Aggressive Poker Play

A philosopher by inclination and poker player by choice, Dennis Jones has often been quoted as saying: “I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission.” It’s a terrific expression – an updated rephrasing of Carpe Diem, an old Latin maxim meaning “Seize the Day,” and one I wish I could have taken credit for, But credit belongs where it is due: to Dennis.

Not only does his catch-phrase hold true for a variety of endeavors, it is particularly pithy when applied it to poker. If you’re a regular reader of this column, or if you’ve read much poker literature, you know that just about every credible authority recommends aggressive play. But how aggressive you should be, when you should be aggressive and when you ought to play passively, are subjects worth revisiting every so often.

“I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission,” implies a willingness to throw oneself headlong into some gray and murky area where the rules of engagement are not quite clear, and the only certainties are “get there first” and “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Possessed of any any common sense whatsoever, few of us are willing to run headlong into some vastly superior force regardless of how valorous or aggressive we might imagine ourselves to be.

Dennis’ expression holds as true for poker as for life itself. In low-limit games, you’ll find players at both extremes of the passive-aggressive spectrum. Some are timid regardless of the circumstances, while some are rocks on the order of Mt. Rushmore who won’t come out swinging unless they hold the nuts. Still others are kamikazes who can’t wait to gamble it up, firing raise after raise at the pot regardless of the cards they’re holding. You’ll even find some players like this in bigger games, but they’re fewer and farther apart, because those at the polar edges of the passive-aggressive bell curve are prone to go broke.

So if you’d rather ask forgiveness than permission, it is important to realize you can’t play every hand aggressively. You have to pick your spot. Aggression has to be meted out selectively. Remember, it’s “seize the day,” not “seize everyday.” One of the most important steps in becoming a good player is learning which hands to play aggressively – and why.

If you’re playing hold’em and are dealt a big pair before the flop you already know you should raise, but do you know why? This is not a trick question, it’s an obvious one: To get more money in the pot. Plain and simple, if you’ve got what figures to be the best hand, getting more money in the pot produces a bigger reward if you’re the winner. On those occasions when you hold a big hand before the flop and lose, you might come away thinking you could have saved an additional bet if you hadn’t raised. Just stop right there, sit down, and start over. Because when you win, each additional bet draws in extra money from the opposition.

Raising also provides a golden opportunity for your opponents to make mistakes by calling when they shouldn’t. Suppose you hold a pair of kings but didn’t raise before the flop. If the flop did not help any of your opponents and you bet, any reasonable player who hasn’t picked up at least a draw will probably fold. Why? They have a bad hand and there’s not enough money in the pot to make it worth chasing. The result is that your opponents have all folded and you’re left with a big hand – and a small pot. But if you raised, your opponents will have an investment of two bets. Now some of them will chase you. They might make the mistake of chasing with as little as a backdoor draw to a flush – where they have to catch two running suited cards to win.

By raising you not only created a larger pot, but gave your opponents both opportunity and motivation to play badly. Some, most assuredly, will do just that. They’ll pursue even when the odds against making their hand substantially exceed the odds offered by the pot. When they chase under circumstances which most often prove futile, your subsequent bets will get them to keep calling until they run out of hope or money. Aggressive play gives your opponents an opportunity to make mistakes,while allowing you to manipulate the size of the pot.

Here’s another example. You’re on the button with A-10 of diamonds. Five players call. What should you do? If you’re aggressive, a raise in a position like this can be a strong play for a couple of reasons. First, you may have the best hand – and probably the best ace – since no one raised in front of you. Your raise will get more money in the pot from the five prior callers, since having called once they are unlikely to abandon their hand before the flop.

Your raise also stands a good chance of dropping the blinds, which puts some dead money in the pot. Suppose you flop two diamonds. Even if there is bet in front of you, a raise can be a good play. While you probably no longer have the best hand, you do have the best draw, and if another diamond falls on the turn or river, and it does not pair the board, you will have the nuts.

Aside from additional money in the pot, there’s another advantage. Most of your opponents will not put you on a flush draw because you raised. Most likely they’ll suspect two pair and presume you’re raising to drive out anyone holding a low or medium pair, or a backdoor draw. If a diamond falls on the turn, anyone else making a flush will probably bet , and you, of course, can raise. If the turn card is a blank and the pot is checked, you can check too and see the river for free. While you could also bet, it seems unlikely that this bet would cause all your opponents to fold. And a bet on the turn, which is twice as expensive as that bet on the flop and unlikely to garner as many callers, may no longer be justified when you compare the odds against making your hand to the pot odds.

With a hand like this, the river should play itself. If you make your flush, of course you’d raise if someone else bets, and bet if it is checked to you. If you miss your hand, you’ll have to determine whether a bet stands enough of a chance of dropping all your remaining opponents to make it worth while. For example, if there is $40 in the pot, you’ll have to decide whether a $4 bet will cause your opponents to fold more than 10 percent of the time, since the pot is offering 10:1 odds. If you think that your opponents will fold one time in five, go ahead and make the bet. If you think they’ll fold only once in 20 times, save your money.

In the final analysis, aggressive play pays a wide variety of dividends. It enables you to get more money into the pot while influencing your opponents’ behavior – often giving them extra opportunities to make mistakes. But you have to apply your aggression selectively. And if you want to seize the day, remember that aggression – like discretion – is frequently the better part of valor.