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Aggression
CTO "Maniac" 02.09.2007

I'm NOT a MANIAC. A true maniac doesn't really care about winning. He just wants to take out his aggression and act out at the poker table. I just fire up cash games if they're boring and tight, and I take over the table in tournaments. Why? Because I DO care about winning.

It may not work for you, but it works for me. Yes, I do have some big losing sessions. But overall I'm a winning player. The other more timid folks at FlopTech tell me I'm a wild loose-aggressive player, but I know that they know that I'm not. Not really anyway. So I don't mind the nickname. It helps get action for me when I'm at the casino and they walk in and say "Hey, Maniac! How much you in for?" It's all about image. And a little selective wildness combined with selective aggression.

OK, we're finally on-topic now. I used the A-word. Aggression at the poker table is an absolute must. You're trying to take peoples' money, either in the form of chips with monetary value or by taking their buy-ins in tournaments. And that very act of taking peoples' money is, well, aggression. Right?

First: the basics. If you just passively call other players' bets, you can only win one way: by having the best hand. If you aggressively bet or raise, you can win in two ways: by having the best hand or by making the other player(s) fold. Now think about how many times you actually make a really strong hand. Not very often. Other players won't have strong hands that often either. So out-carding people with the best hand means that you're missing out on quite a lot of pots. Think about all the times you've seen a hand where there was minimal betting, one player had something like ace-high, and the other player had something like bottom pair no kicker. And how many times have you thought "If I hadn't folded my my ten-high I could have taken it with a bet."? Sure, it was a small pot. But you could have taken it without a fight. And small pots do add up.

Now think about the opposite. How many times have you won a pot with pocket aces or pocket kings when you bet and everyone else folded? You could have had napkins and still won the pot. You sat there folding for an hour, you got your big pocket pair, and you got no action. Why not? Could it be that people know you're waiting for pocket aces or pocket kings? Could it be that you've got such a tight image that people won't give you action? So why wait around for aces and kings? You won't get paid anyway!

What I'm saying is that betting or raising, aggressive acts, give you the opportunity to win more often than by passive calling. And just waiting for monster hands marks you as being a "rock" who does exactly that: waits for monster hands. People won't play against you. Those are the objective, rational arguments for aggressive play. But there are some subjective, image-related benefits to being seen as the wild aggressor. You can exploit peoples' perception of you to win more and bigger pots.

Next: cash games. I pretty much only play no-limit hold'em and I like to play a lot of hands. This makes people think that I'm a wild loose player. Truly wild loose players are usually losers. So that really gets the action going. People want to get in pots against me. I'll lose more pots than I win, people will mark me as the sucker and play worse hands than they would play against tighter "better" players. I'll buy-in for the minimum, spread some chips around the table and re-buy for more. (Note: never play like this in limit. You'll get enough action without advertising!) People are licking their chops, saying "yum yum: more chips for me!"

Suckers! By now the whole table is after me. It's all image-building. Now it's time to start playing. Sure, I lost lots of pots. But they were all small. The way I win money in the long run is to lose small pots and win big ones. I'll lull people into a false sense of security when they're up against me. They'll be thinking "He lost that last pot with ace-high against that guy who flopped a set of tens. My overpair is probably good." No such luck, Sparky. I knew I was beat then but I only had a few chips left anyway. This time I have top set, the board has no draws, I have a lot of chips, and I know I'm a big favorite.

Now my aim is to get all in by the river and bust that guy or double through him. If I've made a failed bluff before and I act before him, I might just push it all in on the flop to represent another bluff, especially if I've read him for strength and I'm sure he'll call. And I'll make the exact same betting motion and act the same as I did for the failed bluff. (See? I'm better than people think I am.) If he acts first and bets, I might just smooth call and look intensely at the board like I'm hoping to put a bad beat on him. Again, I'll put on the same look I did when I was, in fact, hoping to put a bad beat on someone. He might be so overconfident that he does the all-in move for me. So I win a big pot. Then I'll go back to losing a few small pots to reinforce the wildman image.

But I'll also be winning some small pots too. By keeping the pressure on, you force people to either wait for premium hole cards or to "gamble" with you with weaker holdings than they would normally play. That keeps the tight-weak players out and forces most other players out of their comfort zone. I keep track of the rocks and play hands that can crack big pairs against them, but rarely past the flop. I am, in fact, looking to put bad beats on them. But if I miss the flop and I'm sure they have a big pair and I have nothing, I'll usually fold. It's my image, right? They'll call me, the wildman (in their eyes), with a big pair.

The non-rocks will start playing more hands, and they won't like it. This enables aggressive players like me to bluff more. I'll lose the occasional small pot and only play big pots when I'm sure I'm a favorite. And as my stack hopefully gets bigger, I'll become an even bigger target since people will be expecting me to donk off all my chips. But it won't happen. They only notice how many pots I lose, not the size of the losses and the size of the wins. They're hoping I'll make a bad call for big money, which I won't. Their subjective emotions and greed are clouding their objective judgement, which should be telling them that I'm not as wild as I seem. I'm hoping that they will see me win and think "That guy played so bad but he got incredibly lucky and won big anyway." Next time they'll think the same thing.

But all the time, I'm getting good reads on people. Are they weak or strong post-flop? Can I bet them off top pair or an overpair with a big bet? Are they giving true weakness tells? True strength tells? (I've been getting "counseling" from our Webmistress, "Troi," on reading people.) Ramping up the pressure stresses people, and that makes them more emotional, which makes them easier to read. It might make them plain angry too, turning that emotional cloud into "the red mist" and making them steam. And steamers are who you want at your table! You've turned normal players into reckless maniacs.

Last: tournaments. This kind of lose-small win-big is pretty risky in tournaments. Unless you're in a rebuy tournament, of course. You might think that I'd be a freak for rebuy tourneys, but I think rebuys suck. Does that seem weird? Well you know what, it isn't. Lots of times in rebuy tournaments I'll run into people who are truly reckless and wild. These are the players who want to try to build up a big stack early because they think they can win the tournament by having an early chip lead. That rarely happens without massive luck and/or supreme skill. But sliding all-in in the dark, busting, rebuying, and sliding in again requires no skill other than the ability to yell "Rebuy!" And it also means that I'm not necessarily the most aggressive player at the table, which I don't like.

And even in freeze-out tourneys with no rebuys, there's already pressure to accumulate chips. I don't necessarily need to fire up the table like I would in a cash game full of rocks. Tournaments are all about walking the line between accumulating chips by betting and protecting your chips by folding.

So I'll hold back a bit when the blinds are still low. Just sit back and observe to look for tells. The blinds aren't worth fighting for, and if it's a big buyin tourney, sometimes even pocket aces aren't worth an all-in preflop. Yup. I actually said that, and I mean it. For example, if three guys are all-in in front of you and you have about the same stack size as all of them, you're just about even money to win. Why would they push big stacks in preflop? Because they have AA, KK, QQ or maybe AK. Whatever they have, they're all drawing against you. And unless the pot is chopped 3 ways, at least one of them is going to bust out. Make sure you don't bust out too. Bad beats happen. (See, I'm not a crazy maniac!)

But I will limp in and see some cheap flops in late position with nothing. Bad beats happen. If I can flop a full house with 72 offsuit, then fine, I'll bust somebody. But later in the tournament is when I really roll out the kick-ass. When the blinds are worth stealing, I'll steal the blinds. When it's bubble time, I'll bet the medium stacks off their hands. (But I'll watch out for the big stacks who can bust me and also the short stacks who won't push without good hands.)

The old saying about tournaments is "quality hands win early and quality bets win late." Well, I'm all about quality bets. If I'm lucky enough to get down to short-handed play, my true aggression can come out. Aggressive betting is a must when you're down to the final few. If I'm already in the money, say in the top 3, I'm truly fearless. Sure there's real money at stake, but I'll get paid no matter what at this point. Keeping the pressure on, once again, forces the others (who may be less comfortable with short-handed play) to either wait for good hands or bluff. Waiting for good hands when the blinds are nosebleed high is certain doom. You'll get blinded out.

By keeping the pressure on, you're also forcing the other players to gamble if they want to challenge you. Yeah, luck plays a huge part in winning tournaments, especially when you're down to the final table. That's why deals are common. It takes out the luck factor.

So aggression in tournaments, for me, anyway, needs to be held in check until the blinds get big. The exceptions are rebuy tournaments (yuck) and big buyin tournaments where the blinds increase very gradually and you start with a very deep stack. Some of these, like the WSOP and WPT tournaments, give you 10,000 in chips and the blinds start at 25/50. So there's lots of room to be aggressive and put plays on people. Just as long as you don't overdo it. If you lose some pots, there's still plenty of time to win it back. In a way, this type of tournament is like a cash game with small blinds and an uncapped buyin. In tournaments with fast blind levels you don't need to advertise by losing small pots. People are already under pressure to play.

Finally: the nutshell. I play aggressively because it enables me to win pots I couldn't win if I had to go to a showdown, it creates more action at otherwise tight tables and in turn builds bigger pots, and it is really the only way to win a tournament without some ridiculous luck. But pure, unrestrained, blind aggression, the way a true maniac plays, is a recipe for poker disaster. My aggressive play may seem reckless but it's not. You can take the small pots. I'll take the big ones.