Poker Defense

Personal defense is very similar to a poker game. You can win with luck alone, but having a plan and being prepared increases your odds significantly. Photo: author

Personal defense is very similar to a poker game. You can win with luck alone, but having a plan and being prepared increases your odds significantly. Photo: author

A poker game is a good metaphor for personal defense. Some of the same basic elements are in play, from the cards you are dealt to the bets you must make. Sometimes your strategy works out and you walk away with a big stack of chips, and sometimes you fail miserably despite your best efforts. Other times, you just straight up get lucky and win without having any strategy at all. Most of the time, the best thing you can do is fold and live to fight another day. After all, not every hand you are dealt is worth playing. In a nutshell, winning at poker is partly about strategy and partly about luck. Any poker player will tell you that you can’t win consistently without having a little bit of both.

I would say the same thing about personal defense. If you want to survive a violent encounter, it helps to have trained and practiced, but you also need the circumstances to work out in your favor, which is just another way to describe luck.

In poker as well as in personal defense, sometimes luck is all you need. Any given casino patron can sit down at a table and win a hand of poker, just like any untrained citizen can survive a violent encounter if the circumstances go in their favor. But in both contexts, the people who know the rules of the game and have done at least some modicum of preparation are far more likely to succeed.


There is a strategy in Texas Hold ‘Em where an aggressive player might bet their entire stack of chips before ever seeing the first three cards hit the table. This strategy is referred to as “going all in before the flop.” The reason for adopting this strategy is that you want to “buy the pot” by forcing all the other players out of the hand with your aggressive bet. Going all in before the flop sends the message that you have been dealt what you believe will be a winning hand, even though you may, in fact, be bluffing. This strategy usually only works if you are surrounded by inexperienced players who are easily scared off of a hand. If you are playing with experienced players, someone is likely to call you if you employ this strategy too often. When someone calls your all-in bet, you may be forced to show your cards. If you were bluffing and don’t have good cards or someone else ends up with a better hand after the rest of the cards are dealt, you’re finished and would have to buy back into the game to continue playing.

open carry handgun

Suckers are easy to spot at the poker table and in the world of self defense. What message is your appearance sending to your potential opponents? Photo: author

I bring up this betting strategy because I think a lot of armed citizens make the mistake of going all in before the flop too often in the way they dress, act, and carry their weapons, and a lot of them are just bluffing. Dressing like a tactical ninja, covering your car in gun bumper stickers, or openly carrying your firearm are all-in bets before the flop. By displaying your intent to use deadly force up front before knowing for sure what the nature of your threat is or what the circumstances might lead to if you are assaulted, you are essentially betting that you will win or that your opponents are just scared or stupid.

Just as the all-in bet before the flop in poker usually only works consistently against inexperienced players, the overt display of your intentions as an armed citizen is only likely to work against an undetermined assailant. Police officers make an all-in bet every day when they put on the uniform. And there are frequent instances where they are assaulted and killed or seriously injured by bad guys despite the fact that they are known to be capable of delivering deadly force. Police officers usually don’t have the option of concealing their firearms and dressing like normal people when they are on duty, but most of them will take advantage of that option whenever they are off duty. They understand the stakes of the game they are playing.


As everyday armed citizens, we have the advantage of being able to bet more conservatively and only push our chips into the table when we have a more reasonable expectation of victory. We should at least want to see the flop, if not the turn and the river, before we push our chips forward and show our cards.

pistol magazine

When your chips are down and your brass is all spent, there are no re-buys. Play your hand wisely. Photo: author

Even with this advantage, we are never guaranteed a victory. There is always a chance we can be bested by a determined attacker if the circumstances don’t work in our favor. Therefore, we should take every advantage we can to increase our odds of survival. Keeping our intentions and tools concealed until we have seen at least the first set of cards hit the table is the wise strategy. More often than not, when we see those cards, we may decide to fold and avoid the confrontation altogether or get on the phone with the police. If you take the overt and aggressive strategy to self defense, you may well make it through life unscathed, because luck does count. But if you ever get called on your bet, you’d better hope you have the cards after the river, because there are no re-buys.

In the poker room, the guys you can take advantage of are easy to spot if you know what to look for, which is another reason to be careful about how you carry yourself. I like to sit down at the cash games in Vegas being the normal guy that I am and just wait for my personal ATM to sit down with a flat-brim ball cap and sunglasses on at 4 a.m. like it’s the World Series of Poker. On more than one occasion, that guy has paid for my dinner or more with his false bravado. All I have to do is bide my time and I’m going to have his stack more often than not. He’s the guy I can lure into a pot and then bluff into folding without even having top pair.

In the self-defense world, that’s the guy open-carrying a 1911 with no retention on his holster and a “Come and Take It” t-shirt, or rocking the whole 5.11 catalog and American flag patch hat while carrying “concealed” at Subway. Nowhere but inside his own head is that guy ready for the next hand he may be dealt. If he were, he wouldn’t put it on display. True expertise requires no such outward exaggeration. No criminal worth his salt is likely to be dissuaded from his evil intentions just by being in the presence of such obvious empty posturing. All that needs to happen is for the right opportunity to present itself and it’s an easy payday. But luck is still a thing, and sometimes even the easy targets win a hand or two. Is that a bet you want to make?

firearms training

Training and practice should be priorities. Get as many practice hands in as you can. Formal training helps you learn how to play the game.
Photo: author


One important thing I’ve learned since I started playing poker (and I’m still constantly learning) is that you are playing the person across the table from you more than you are playing your cards. Every bet you make is in anticipation of how that person will perceive it and react. What will your opponent think about your hand when you check-raise? What will he think when you push all in? Making sure your bets are sending the intended message to your opponent and making sure you understand what their reactions are telling you are how you win at poker.

It’s not much different in self defense, except for the fact that your table is much larger and you can’t always look your opponent in the eye. But you had better believe your opponent is looking at you. You must ensure you are sending the right message, and it’s usually a mistake to flex if you don’t have the nuts. Even if you think you do, you need to be prepared for the reality that there’s a chance your opponent does too, which may be why they called you in the first place.

If you understand the stakes of the poker game that is personal defense, it stands to reason you would take the more conservative approach whenever feasible, develop a poker face, and play the long game. Impulsive betting to try to buy the pot is a very short-sighted and emotional strategy. It may buy you a few pots in the short run, but eventually someone will call your bluff, and even your pocket aces might not survive what gets dealt from that point forward. Usually the more calculated and deliberate players make it to the final table.

There are no sure things in poker or in self defense. If you understand that, you will choose your strategy appropriately. If not, you may find yourself watching your chips disappear while you wait for an ambulance ride that you could have avoided if you’d played smarter. When you think about personal defense, hum some Kenny Rogers and be careful how you play your cards.

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16 Responses to “Poker Defense”

  1. Dick Barnes

    Oddly…decades ago I was challenged as to why I carried concealed in an open-carry state. I answered with a poker comparison…stating that open-carry was like playing poker with all of your cards face-up. If I were the bad guy…the first person I would target would be the person who was obviously armed and could shoot back…duhhhhhh.

  2. Jim Mann

    In my humble opinion this should be mandatory reading for all persons carrying or wanting to carry a weapon. When I was young I always had a weapons related sticker in the window of the truck. However, when I was young our society was a hell of a lot more sane, and responsible. Yea, I am old !

  3. Rex Croson

    A very good article, very well written. From observation of those who display there firearm I have often felt thy are trying to show off, with possibly no thought to any Self-defense training.

  4. ronald richards

    I live by the code of Sun Tzu who famously said “the Art of War is Deception” so I never ‘flash’ my weapon. Why would I remove the element of surprise, counteracting my attacker’s element of surprise?

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  5. Mike T

    So in the words of Kenny Rogers… “You got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away and know when to run…”?

  6. gmd

    I conceal. I don’t play hold ’em, but I kinda get this idea. I think that the fewer folks are aware of my carry, the better it is for me.
    To me, open carry is for others, not me. If required I would rather be a surprise, not the first target.
    My balls aren’t big enough to display. I don’t advertise. No “protected by” signs or stickers, hat, t-shirt, no nothing.
    The fewer folks that know, is more gooder. It’s called concealed for a reason. I conceal.

  7. qqpokerceme

    Draw poker may be the traditional form of poker and was played prolifically in high stakes cash games inside the nineteenth
    century and early twentieth century. In addition, the
    poker rooms will not likely offer complete hand histories of poker hands dealt on their own site for analysis by outside
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    to require a stab with the pot.

  8. Ron

    I strive to do everything to prevent the invitation of criminal behavior. Keep everything well concealed, and follow one man’s grandpa’s golden rule: “Never tell anyone how much money you have or how many guns you own.” Sadly, the NRA does not seem to get the importance of this sort of discretion. I have had to consistently call them on the phone and tell them to stop sending me magazines that are not in envelopes because to have them delivered with visible covers elevates the risk of inviting unnecessary criminal behavior. The USCCA gets it. Ask to have the magazine delivered in an envelope and it is done! A magazine delivered the NRA way is about the same as plastering your car with gun stickers. They don’t get it. Regardless, I don’t base my actions on “luck” or “betting.” I follow more of a principled approach in order to exercise wisdom that takes into account the criminal mind according to the fallen and depraved nature of the human race. Under the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, Nature’s God governs all His creatures and all their actions while not abrogating human responsibility, but rather establishing it. It is this understanding of the Triune God: God the Father, God the Son, Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit as well as a multitude of truth from His Word concerning all things in life, that the Bill of Rights was strongly influenced by in the Founding of the Country. The Founders did not speak of “luck” when they went up against the most elite fighting force of their time with little more than an untrained, ill-equipped group of Colonists. They did not count on “luck” because they knew it was nothing but an inanimate idea. The majority of them had saving faith in Jesus Christ because He called them to Himself. Only then were they able to understand the problems they faced and the fact that Nature’s God might very well bring things about in such a way that they might meet Him face to face after dying in battle. A good read is “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men” preached by John Witherspoon in 1776.

    • Aaron Israel

      Ron, I’m a practicing Christian myself and I believe in Divine Providence as well. However, this article is an analogy relating POKER to Personal Defense. In POKER, you need luck. If you want to attribute the intangible chance elements that exist in a fight to “God’s will”, you can.. But, that wouldn’t work very well in this analogy. I assume from your comment that you would preach inside of a Casino… So maybe chill out just a little.

  9. Earl Morgan MD

    Thank you Mr. Pincus for an excellent article. I find your comments regarding targeting to be an absolute truth. I teach martial arts and in any multiple attacker situation we attempt to take out the most dangerous first, including a preemptive strike. I wish you would have addressed some of the legal pitfalls to the bumper stickers and 5:11 billboards. It seems that a prosecutor may take the approach that you were trolling for a chance to “party”.