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Play the Player
CEO "Rocket Boy" 02.27.2007

You've probably won many pots without having to show your cards. How many of those times did you have a monster hand? How many times did you bluff with nothing? You've probably also played in cash games or tournaments where you've needed to go all the way to a showdown often.

Now think back: were there players at the table against whom you rarely got to a showdown? And others against whom you usually did get to a showdown? If so, remember them: you can use their tendencies against them. "Playing the player" means that your actual holding is less important against some opponents than against others. You're using their weaknesses against them, in a sense playing their hand instead of yours.

I'm going to keep it simple here. I'll just give you a few things to try the next time you're in a no-limit hold'em cash game or tournament. (Limit games are more about math and the odds of making your own hand and less on "playing the player," but we'll get to that some time soon.) What you do depends, of course, on who you're playing against and how they play.

Basically, you want to observe how your opponents play in general, then exploit their weaknesses. When you get a chance. Unless you're heads-up, there will be other players at the table so you usually won't be able to isolate just one opponent (and his/her weakness) at a time. And don't forget to keep on observing as the game progresses. What did you do against them and how do they perceive you? You need to observe yourself as well, and keep on observing because things can change. Now let's break it down.

Observe Them

You're looking for players who are predictable and don't change up their play enough. Are they too tight, folding a lot and waiting for big pairs? Are they too loose, playing too many weak hands too far? Are they bluffers, betting and then getting snapped off? Keep track of their tendencies so you can exploit them later.

Exploit Them

A too-tight player's big blind is ripe for the picking, especially in tournaments when the blinds are getting big enough to be worth stealing. If you're in late position and nobody has opened, make the "standard raise" and see if you can steal it. In a cash game it's probably too small to be worth worth stealing. Players who are overly tight probably won't get too far in tournaments, especially if the blinds increase quickly.

And since tight players wait for premium hands, you can put them on a big pair or a big ace when they raise preflop. If everyone else folds and it's just you and Mr. Tight, you can fold cheaply instead of trying to out-flop him. One symptom of waiting for big pairs is overplaying those pairs when you finally get them. So if Mr. Tight gets his aces or kings, very few flops will be scary enough to let you bluff him.

A too-loose player who calls your raises when you have a big hand can be milked for chips preflop, on the flop, on the turn, and on the river. If you've flopped big and know you're way ahead, don't just bet big and blast him off the hand. Bet 1/4 to 1/3 of the pot to price Mr. Caller in. Let him hit one of his face cards vs. your top set, then make bets that keep him in the hand.

This kind of "calling station" player can go broke quickly, even in the early stages of a tournament. If you don't get an early chance to isolate, flop big, and get a chunk of his chips, you might miss out entirely. In a cash game, just hope that he reloads after he busts.

The bluffer can be re-bluffed out of a hand, preferably when you have position on her. For example, if she makes a raise for the fifth hand in a row, and nobody else has stood up to her onslaught, re-raise Ms. Bluffer with nothing. Especially if you can afford to lose your bet (because she calls or raises with a real hand) or have a bigger stack and can bust her.

Bluffers usually don't want to get into huge all-in showdowns. They might not even be playing to win money! (But discussion of poker psychology is a different topic.) Usually they're happy stealing limps and/or blinds and especially small weak-looking raises. Don't let them dominate the table: assert yourself and shut down Ms. Bluffer. If she knows you're going to act after her, maybe she'll stop bullying and let you see some cheap flops.

There's an extreme form of bluffer: the maniac. They're rare but you'll know them when you see them. He or she will play almost every hand and bet big. Sometimes they'll firehose lots of money into a game then leave broke. Other times they'll catch cards, bust people, then successfully bully the table. A normal bluffer is trying to win pots, but a true maniac's motivation isn't winning. (Again with the psychology.) We'll just lump them into the Ms. Bluffer category.

Situate

You'll still need to wait for good situations against these player types. If it's just you and Mr. Tight, and he bets a significant portion of his or your stack, you should fold anything but the biggest pairs. He's blown out your implied odds on the hand. But more importantly, by giving him no action when he's got a big pair, you're countering his entire playing style. You want to make him loosen up a bit, play more hands, and give YOU more action as well.

On the other hand, if Mr. Tight raises from early position, there are 5 callers, and it's your turn to act on the button, you could call with a pretty weak hand and hope to flop big and win a monster pot. Mr. Tight might not be able to get away from his aces, and you could bust him if you flop two pair or a set and he moves in.

You'll rarely get heads-up with Mr. Caller since everyone else wants to isolate him too. Be careful if you're in early or middle position: you might bet trapped between Mr. Caller and somebody with a better hand than yours. This is one player type that you'd rather have act after you. By betting first, you set the price, which will be small enough to keep him in. If he acts before you and chooses to check, your bet might remind him that he's at a positional disadvantage and make him fold.

Ms. Bluffer is one that you can get into a heads-up situation with fairly easily. Her whole modus operandi is to flat out steal. Many times everyone at the table knows this but nobody will stand up to her because "she might have a hand this time." True, but if it's late in a tournament and she's robbing everyone blind, you might be forced to take a stand.

Be careful with this one though. They say "never bluff a bluffer" for good reason. Bluffers think that everyone else is bluffing too. If you have a really tight image, your re-bluff might win the pot preflop. And, if you've actually got a hand (or a good read on her) you might just call preflop, let her take another shot at the flop, and re-bluff (or value-bet) again. The idea is to make your re-bluff look exactly like a value bet. What does a value bet look like? That brings us to the next section.

Observe Yourself

You know your normal style, and after a while you've figured out how everyone else at the table plays. But if you've played fewer hands than your normal style because you're not getting any playable hands, and won a pot with a big pocket pair, you're starting to look like Mr. Tight. Mr. Caller will probably be less likely to call your bets.

And getting back to Ms. Bluffer: she's seen you show down big hands if you've been playing tight. And if you've made a value bet to milk someone like Mr. Caller, she's seen that too. A smaller value bet-sized bluff can be more scary to a bluffer than a suspiciously large re-raise. If she raises you over the top, and you're sure you're beat, you lose only that small bet, not your whole stack.

On the other hand, if you've called down a bettor and lost even though you thought you had the best hand, you're starting to look like Mr. Caller. You'll be able to trap Mr. Tight if you've flopped two pair or better, since he's seen you call bets with the second best hand. Ms. Bluffer may be less likely to take a shot at you since she thinks you're a calling station.

And lets say you just got dealt pocket aces, kings, and queens on three consecutive hands, you raised each time, and got no callers. Now people will be thinking that you're Ms. Bluffer. After all, what are the odds that you had a big hand each of those times? Mr. Tight and Mr. Caller will give you action because "She can't have it again this time!" But don't try to bluff the real Ms. Bluffer for a while. She might call you with a bigger nothing than yours.

Keep Observing

Things change: players take a bad beat and start steaming, players win big pots and start playing differently, new players sit down in cash games, players bust out and blinds go up in tournaments. You'll need to adjust to all these things.

And don't let first impressions give you tunnel vision. Just because a guy called you all the way to the river with a small pair doesn't mean he won't raise you out of every hand for an hour. Just because you snapped off a gal's bluff doesn't mean she won't wait for a big hand and try to bust you with a huge raise. Some players "advertise" by losing or winning small pots. Don't let them fool you.