When we play poker, typically we’re only concerned about one thing: Winning at poker. It’s obvious that winning at poker is important; however some players may be missing the bigger picture by ignoring some information. Winning at poker is a unique vocation because we have so many external and internal factors to consider; our opponent’s tendencies, our table image, and our poker hand strength just to name a few. With all of the excess information at our disposal, if we do have a losing session: Should we be less concerned about our winning money at poker and more concerned with our decisions?
In this poker strategy article I want to take the time to decipher the difference between short-term and long-term results. While each is important to our success, winning at poker long term is ultimately our main objective. Since long-term success is the goal, we’re also going to touch on the difference in thought process between amateurs and professionals. We’ll give plenty of examples along the way, so you’re not left in the dark.
Winning at Poker
Most importantly, this is going to be an article on ways to improve your results, while maintaining balance and minimizing exploits. We ALWAYS want to think about making the best/most-profitable play against our villains, regardless of whether we are winning money in that particular poker hand. We have to learn to digest an entire range, not just use the cards on the flop or the cards in front of us to make an educated, informed decision. This will ultimately be one of the toughest tasks; desensitizing ourselves from the money lost/won, and making the highest +EV play instead. It’s not just in situations where we lose money either, sometimes we will win a hand but should have lost, or played the hand more succinctly to win more than we did.
I could go on and on, but the biggest concept to understand is that we’re straying away from the here and now, and ideally looking towards the future. (This attitude can go a long way in life too, not just poker.) With a bit of study away from the tables too, we should be able to increase the rate at which we win at poker, and crush our opponent’s win-rates.
Understand Your Opponent
One of the biggest misconceptions about poker is that your success is heavily dependent on hand strength. While having a better poker hand than average is useful, it’s not essential to our winning poker strategy. Rather than worry heavily on what cards we receive, let’s concentrate on what our opponents are doing as they try to win at poker.
Paying attention at the poker table is a characteristic that often goes forgotten amongst great poker players; it’s become so trivial that its implementation is standard. For those of us looking to become less results-oriented, we’ll need to focus more on our opponent’s weaknesses because, regardless of hand strength, if we know what they’re trying to do, or the style they play, we can maximize gains and minimize losses simply by paying close attention.
In your typical live 200NL game, you’ll probably find a table full of average to decent poker players, some who are aggressive and some who are not. More often you’ll find a table that’s full of passive villains, poker players who limp consistently, raise only with premium hands, and are very predictable. These types of poker players are prime candidates for exploitation, and even when we have a weak-to-medium strength hand, often enough aggression will make these players surrender. Sometimes, however, weaknesses of our opponents aren’t obvious; instead they’ll require more thought and observation from us on how to extrapolate gains from weaknesses in their play. Sometimes poker players are too passive, other times they’re too aggressive, or sometimes you’ll need to three bet a poker player who plays position well, but maybe opens a bit too loosely in a 10-handed game from the later positions. Being card dead is not always an excuse for poor results; sometimes using our knowledge and having an understanding of key poker concepts will aid us in making winning decisions against opponents, regardless if they win at that poker session.
Example Winning Poker Hand: Live 200NL
We’re playing in a typical, tight-passive live 200NL game, with villains ranging from bad to competent. We’ve been staying out of trouble for the most part, and we could be considered “card dead” from several vantage points. Almost every player at the poker table limps excessively, and when players do raise, indicating strength, as long as it’s to a reasonable amount, almost all of the limpers usually concede.
In this poker hand, we’re involved against a middle-aged gentleman, who’s been playing very conservatively, but does get active pre- and post-flop when he has cards that normally make up a winning poker hand.
His effective stack is $250. We have him covered, if only slightly.
Hero’s hand: [Js Ts]
Villain raises to $12 from early position. It’s folded around to Hero in the cut-off. We elect to call, the button folds, and the small blind and big blind fold. We see a flop heads-up, with a pot of $27.
Board: [Jd 8d 8s]
Villain leads for $20. Hero?
Let’s analyze our play for a bit and optimize our decision to create a win at this poker hand. We know that our villain is decent player, and an early position raise from him, despite his preference for passivity, is a giant sign that he has a winning poker hand. More often than not, it’s a premium pocket pair. If this is true, given our poker hand, it’s unlikely that it’s JJ, seeing as though we have one in our hand, and now there’s one on the flop. So if we’re estimating a big pair, we’re thinking QQ+. He could also have a hand such as AQ or AK, both of which the majority of people would raise from early position.
Analyzing deeper, what we’re almost absolutely sure of is that this guy is a pretty passive player. For the most part, although good players would certainly be betting their missed high-card hands for balance, this guy probably would not. Even if he did somehow grow a set of balls, players of this type usually bet closer to half-pot than three-quarter pot to “save themselves money”. So we can be fairly certain that in this hand, our villain has a poker hand that he considers to be a winning poker hand.
So what do we do?
Well, when I make example hands, I try not to always put readers in easy situations, or even situations that are easily justifiable. So, I’ll start by saying that even though our call isn’t absolutely terrible, it’s not ideal either. We know our opponent’s poker hand is stronger than ours, so sometimes folding isn’t a bad option, and it helps us avoid reverse implied odds – reminiscent of the situation at hand.
What we have to understand comprehensively is that with a drawing hand of our type, we’re not always going to flop a monster draw (pair + draw, opened ended flush + straight draw), and if we do flop an average draw (straight draw, flush draw), we’re not going to improve often enough to make these hands profitable in and of themselves. We’re going to need to think about how to win at poker and take down the pot in other ways.
Luckily for us, although we didn’t hit a monster, we flopped a medium strength hand against a feeble opponent. While we’re fairly certain our villain’s hand is strong, he has little to no information on the strength of our hand, and it’s possible that with enough aggressiveness we can take this pot away. So how should we proceed?
On a board of J-8-8, if we actually had an eight, we would be crushing our opponent’s range of AQ, AK, and QQ+. He either has air, or a hand that has very few outs to improve. So should we raise the flop here with an eight? We could, and that is certainly a primary option we should consider. However, we’re fairly certain that our opponent will not call our raise without having us beat. So essentially by raising this hand, we’re turning this into a semi-bluff. When our hand has reasonable equity, this isn’t always the best option. Let’s examine further.
What if we decide to just fold? It’s understandable why we would consider folding here; we’re way behind our opponent’s range because it’s so tight, and we didn’t flop anything worth getting all our money in. But shouldn’t we have just folded pre-flop then? We commented on that already. Folding on the flop is reasonable, but still not the best option. Let’s see why.
What if we just call the flop? It seems bad at first, but let’s look at things more closely. If we had an eight in this spot, we already understand that we would be way ahead, and the only way we would get more money from our villain is by slow playing, and hoping he’ll bet his entire stack by showdown. So for balancing reasons, and to make our opponent’s decisions difficult, we should call with hands other than “the nuts”, so he’ll continue his aggression when we actually DO have the winning poker hand. If we fold this hand to a c-bet, what hands will we continue with? Furthermore, despite having a medium strength hand at the moment, think of all the terrible cards that can come on the turn for our villain. Any diamond, any jack, any straight-completing card (queen, seven, nine, ten), or even a spade which improves our equity. Even if a “brick” falls on the turn, we can easily represent an eight by raising his turn bet all-in.
These are the types of moves we should be considering, despite our ACTUAL hand strength. We’ll be putting our opponent into a dangerous spot for all of his chips on the turn if he decides to bet again, putting him to a decision about whether his hand can win at poker here. If we decided to call his $20 continuation bet on the flop, the pot would then be $67 on the turn. Any reasonable bet would be over $40, giving us an ample opportunity to shove over a turn bet, or as many like to say, “Make the last raise”. As we alluded to, if any scare card arrives, he’ll be putting his entire stack at risk, and even if called, we’re not drawing dead. For someone as risk adverse as the villain described, this is a great chance to maximize fold equity and win a good sized pot on average, regardless of the actual results.
One of the keys in the example was our range estimation; we used what we learned about the tendencies and habits of our opponent to put them on an accurate range. With tighter ranges and more predictable opponents, our range estimations will be more important. As the ranges for our opponents get looser, precision is much less vital. However, what we truly need to grasp from ranges is that as we move toward making plays that will give us the highest expectation long-term, dissecting your opponent’s range before more cards are seen will help you make great decisions on later streets. Trust the information you’ve accumulated, your reads, and your instincts. More often than not, it’s usually based on credible resources.
There’s no need to hide in a shell when you face aggression, or tough decision-making. Instead, make a game plan early and execute it. Only adjust to a truly unexpected action. Trust your gut and you’ll be winning at poker more often than you ever have.
Defense? – A Strategy for Winning at Poker
Although with really good poker players it’s hard to find them unbalanced in certain spots, I find that in recent years many poker players have been attacking with so much aggression that it has backfired. I can think of the recent 6-bet at the WSOP Main Event in 2010 by Joseph Cheong as one of the prime examples, although it’s certain that Cheong probably had his reasons for making such a move (it’s actually been documented here.) But, using a more relatable example, I find that the attack of paired boards has been taken to a new level.
While not every good player will do this, those who understand ranges and how particular board textures don’t change them have pressed the action on paired boards because of the unlikelihood that it’s helped their opponent. While this is understandable and profitable, smart opponents who win at poker making risky moves will make adjustments, and call down with A-high hands, or even K-high hands in bloated pots.
I bring up this scenario (again), because as we’re tweaking our game to ignore immediate results and harness the long term notion of winning at poker. It is essential to understand why this is being done with so much regularity. In many of the micro-stakes and lower-stakes games, I don’t see this employed enough. So many times will you witness the typical tight-passive regular raise a villain’s c-bet on A-7-7, only to have them fold. Afterwards, they show their seven, the observant players roll their eyes, and the game continues. Instead, if we were much more active on paired boards, we could now use our aggressive image to get paid off when we DO actually have trips. Even when we don’t, against the passive and timid opponents we’ve described, our aggression may teach how how to win at poker with fold equity – particularly if we’ve been playing very tight and aggressive ourselves, and have only shown down winning poker hands.
In the process of making high EV decisions, we need to look out for other smart players, because many of them will understand what we’re doing, and try to exploit us by using our aggression against us. But simultaneously, we should be thinking about balance, and using our image to get us the result we want; a massive pot with the best hand at showdown to be winning at poker. Changing gears and increasing profit is the bottom line, and we’ll need to employ aggression and reservation in equilibrium to achieve that goal.
Offense – A Winning Poker Strategy
Since we’ve talked a bit about our offensive adjustments already at the poker table, we’ll use this category to tackle some of the smaller modifications made to be winning at poker. Increasing your amount of aggression is hard at the poker table, and while more is generally better, we don’t want to take that mantra too far. Too much aggression will get you looked up far too often, and if we’re bluffing too much it’s easy for our observant opponents to adjust by calling us down light. On the other hand, if we’re not aggressive enough, we shouldn’t get paid by our big hands, because most times we’re sitting there idly waiting for the big pay off, and when we do it’s like an elephant entered the room.
By keeping meticulous records, we’ll have documentation to refer back to if our results tend to go too far awry. As we’ve said, we don’t want to become overly concerned about our results if we understand the method behind our madness, especially if we know it should lead to further profit down the line. But we don’t want to become maniacs either. There are certainly some world-class maniacs – Phil Ivey, “durrrr”, and Isildur to name the best – but we can’t include ourselves in that category (at least not yet).
Instead, when it comes to offensive execution, let’s focus more on what strikes fear into our opponents and communicates to them that we know how to win at poker. Simple conversation can sometimes do the trick. If you found out while playing poker, that they’re playing recreationally, it’s possible that he or she has little-to-average knowledge about the game, is having fun, or is looking to gamble a bit. Winning at poker may not be why they’re sitting there playing with you. Maybe you found out the person to your right is on one buy-in. They’ll probably be scared to stack off too lightly, so you should increase your aggression towards them. Find out what your opponents are afraid of, and use it to torture them. In sounds maniacal, but in some respects, we want to be classified as such considering the people who win at poker the most are classified similarly.
Summary of How to Win at Poker
Overall, we want to spend more time increasing our activity at the table. This will help us get paid off, while increasing our chances of winning at poker games we play. In poker, there are two ways to win the pot, we can win a poker hand at showdown by having the better hand, or we can win at poker by making our opponent fold, thus maximizing our fold equity. Passivity doesn’t give us the latter option. If we’re aggressive, we put our opponents’ ability to the test, and more often than not, the bad players will make the incorrect decision.
If you’re testing out these adjustments for the first time, be sure to tread carefully, and move slowly. Keep detailed results. If you’re not doing well for an extended period of time, don’t be afraid to revert back to a more traditional style. It will decrease variance, even at the compromise of a higher rate of winning at poker. Eventually, however, we want to take the time to master the art of aggression so that we’re balanced, and one of the leaders at our stake in terms of profit and unpredictability. It takes time, but the time invested is truly an investment (for lack of a better term).
Aggression and ignoring your results for the sake of future profit isn’t a microwave recipe; it’s a slow simmer that requires marinating several elements into one balanced blend of poker sophistication. That sounds cheesy, but it’s true. When you watch the likes of Viktor Blom, or any comparable player in action, it may seem like they’re doing things that are completely insane. But they all have a rhyme and a reason. Sometimes, it takes time to figure out why that is. That’s what I’m trying to inspire you to do. Focus less on the immediate, and more on the potential. You should see your results skyrocket because of it.
Good luck winning at poker, and I hope to see you at the tables!