calling the blinds, you know his hand is strong, and therefore you can easily fold.

For perspective, a level-one wise guy is somebody who does the opposite of the obvious. Use a five-furlong grass race as an example. The No. 1 horse is the speed at the rail and a deserving 6-5 favorite. A level-one wise guy throws out the No. 1 and bets the Nos. 2, 3, and 4. In a poker game, if you get aces, you raise. A level-one wise guy does the opposite of the obvious and just calls. In horseracing and poker, the level-one wise guys are the perpetual losers.

In the fight for the antes, which is the basic object of a poker game, the player who acts next always has the advantage over the player who just acted. Obviously, if you are first to go, you have no advantage. If you are second to go, you have the advantage over one player, and so on, until you are on the button and therefore have the advantage over everybody except the blinds.

The goal then is to determine what is motivating the player who just acted before you and at what level of "wise guy" he plays. At level one, all he does is the opposite, and we always know where we stand. But what about level two? At the racetrack, the level-two wise guy bets the No. 1. He knows that since level-ones are betting against the speed at the rail, the price on the deserving 6-5 favorite is an overlay at 8-5. At the poker table, the level-two wise guy raises with the aces under the gun. Again, if this player is to act before us, we know exactly where we stand and we can safely fold our hand. Level-two wise guys are moderately successful but can easily be read and therefore avoided.

Level three is tough. A level-three wise guy will limp under the gun with aces, and when a player of that caliber just limps into a pot, you need to get out of the way as quickly as possible. Since he has acted before you, we again know exactly where we stand and can easily throw our cards in the muck and save another bet. Getting involved in a hand against a level-three wise guy is taking 4-5 on a 6-5 proposition.

By having the opportunity to see exactly what any level of wise guy does before you, it lets you know exactly where you stand in any given hand. It's almost as though we are back in our vacuum game. Play your cards according to the action in front of you, and if all of the players just happen to fold, then all you have to do is raise with good hands and fold with poor hands, just as dictated in rule of poker No. 2.

But playing only the strongest of hands from early position all but eliminates your advantage, because once you put any money into that pot, players at every level are still behind you and the wise-guy permutations shift to level four.

The best in the world - in poker and in horses - compete at level four, and you do not want to be in a pot against a level-four wise guy who's sitting on the button. Not only will he take all your money, he really won't care, because he just got flush by tapping out on the No. 1 horse who wired the field and won by a pole.

Kurt Paseka, a former turf writer, is a regular at New York City tracks, and has cashed in the main event at the World Series of Poker.