Alex Scott gets back to his poker fundamentals and suggests you do the same
Many years ago my karate instructor told me that the most dangerous belt to have was the blue belt. He explained that often, intermediate martial artists would focus too heavily on flashy techniques that they didn’t fully understand, get cocky, and forget the basics. This would cause them endless grief.
Likewise, the typical intermediate poker player relies far too much on flashy moves. They make too many hero calls with hands destined to lose, too many big folds with strong hands, and too many mindlessly aggressive plays. If you’re one of these players, you would do well to take time out and get back to basics. Even the best players in the world have been known to suffer from ‘fancy play syndrome’ now and again.
I’m going to reexamine the fundamentals of a good tight-aggressive style and refresh our minds as to why the style works even in today’s hyper-aggressive games. In this article, we’ll focus on preflop play in nine-handed ring games with stacks of 100 big blinds or so.
What is tight aggressive play?
Some players think tight play equals unimaginative play, but this isn’t true. Tight play gives you an advantage which is difficult to counter with imagination alone! Put simply, if you throw away weak hands you will not be put to tough decisions with weak hands, and you won’t lose money with them.
If you play stronger hands than your opponents preflop, you will tend to make stronger hands after the flop and at the showdown. This means that although you’ll be throwing away lots of starting hands, when you do enter a pot you’ll usually be doing so with a significant advantage over looser opponents.
A tight style of play also has another benefit. Because you will tend to lose fewer, smaller pots, your bankroll doesn’t have to be as big to ride out the short-term fluctuations in the game. Your variance is reduced, allowing you to grind out a small steady profit on a more consistent basis than if you play a loose style.
Aggression means betting and raising, as opposed to checking and calling. If you play aggressively you give yourself two ways to win a pot either you can have the best hand at showdown, or your opponents can fold. In contrast, if you check and call you have only one way to win, which is to present the best hand at showdown.
Consequently, when you choose to enter the pot, you should often do so by raising instead of calling. If you are playing a tight style you will usually have the best hand, so it is to your advantage to increase the size of the pot. Raising also has other benefits: you may ‘thin the field’, making the hand simpler to play on future streets; you charge your opponents more to call and so deny them the correct odds to continue; and finally you balance your play by raising with strong hands, thereby enabling you to make bluff-raises with weak hands at other times.
The importance of position
The importance of position is difficult to overstate. If you act after your foes, you get to see what they do before you have to act, and you can use that information to help you decide what to do. For example, if you are dealt a speculative hand like 5♠-4♠ and five players call before the action reaches you, then you can also call and enter the pot cheaply without worrying about being raised. However, if you have the same hand when first to act, you don’t know if one of the players behind you is going to raise and make it expensive to get involved.
Also, imagine that you did get involved with the 5♠-4♠ when first to act, and luckily for you nobody raised. Now you have to play the flop, turn, and river out of position. If you make a strong hand, you don’t have any information from your opponents that will allow you to extract the most value. If you have a weak hand, you don’t know whether you will be able to bluff your opponents.
Acting before your opponents is such a handicap that you should avoid getting involved with marginal hands like small suited connectors or small pairs in early position, and you should tend to stick to high cards. In late position however, the advantage is with you. You can play more hands, as you will have more information on subsequent streets.
If you make a strong hand, you’ll be able to extract more value from your opponents. If you make a weak hand, you’ll be better able to spot bluffing opportunities. Consequently, you can enter the pot with hands like suited connectors and small pairs, assuming there hasn’t been a raise.
What makes a good starting hand?
The higher the cards in the hand the better. For example, 3-2o has no high-card strength, A-A has the best possible high-card strength, and A-2o is somewhere in the middle since it has one high card and one low card.
If your two hole cards are the same suit you are much more likely to make a flush than if they are not.
If the two cards are close together, the hand is much more likely to make a straight than if they are not connected. The closer the cards are to each other the better. For example, T-9s is more likely to make a straight than T-8s.
In hold’em confrontations, the hand with the most high-card strength will usually be the favourite. For example, A-2s is a favourite over K-Qo. However, you would often prefer to have K-Qo, as it can be easier to play after the flop. Also be aware of an effect known as domination. If you have A-J, anyone who has A-Q or A-K has you dominated. If you make a pair of Aces, your opponent will make the same hand with a better kicker.
In order to win the pot, you need to make a pair of Jacks while hoping your opponent doesn’t make a pair of Queens or Kings (unlikely) or make a straight or a flush (very unlikely). If your hand is dominated, you’ll typically have about a 25% chance to win the pot, if you can make it to a showdown.
The ‘standard’ raise in no-limit hold’em is three times the big blind. For example, if the big blind is $1, your opening raise will be to $3. If any other players have already called, you can add another big blind to your raise size per player. For example if one player has called, make your opening raise $4, and if two have called, make it $5. The standard raise strikes a nice balance. Larger raises tend to risk too much in order to win the pot, and force out opponents with weak hands (which are the ones you want to play against). Smaller raises allow your opponents to enter the pot too cheaply, reducing the likelihood that they are making a mistake, and fail to build the pot while you have the power of position.
Playing in early position
As discussed, in early position you should play only the very best hands, and you should play those hands aggressively. Doing so will simplify your decisions after the flop, reduce your variance, and minimise any chance of domination.
In early position, high-card strength is the dominant factor in choosing a starting hand. As a result, you should consider throwing away any unpaired hand weaker than A-Js, and any pair lower than nines. If you enter the pot with weaker hands, you’ll find yourself running into better Aces and bigger pairs too frequently, and often you’ll be put to the test with a reraise.
A simple rule of thumb when deciding whether or not to enter a pot is to ask yourself: ‘If I raised and the button reraised, could I call?’ If you have a hand like K-T suited in early position, you probably won’t call a reraise with it. So why enter the pot at all? ABC poker is about simplifying your decisions so that you don’t make costly mistakes. Don’t put yourself into tough situations unnecessarily.
Playing in middle position
In middle position, you already have information from early-position players that you can use to help you decide what to do. One useful concept to bear in mind is the ‘gap concept’. This states that you need a stronger hand to call a raise than you do to raise yourself. To illustrate this idea, imagine that the UTG player raises with the top 5% of hands.
To be a percentage favourite over that player, your hand range needs to be even narrower perhaps the top 4% of hands or less. If your range of hands is wider, you will be a percentage underdog. Although you can loosen up slightly if you are entering the pot as the first player in, due to the gap concept your standards for calling a raise must be similar to those you would enter the pot with in early position.
If an early-position player has limped in, you can consider limping along with hands that play well in multi-way pots, such as suited connectors and small pairs. Here you are encouraging other players to limp in behind you, building a pot and increasing the chances that you’ll be paid off should you hit.
Playing in late position
In late position, you can expand your starting hand requirements much more, as you’ll have a significant advantage throughout the hand. For example, if you’re the first one into the pot, you can certainly raise with hands like A-9s, K-Jo, and Q-Js.
Stealing the blinds in deep-stacked cash games isn’t as widespread as it is in tournaments. Although you should of course go after the blinds, doing it with complete rags isn’t a good idea, as you’ll tend to get yourself into complicated postflop situations which is what you’re trying to avoid with an ABC style.
Some hands, such as suited connectors like 8-7s, may actually lose value if you raise with them. This is because if you raise, almost all worse hands will fold and all better hands will call or raise. You end up stacking your opponent’s range against yours, and reducing the chances that you’ll be able to win a big pot all for the sake of winning the blinds. It may be better to limp with these hands, even in late position, and make the most of any postflop opportunities that arise.
The problems with ABC play
You can win in low-stakes games by playing an ABC strategy and rarely deviating from it, especially in brick-and-mortar poker rooms which tend to have weaker games. However, in games with more savvy opponents, an ABC style is quite exploitable. Such opponents will tend to pounce on your tight play by raising you more frequently in position and stealing your blinds more often. In addition, because an ABC style is somewhat predictable, you’ll find sophisticated opponents can read your hands better and make better decisions against you.
We all know that rules are meant to be broken! Sometimes, you’ll find you’re in a game where an ABC style simply won’t do, usually because you’re playing against sophisticated opponents or playing the same opponents for a long time.
In this situation, you can start to mix up your play in particular, by opening with more hands and reraising without always needing a top-quality holding. Perhaps you can choose a certain ‘randomiser’ hand such as 7-2o or 5-3s that you will play the same way as if you had pocket Aces, in order to mix up your play.
Alternatively, perhaps you’ll start to raise from early position with suited connectors, so that your opponents don’t always know you have high cards and big pairs in such a position. This magazine is full of ways to adjust your strategy use it to your advantage!
Playing in the blinds
The blinds are a special case, because you already have money invested in the pot, which effectively makes it cheaper to enter the pot. However, the big downside is that after the flop you will be in very poor position. If you’re in the big blind facing a raise, you can call a lot more liberally than you normally would.
If you’re in the small blind, you can call slightly more liberally than you normally would. If it’s limped to you in the small blind you shouldn’t get involved with every starting hand, simply because the amount you will tend to lose after the flop by calling with weak hands eclipses the amount you lose by folding.
1 The biggest mistake players make preflop is getting involved with weak hands out of position, especially hands that are likely to be dominated. If you are a winning player, one of your bread-and-butter situations will be facing an opponent who holds a weak Ace, and extracting three streets of value against them with your A-K.
2 If you are going to mix up your play in early position, do it with hands that will be simple to play after the flop hands like 5-4s are easier to play than K-Jo because if you make a pair or two pair, it’s less likely that you are dominated.
3 Another common mistake is not raising enough when entering the pot. If you only double the big blind, you allow opponents to get involved cheaply, and potentially flop a big hand that they can win your whole stack with. That’s always a risk, but you can minimise it by charging opponents a more significant amount to enter the pot with their marginal hand.
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