Aggressive Poker Strategy

Quite a few poker players have asked me about playing in very loose, aggressive games. Many, it seems, are not very fond of them – believing instead that moderate, or even tight games are preferable to the ram-and-jam, no fold’em hold’em games they find themselves in on occasion.

One of the enduring frustrations about loose, aggressive hold’em games is that many otherwise winning strategies – like semi-bluffing, when your chances to win are based partially on improving to the best hand and partially on your opponent folding when you bet – are useless in games where virtually nobody ever folds, and you have to show down the best hand to win. Even more frustrating are those occasions when you enter a hand as an individual favorite against each of your opponents, but one of them – and of course it doesn’t matter which one – always seems to catch a miracle card and beat you.

Players frequently ask about how to protect their hand in a game like this, or whether it is even worthwhile trying. Others have told me that they treat low limit, no fold’em hold’em games like Omaha. They look for the nuts, or hands that can improve to the nuts, before they come out firing. One or two actually said they hate getting dealt aces or kings in these games, because they feel obligated to play, and those big pairs, in their estimation, almost always get cracked. A few readers even said they’d rather play a hand like 8-7s than a big pair as long as they can see the flop for one bet, just because it’s so much easier to get away from if the flop doesn’t fit. Big pairs, like aces, kings and queens, seem to come with an adhesive backing. They’re hard to shed regardless of what the board may look like or the amount of betting and raising it generates.

There’s no doubt about the fact that loose, aggressive games generate the most action. More money is in play on every hand, and it’s going somewhere. Are these loose, aggressive games special cases, where bad players have an inherent advantage over good ones? Judging by the level of frustration expressed in letters I’ve received from readers of this column, it seem so – though in truth, we all should know better. After all, how can bad players who enter pots with lesser hands, and stay too long when they do, be favored over good players?

The simple truth is, they can’t. But that’s not too say that very loose games aren’t frustrating, especially when you’re playing good cards only to see them cracked time after time by hands that any reasonable player would have folded without reservation.

Here are some tips for playing, and keeping your sanity, in extremely loose, aggressive, no fold’em hold’em games.

Expect Big Swings: Although this is not a strategic tip, it is probably more important than all the other tips combined. When you play in loose games you are bound to experience big swings in your bankroll. Because there are usually more players per pot, chances are greater that good hands will be run down by lesser ones. By the same token, the pots you win will be larger. While your win rate in these games should be greater than it would in tighter games, the standard deviation, that statistical measure of variability, will be higher – much higher. Because these fluctuations will be much more pronounced than any increased win rate, many players believe they are doing worse in these games. In fact, they are simply looking at a geometrical increase in the game’s short-term variability. In the long run, you ought to make more money in loose games, providing, of course, you have a bankroll sufficient to withstand more pronounced fluctuations.

If you can’t live with with this degree of instability, or if your bankroll won’t sustain extreme fluctuations, the very best tip I can offer is to play in games that are not as loose, and not as aggressive. If you are a winning player, you’ll eventually make just as much money. Although it will take more time to accomplish, less of your bankroll will be placed in jeopardy in stable games. And when you’re playing on a short bankroll, the most important thing you can do is keep yourself in action. That means protecting your bankroll at all costs.

Hands Change in Value: When you’re in a loose, aggressive game, certain hands increase in value. Others fall. Hands that play well against a large field, such as suited connectors, have a lot more potential. Make your hand and you’ll probably rake in a big pot. Miss the flop, and you can easily release these hands.

Big, unsuited cards go down in value. Unsuited holdings like A-10, A-J, and Q-K, do not play well against a big, aggressive field. With hands like these you have to limit the field if you play them at all. When you pick up a hand like A-J in early position, and you’ve noticed that all raising seems to do is attract more players, don’t play it. On the other hand, when you pick up big suited cards, they increase in value. And whenever you flop a flush draw, you can play aggressively.

Sit to the Maniac’s Left: When you’re in a game with a maniac, the kind of player who wants to raise every pot, position yourself to his left – so you act after he does. That way, when you do have a hand and he raises, you can make it three bets. Even in games where players routinely call raises, very few will routinely cold-call three bets without legitimate hands. In fact, if you position yourself to act after a player that raises indiscriminately and you get a line on the kind of hands he is prone to raise with, you might be able to loosen your standards a bit and gamble with him, as long as you are re-raising with hands that figure to be better than his.

Don’t Call With Hands You Wouldn’t Raise With: From early position in a loose, aggressive game you cannot afford to call with a hand that you wouldn’t ordinarily raise with. One of the worst feelings imaginable is continually finding yourself trapped for two or three bets in loose, aggressive games with hands that are only worth a call, not a raise. When you’re playing in a game where the majority of pots are raised, you simply cannot afford to play “bargain basement” hands like 9-8s from early position. Hands like these are only worth playing if you can see the flop for one bet. Your investment is minimal and it’s an easy hand to release. When the cost of these highly speculative hands is two bets – or sometimes three – it is unlikely that the money in the pot will exceed the odds against making you hand. If there is one thing that will increase your standard deviation, it is playing marginal hands, where you don’t figure to win too often anyway. Playing hands like these will cause much more fluctuation in your bankroll than getting aces or kings cracked more often than usual because more players are active in each hand.

If you can stand life on the edge, if big swings can be absorbed by your bankroll, and if you are comfortable with a high level of risk, you’ll do well in loose, aggressive games. If these games are not suited for your temperament, look for another. If it’s the only game in town, and you feel compelled to play in spite of yourself, be sure to severely restrict the hands you play from early position, be willing to re-raise whenever you need to thin out the field – and keep flopping aces.