Brunson: The advantages of aggressive play

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

If you’re too conservative in poker or in life, you simply can’t win big. You can plod along, usually quite smoothly, and survive. But that’s all.

If survival is all you’re about, you’re not really playing the game fully. Not the game of poker. Not the game of life. As sure as there are oil wells in Texas, you need to be aggressive to excel. Profit doesn’t come searching you out in your hiding place. You’ve got to jump out and pursue it.

And I’ve always pursued profit at poker with aggressive bets and daring raises. This is especially true at no-limit hold ’em. I mean, there’s always fear at poker, and – usually – you’re on one side of it or the other. You’re either causing the fear or you’re a casualty of it.

I don’t like being a casualty of fear, so I simply take charge. Let the other player worry and fret – that’s how I think. Make them afraid, because the more fear an opponent must deal with, the more of their precious mental resources are eaten up by it and the less ability remains for them to make correct decisions.

Practical advantages

So, I’ve always been aggressive. What are the practical advantages of aggression? Well, in no-limit, I pick up a lot of small pots. Tons of them. That’s because my opponents know how aggressive I am and they don’t dance around my pots very creatively. They’re worried that I’ll raise them so much they’ll be forced to fold anything but their strongest hands. That’s a fearful situation for opponents – knowing that, if you make any reasonably sized wagers, you’re apt to get raised right out of your seat. In weighs on your psyche, if you’re an average or even a semi-accomplished player. And, in the end, it causes you to behave in a predictable way: You simply don’t make your normal size bets or small raises when I’m in the pot against you. Instead, you behave yourself.

When that happens, what do you think the outcome is? It’s that I win a lot of small pots uncontested. Pot after pot. Players just don’t want to call my bets, risk betting into me, or fight back with reasonable raises because they fear what could happen. It’s the fear and uncertainty that works against them and keeps them from even competing for these routine pots.

My big secret to success is that I can pick up so many of these small pots that when I do get involved in a larger pot, I’m on a free roll, having already won enough to cover the cost of losing a big confrontation.

I often have the worst hand in big pots

And I do lose big confrontations. Because I bet so forcefully in an attempt to pick up small pots, when I am called, it’s usually by a big hand – most likely bigger than mine. People are surprised when I tell them I often have the worst hand in big pots, because they’re used to hearing that one of the keys to poker success is having the best of it when a lot of money goes into the pot. But when you can win so many smaller pots through aggressive play, you don’t need to have the advantage most of the time in the big pots. You just need to have a reasonable chance of winning them.

But I do give myself good chances of winning big pots – although I’m often the underdog – by trying to reserve by biggest bets for either quality hands or hands that are mostly bluffs but have additional means of escape – called outs. For instance, I may move all-in with an inside straight draw on the flop, expecting my opponent to fold unless he holds a very strong hand. Well, if he does hold that hand and calls, I still have two chances to get lucky and hit the straight, as well as other “miraculous” escapes.

It’s this style of play – betting so aggressively that I win most of my small pots and saving my biggest bets for hands when I’m either very strong or have outs – that has earned me my reputation as an aggressive player and a lucky one. I’m not really lucky – no one is substantially luckier than anyone else over years of play. It’s just that players often see me with the worst hand in big pots, and sometimes I catch one of those “lucky” outs. That’s what keeps the illusion alive.

Playing poker aggressively – especially in a game like no-limit hold ’em – will return dividends you never anticipated. It keeps opponents from playing their best games, because they’re afraid of what you’re going to do. And as soon as that happens, you might as well start spending the money. It’s yours. — DB

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