Brunson: Letting opponents tie their own nooses

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

When you’ve spent your life sifting through the good ideas and the bad ones, eventually you may find what works and what doesn’t. That’s when you gain confidence, and taking command feels comfortable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, young poker players take command at the table, too. But – for them – doing so doesn’t always feel comfortable. At least it didn’t always for me. Forcing yourself to be aggressive when you’re unsure is going to get you slapped back down to size painfully sometimes. It’s something I’ve experienced.

But, as I matured, I learned that there’s a great secret to knowing when not to take command – in real life situations as well as at the poker table. The secret has little to do with ego and everything to do with winning. In a moment, I’ll share it with you.


You know, the other day I sat down and thought awhile about whether the courage I showed early on at poker was really worthwhile. Looking back, I realize that I’ve always had the heart of a warrior. Although I was never outwardly belligerent toward people, when it came to poker one thing was for sure: I’d rather push opponents around than be pushed around.

That’s the way I’ve always been with everything. It’s something in my genes. So, when I got myself wrapped around a game of poker, I’d just naturally bet and raise whenever I sensed weakness. Reliving my early poker escapades, I realized that I probably barged into pots with too many chips too often. But, overall it worked. Many a day, I just keep pounding, pounding.  I’d throw so many chips at opponents that they’d seem shocked sometimes and fall into submission. Yes, I liked to take command.

But, as you might imagine, sometimes my youthful aggression backfired. Aggression borne of enthusiasm is seldom as effective as aggression born of logic. There’s a right time to charge and right time to hold your horses and be charged. Although it’s my nature to charge, today I’m talking about the advantage of repressing that urge.

Your job

In poker, you must study your opponents. What is their history? But, even more important, what is their attitude at this moment? You see, most players don’t always play the way that fits their mode. Sometimes they’re aggravated or cantankerous, and they’ll play hands differently from what you’d expect. It’s your job to get inside their minds and decide where they are right now, at this moment. What kind of poker are they playing.

Then you need to determine whether there are any obvious mistakes associated with that manner of play – mistakes you can exploit. If you determine that an opponent, right now, is poised to be very aggressive in an attempt to take command, well, there’s a major mistake that player may be making. The mistake is the same one I made often when I was young – betting too often when the strength of my hands didn’t warrant it.

Of course, making this mistake didn’t usually harm me much, because I was able to intimidate my opponents and they more or less forgot to take advantage. But I’m not going to be intimidated by an opponent’s overly aggressive actions, and neither should you. You need to just sit back and watch this mistake unfold with amusement, rather than fear.

Not sensible

It’s natural to some assertive players to want to challenge a player who keeps betting and raising. They think, “Maybe I should do the same thing, even more so. That will put a stop to it!” And it’s normal to think that way. Normal. But not sensible. When you stop to think about it, you realize that by playing their game right back at them, the best you can hope for is for them to give up their command. But, if they’re making a mistake by betting to much or too often, do you really want them to give up their command? The answer is no. You should exploit their mistake, instead.

And here’s how you do it. You check most of your hands at them — hands you would normally bet. You let them bet. And you call. Keep doing it and the money will keep flowing your way. The key is that they’re hanging themselves by betting too aggressively. You have a choice. You can bring them back to their senses and rescue them by attacking before they can complete their mission or you can let them tie their own nooses.

You see, that’s what your doing by checking and calling against players bent on destroying themselves in a desperate quest to take command – you’re letting them tie their own nooses. And then you’re letting them hang themselves. It’s the right way to play poker. — DB

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