The Right and Wrong Ways to Use Aggression at The Poker Table
We all know we need to be more aggressive at the poker table, we’ve heard about it during WSOP broadcasts, we’ve seen players like Phil Ivey and Doug Polk preach about it ad-nauseam over the past decade, and yet it’s still a bit of a mystery to many recreational players how to add this wrinkle to their game without throwing everything else off and spewing chips all over the table. So, what’s the answer?
Because while it may be fine in theory, badly executed aggression will serve nothing but to speed up the process of losing all your money. So, before we look at the right kind of aggression, let’s make sure to outline what to look out for so that we are not applying the wrong kind.
The Wrong Kind
Most wrong kinds of aggression at the poker table can be boiled down to a few key triggers: tilt from a losing session, the frustrating realization midway through a hand that you have no other way to recoup the chips you just put in the middle, or well-meaning but ultimately futile attempts at taking aggressive actions without a solid understanding of the fundamentals required to make them profitable. Simply put, if you can’t give a confident explanation for why a spot is well-suited for increased aggression, you’re in immense danger of using the wrong kind of it.
The Right Kind
So, if that’s the wrong kind, what’s the right kind? Well, firstly, it’s important for you to become masterful at analyzing the stories your opponents will be consistently trying to sell you, while also understanding how to manipulate their perception of your story to your advantage. Here’s what each of these strategies look like in practice:
As discussed in our strategy article on ‘balance’ at the poker table, analyzing your opponents’ stories (as well as painting believable ones of your own) begins with thinking congruently about the hand. This means that once you’ve assigned your opponent (or yourself) a range of hands based on the preflop action, your focus needs to remain on those hands alone as you progress through each street, constantly trimming away at the mental-image as postflop actions eliminate the likelihood of any of the remaining holdings. This may seem obvious to some, but one of the most common mistakes inexperienced poker players make while attempting to learn how to play poker is waiting until the river to ask themselves what their opponents could have and then trying to fit their analysis to the board – as opposed to the other way around – without consideration for the fact that many of those possibilities are highly unlikely to show up based on the way the hand has played out (for example, being worried about the ace on the river when a short-stacked opponent would have gone all in preflop with any ace).
Once you begin ranging your opponents congruently, you’ll likely find yourself in all sorts of spots where your opponent’s story makes no sense; or if does, that it’s just broadcasting the weakness of their hand. This is when the real fun begins.
Let’s turn back to the example above for a second. Imagine you’ve somehow ended up on the river against a short-stacked opponent who’s been passive throughout the hand – flatting your open and check-calling two small bets on a draw-heavy board – but suddenly leads a third of their remaining stack out-of-position on an offsuit river ace. Since you’re now a master story-analyst, and know full well the majority of players would not play their Ax hands in the way this particular villain did, you can call BS on their story and manipulate their perception of your own holdings (strong, you were the aggressor after all) by putting them to the test and sliding all your chips forward (with only a few big blinds actually at risk thanks to their short stack). Of course, some of the time you’re going to get snapped off with some tricky two-pair hand, or even slowplayed aces, but the vast majority of the time you’ll either get yourself a fold, or, in the worst case scenario, a sigh-call from a frustrated opponent who’s all but given up, which you can use to your advantage by reducing your bluffing frequency in the short-term against your now curious opponents.
To showcase an even more common example, imagine a weak loose-aggressive player makes a minimum raise from the cutoff and you elect to flat a hand like 86s from the big blind. The flop comes 743 with one card of your suit and after you check your option, the opener puts in a standard continuation-bet. In this spot, since perception is that you could (and will) have nearly any two cards while your opponent has a very narrow range of value-hands on this type of board, this might be a good time to employ the dreaded check-raise with the intention of barrelling off any but the very worst runouts.
Because while your opponent may call one raise with a hand like A5 and A2, unless he has a monster such as an overpair or set, or he manages to get extremely lucky on the runout, his remaining holdings will not be able to withstand the pressure of unbridled aggression. Notice too that when we pull a play like this, we make sure to do it with plenty of equity, having an overcard, gutshot, and backdoor flush draw, while also reducing the probability we’re trying to bluff the nuts by holding one of the cards required for it in our own hand. Not only that, but if he does in fact call the flop raise and manages to spike a 5 with a hand like A2 or 54s, we likely get his entire stack.
This is what is meant by the ‘right kind’ of aggression; not just pumping the gas for the hell of it, but using the art of poker story-telling and perception-manipulation to attack spots where it is nearly impossible for your opponent to fight back without a relatively powerful hand, something that doesn’t come around as often as it may seem on TV. Practice these things, being a good story analyst, being an even better story-teller, and utilizing aggression to your advantage when you see an edge in the story-telling battle, and you’re likely to leave your opponents as frustrated and tilted as you once felt yourself.
Best of luck out there!
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