As I continue to shake off the rust after the Olympic blogging break, I thought I would break from the usual range of Sports Juice topics and talk some poker. By way of full disclosure, I occasionally play $1 or $3 sit-n-go tournaments online and very rarely take part in a small stakes home game. I am an ok player most days though my interest lies primarily in ‘playing perfectly’ vs. trying to build a bankroll. With that in mind, my favourite poker game is one that is full of tough competition. Therefore I welcome friends and family to read and learn from these posts and use the information to try to take my money next time we play!
It was actually one of those rare home games that I participated in over the weekend that inspired this series of posts. I think a good time was had by all, but a couple of the guys were basically donating their money in exchange for a night out. There is nothing wrong with that, but I think it would be a lot more fun for all if everyone had a chance of ending the night up a few dollars. As it was, there were seven of us playing with the top three making some money. It was a sloppy game and actually quite difficult to exert influence over. In my mind I play tight-aggressive, but the reality is I do enjoy getting involved in pots, applying pressure and hopefully then reading my opponents well. A looser version of tight-aggressive I suppose I could call it.
In our game, we had three loose-passive players, two loose- aggressive players and two tight-aggressive players (I will define these terms later). What made this game difficult is that it is a table mix that is very rarely seen online. In reality the table is a card player’s dream but it took me quite awhile to recalibrate my game to take advantage of the situation. It probably took a good 75 minutes before I won my first hand and another half hour before I had a clear plan in place to make the chips come my way.
With the above said, I will get into my list of tips that will hopefully help the casual player out at the tables. I was originally thinking of doing a top ten list, but I will probably just start with the fundamentals and build from there. If I get to 10 tips, that would be great. If I am still excited about the topic, perhaps I can get it up to 15. In any event, each tip will build on those previously discussed so I am sure the reader will get some value from the read.
Tip #1- Understand the various styles of play and the correct style of play to employ:
There are generally four types of poker players out there. It is important to note that the categorization of an individual player can change over time. For example, a tight-aggressive player has a couple of bad beats, goes on tilt and turns into a loose-aggressive player. The goal is to have a general understanding of how your opponents play to help you make better decisions.
1. Loose- passive: plays too many non-premium hands and tends to call bets through the river (feels invested in the hand and wants to play it out). This represents the worst possible style of play and represents how most casual players approach the game.
2. Loose- aggressive: plays too many non-premium hands and bets aggressively through the river. This is not a great way to play as you are open to having an opponent letting you hang yourself before showing you a monster hand. This strategy only works if you are able to read your opponents well and fully understand pot odds. Many beginners play this way as well.
3. Tight- passive: plays premium hands, but does not push the action. This is usually a good way to slowly lose your chips but can work in a super aggressive game.
4. Tight- aggressive: plays primarily premium hands and bets these hands aggressively. This is the ideal way to play poker, though you need to play enough non-premium hands to keep your opponent confused. If you only play AA, KK, QQ, and AK, it will be an easy fold for your opponents all night long.
In terms of my weekend game, I eventually opted to play tight-passive which allowed the loose-aggressive players to hang themselves and permitted the loose-passive players to stay in hands until the bitter, losing end. I then moved to tight-aggressive play when we were down to five players before speeding up to a more loose-aggressive style of play once we were down to four players.
The mistake I made early in the night is that I was incorrectly trying to push other players off their hand with mathematically correct raises on the river (playing tight-aggressive). The flaw in that logic is that casual players do not realize that it is mathematically incorrect to call such a raise and loose-aggressive players do not care about the math. The loose players quickly called my raises which left me dumping my cards on the turn. I was not getting very good cards so the correct style was for me to play a mix of premium and near-premium hands and slowly build up the pots.
The lesson for the casual player is to attempt to identify the style of play of each player at the table. The easiest way to do this is to start by thinking if the player sees a lot of flops (loose vs. tight) and then thinking about whether or not they check, bet or raise most of the time (passive vs. aggressive).
Perhaps more importantly, the casual player needs to understand what style they are playing. The goal for the casual player should be to always play tight-aggressive. With experience will come the ability to change gears from time to time, but playing tight-aggressive will give you your best chance at making a few dollars. I will end this by saying aggressive play is the correct style of play at least 90% of the time. It is a lot more fun to raise and force your opponent to make a decision than it is to have your opponent make the raise and put you in a tough spot.
Summary for tip #1:
- There are four broad styles of poker play.
- Players typically fall into one of the categories, though their style may change over time.
- Casual players typically play too passively and often very loose.
- Tight- aggressive play is the goal.
Tip #2: Understand table position
There are two elements of table position that are worth pointing out to the casual poker player. The first is your position relative to the other players in the game; the second is your relative position on each particular hand.
On the first point, it is important to use your analysis from tip #1 to understand the style of play for those players who are sitting near you. The individuals immediately to your left and to your right are the most vital to identify, though it is important to eventually push that analysis to those 2nd and 3rd from your left and right and finally out to include everyone at your table.
Why should you care about the style of play of those around you, you ask? It is critical information that will impact your style of play and quite possibly impact your ability to win.
In a perfect world, you want the aggressive players sitting to your right. The reasons for this are increased information and a greater ability to for you to play aggressively. You want to see what the aggressive players will do before you act and you do not want them stifling your aggression.
An aggressive player immediately to your left will give you headaches all night by raising when you bet and re-raising when you raise. This puts enormous pressure on you to make good decisions after already committing money to the pot. It makes it extremely difficult to steal the blinds, which is a critical part of the game. It is much easier to make a decision after seeing the aggressive player’s move.
I will give you a quick example to illustrate the point. I have J-9 on a flop of A-9-8 and I will be the fifth to bet. Blinds are $25/$50 and four of us called the $50 to see the flop. In the example, the big blind bets $100, I raise to $200 and the player to my left immediately makes it $400. What do I do? If it were a passive player, I would absolutely dump my cards (they aren’t likely to bluff and two 9’s with a jack isn’t very good). If it were an aggressive player, the decision is less clear. The aggressive player perhaps smells weakness and could be trying to steal the pot. Or maybe he has two aces. Or maybe he has 7-6 and has a straight draw. If you are going to call the bet you have to be pretty sure in your read otherwise you are likely going to have to dump the hand later on unless a miracle card appears.
If on the other hand, the aggressive player was immediately to my right and raised to $200, I now have control over the situation. I can fold and lose nothing. I could call and see what happens on the turn. I could also raise to $400 or $500 to figure out exactly where I stood in the hand. Even if I did not improve on the turn, I have given the impression that I have an ace which might be enough to cause the other players to fold if I bet the turn.
The bottom line is that life it a lot easier when the aggressive players are sitting to your right. You can still play winning poker when aggressive players are to your left but you need to really pick your spots to be aggressive.
On the second point, you need to understand your table position as it relates to the dealer (the button). The reason for this is that you are going to vary the quality of hands you play depending on your position relative to the button. On the button or very near (but to the left) of the button, you are going to play a wider variety of hands. Very near the button (to the right), you are only going to play premium hands. This is a critical concept and will save the casual player a lot of money. There are two ways to win money playing poker: 1) win money from other players and 2) save money by not making bad betting decisions.
Why does position matter, you ask? It is all a matter of information. Sitting on the button, you have the chance to watch the other 8 players check, bet, raise or fold before you have to make a decision. This luxury of acting last gives you the freedom to play more aggressively with a realistic hope of stealing pots.
If you are on the unhappy side of the button, you have to make a decision and then wait to see how other players react to your decision. If you bet and someone later raises, you pretty much need a premium hand to call the raise. Assuming you disagree and think, “I’ll call so I can see the flop”, let me remind you that you are going to have to act first on the flop, turn and river. If you bet and again are raised, you are in a very difficult spot unless you have a great hand. What is the best way to have a great hand on the flop or the turn? Have a great hand pre-flop. If you constantly want to see the flop, you are going quickly run out of cash, especially in early position.
Summary for tip #2:
- Understand the style of play of those seated near you as it will have a direct impact on your optimal playing style.
- Be aware of your seat position on every hand relative to the button.
- On the button you can play more hands due to getting to act last.
- Right after the button you plan less hands due to having to act early.
- Casual player often ignores the button and plays too many hands in early position.
Hopefully tips 1 and 2 makes sense. If not, post a comment and I will clarify as best as I can. I will define what constitutes a premium hand with tip #5. Before we get there, we need to understand pot odds and the fundamental theorem of poker (courtesy of David Sklansky’s book, “The Theory of Poker”). That will likely be a bit later this week.