Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2011) in Bluff magazine under the title Hold’em Traps.
Playing against intelligent, ultra-aggressive poker opponents can be traumatic and terrifying. Not for me, though. And not for you, either, after we’re finished talking today.
Lean close, so I can whisper. Those players you instinctively fear most are actually some of the easiest to beat.
You might argue that those sophisticated opponents are taking command of the game by forcefully betting and raising and piling up mountains of chips. Clearly, they can’t be easy to beat or they wouldn’t be winners. Interesting thought. Here’s the deal. Yes, they’re playing superior poker. Yes, they’re winners. Yes, you should sometimes play the way they do.
Yes, yes, yes! Yes, because ultra-aggression works for them. Good job, poker warriors. You are worthy players, all. Your mamas, papas, sisters, brothers, and friends are proud of you. You’re ferocious and fearsome, vicious and victorious. And yet, Mike Caro says you’re pussycats. Meow!
Well, I know Mike better than anyone, and he’s right about this. Let’s examine it.
The truth about poker aggression
The best way to win at poker if you’re not especially skillful is to sit and wait. You need to play extremely tight. In most casual games, this simple style can be profitable. But not very. The reason it wins is that unsophisticated opponents play far too many hands and call far too many bets. This means that if you only play the very best cards, you’ll have enough weak hands competing to win overall.
The semi-strong hands you’re folding by playing super-selectively are ones that don’t earn great gobs of money. But when you add them all together, they account for a large share of potential profit. That’s why playing very tight poker isn’t the right road to becoming a superstar.
Fine. So what is the path to plentiful profit? The advice you’ve often heard – “play tight, but aggressive” – is pretty much on the money. But how aggressive? Aren’t the superstars too aggressive.
Of course they are. But most opponents are intimidated and don’t take advantage. That’s why the extra aggression actually works.
The solution is actually quite simple. I often describe these ultra-aggressive players as poker bullies. You should be that way yourself if you opponents let you. But you shouldn’t let others get away with it, because the answer is simply to call more often and bet less often. By doing that, you’re letting the poker bullies hang themselves.
You see, they’re making a fundamental mistake of betting and raising too frequently. Looking at the science of poker, we see that there’s a perfect balance of times you should bet and times you should raise, in accordance with the hands you hold in various situations. When you assume your opponents are also playing flawlessly, sticking with that perfect balance guarantees that you won’t lose any money (excluding the rake). If you bet or raise less often than perfect balance, you’re losing money by not taking advantage of your advantages. If you bet or raise more often than perfect balance, you’re losing money by giving your opponents good value by calling.
And that’s why you should defeat poker bullies by often checking, instead of betting. That gives them the opportunity to make their mistake. Of course, you can also bet small amounts and lure the bullies into raising. Your choice – a dance you’ll have to practice. But whether you check and are bet into or bet and are raise, you should call more often. If you do that, there’s no known counter-strategy for bullies. They either return to sensible play, wounded and whimpering, or they proudly continue to wager excessively while you take their money.
So, I use a lot of trap plays against overly aggressive opponents. In no-limit hold ’em, this example is among my favorites.
We hold Q♥ Q♠. The bully raises the $100 big blind from a middle position, making it $300 to go. We’re next to act, in the adjacent seat. I’d seldom just call that bet, because our pair of queens faces the danger of an ace or king flopping, and we don’t want to risk letting hands like A-Q, K-Q, or A-9 suited come in behind us. But against this aggressive raiser, we don’t want to raise too much. Let’s tempt him to raise again.
Assuming we both have large stacks, I’ll often make it $700 to go, a $400 raise. It’s the perfect tease. I’d make it $600, but raising the minimum allowed size – equal to the previous bet – kind of looks wimpy and may look suspicious. So, if we end up head-to-head against this lively opponent, that’s what we want most.
It’s up to him. Often you’ll succeed in luring a substantial reraise, but this time we’ll pretend he just calls. Too bad. Now the flop comes Q♦ 7♣ 2♠. Life doesn’t get much better than that, right? The pot is $1,550 – $700 from each of us, plus the $100 big blind and $50 small one. Our bully buddy bets $1,600. Great, he bet right into big trouble, illustrating the mistake he so frequently makes.
So, let’s take advantage. We raise about… Wait! We don’t “raise about” any amount whatsoever. We deliberate for precisely six seconds and call. A long deliberation might seem suspicious, as might an immediate call. Why not raise? Because we want to keep the bully in the lead. He’ll usually feel as if things are going his way and bet again on the turn.
The turn card is 3♥, making the board Q♦ 7♣ 2♠ 3♥. We hope the bully actually has some reasonable hand, such as A-Q, or maybe 7-7. But that’s not likely. He’s probably improvising with faint hope or is outright bluffing. Let’s see how much he bets into this turn card. Certainly that three of hearts won’t make him back off, because it’s hard for him to figure us for holding a three.
Oops! He checks. That’s really unusual. Maybe he’s trying to trap us! Or maybe he just gave up on the hand. Hmm. So, now we check.
What? You read it right. We check. We’re going to make him feel completely safe now, plus eliminate any idea he has in his head about trapping us. He now knows we’re not inclined to bet the hand. If he’s bluffing, it should seem safer to do so on the river – depending on the card that hits the board, of course. And if he has some moderately strong hand, he’ll know he needs to bet it, because we’re not likely to do it for him. Additionally, had we bet on the turn, we might have forced him to fold, and all the good fortune that’s about to happen would have vanished.
Here comes the river card. It’s 7♦, and the final board is Q♦ 7♣ 2♠ 3♥ 7♦. We have a faint concern about him holding 7-7 and having made four-of-a-kind, but that isn’t likely, and this is poker. In poker, you gamble. You can’t hide under the bed in your pink Winnie-the-Poo jammies when the wind blows scary branches against the window. Okay, maybe your childhood was different than mine, but you get the point.
So, now he surveys the $4,750 pot and bets $3,000. It’s not time to make an all-in bet. We raise $3,500. Yet another tease. Now, he moves all-in. Oh-oh – could actually be four sevens. But we call. No, he had A♠ J♠. Huh? A pure bluff. Just another hand in the life of a super-aggressive bully, I guess. Let’s stack those chips.
The point is that you should never be terrified of super-aggressive opponents. They’re making the mistake of wagering too often. Take advantage by checking and by calling. They’re so much fun to tease. — MC