Dealing with Maniacs at the Poker Table

Many of your letters have recently been concerned with overly aggressive players: “How should I play,” I’m frequently asked, “when there’s a maniac at the table?” Good question. A maniac at the table really does affect your choice of starting hands, as well as other strategic decisions during the play of a hand. Maniacs love running over their opponents. After all, when someone constantly raises, or makes it three-bets by reraising every chance he gets, it can be very disconcerting – and often intimidating.

Does he have a hand, or is he bluffing? It’s hard to tell. When someone constantly raises, you know he can’t have the goods all the time – but how do you know when?

Let’s describe the characteristics of a typical maniac. If you bet, he’ll raise – even when he doesn’t have a hand to support his action. If you check, he’ll bet. He, on the other hand, seldom checks, unless he is in early position, really has the goods, and is trying to trap a number of opponents by checkraising.

When someone bets, the maniac usually raises. If you reraise, he is more likely to make it four bets than give you credit for a big hand and simply call. He personifies an action player – albeit one who consistently shows too much speed by deliberately overvaluing and overplaying his hand. He wants to get as much money in the pot as often as possible, and frequently does. Maniacs are ego driven. Betting, raising, or reraising is the measure of a maniac’s manhood; he’d rather bully you out of a pot than beat you in a showdown. Maniacs also self-destruct and go broke quite regularly, but not before taking a number of other players down with them.

With a maniac at your table, you need to be aware of the changes his presence invariably brings. Because of his propensity for raising and reraising, more of your chips will be at risk. Lose, and you’re likely to lose more than you otherwise would. Wins are also likely to be bigger. If you are a winning player, a maniac in your game will usually increase your average winnings in the long run. While it is likely to be a measurable increase, it probably won’t be off the charts. On the other hand, there will be a dramatic increase in the fluctuations you can expect on an hourly basis. In the short run, you are susceptible to large swings, since you’ll be putting more chips at risk almost every time you play a hand. If you are on a limited bankroll, or have a hard time adapting to this kind of volatility, you might want to avoid games with a maniac in them.

Starting hands change in value when there’s a maniac in the hand. When you figure to be raised, you can’t play hands like 9-8 suited. Suited connectors do best in unraised, multiway pots, when you’re trying to get in cheaply in hopes that you’ll flop a big hand against a relatively large number of opponents – who, presumably, will pay you off if you’re lucky enough to flop a big hand that holds up. The only time you can play smaller, suited connectors against a maniac is from late position, the maniac has already acted and hasn’t raised, and you figure to have a good chance to see the flop for one bet against a relatively large number of opponents.

You’ll find yourself passing on a lot of the hands you’d usually play in a less frenetic game, and it can be frustrating. Nevertheless, you don’t want to commit two bets on hands that are relative longshots – particularly when the fear of a raise from the maniac will constrict the number of opponents you’d otherwise expect.

Pairs and big cards go up in value. If you’re holding 9-9, and the maniac raises before you act, you must reraise, in order to constrict the number of opponents you’ll play against. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself heads-up with the maniac. When you’re heads-up against an opponent who raises on anything – or nothing – you are favored when you hold a pair. Sure, there’ll be times when the maniac really has a big hand, but there’ll be many more times when you’ll find that he raised with absolutely nothing. That’s when you’ll capture the pot.

If you hold a hand like A-K or A-Q, you can also reraise and try to get heads up against the maniac. If you flop a pair, you figure to have the best hand. That’s not the problem. The problem is what happens when the flop is three rags. If you’re holding A-Q and the flop is 8-6-3, what should you do when the maniac bets? Since he frequently raises on anything, he’s just as likely to have caught a pair – or even flopped a set – than he is to have missed the flop entirely with a hand like J-9.

You can’t be certain. Since the maniac may well reraise if you try to define your own hand by raising, you’re in a guessing situation. These are hands where you might decide to gamble with him, or employ a strategy of sometimes releasing your hand when the flop doesn’t fit, and sometimes hanging in there – so he knows he can’t run you off the pot every time you raise and catch a ragged flop. It’s a judgment call – and not an easy one at that. Sometimes you have to call, or bluff-raise – even though you are an underdog to capture the pot, simply because you are giving up too much of an edge if you allow him bet and take the pot every time you’re heads-up and the flop is unfavorable to you.

If you’re lucky, you’ll catch enough flops with your bigger hands so that you will be able to check and call on the flop, and try for a checkraise on the turn or river. This might slow down the maniac a bit, since he should eventually learn that a check on your part doesn’t always imply weakness. There are, however, many maniacs who just ignore these subtler features of the game. They prefer wielding a bludgeon to a rapier. When you’re playing against a maniac of this magnitude, forget all about subtlety. It won’t work. You’ll need to make some big hands, have him do your betting for you and build the pot -which, of course, he’ll gladly do – and then snap him off with a checkraise that he’ll invariably call.

Seat selection is critical when playing against a maniac. Always position yourself to his left. Since the maniac will raise on weak hands as well as his better ones, you want to be in position to reraise whenever you have a strong hand. Whenever you are able to make it three bets before the flop, you stand a good chance of playing heads-up against the manic. Since you will usually be reraising on hands that are significantly stronger than those he raises with, you now hold the advantage throughout the play of the hand. In addition, other opponents may recognize that you’re a very aggressive, though highly selective player. Your actions will demonstrate that you have no fear of the maniac. Although your opponents will seldom admit it, many of them are apprehensive whenever a maniac joins their game. Since you will only reraise before the flop with hands that have some intrinsic value, other opponents will respect your raises – regardless of whether or not the maniac is active in the hand. This, of course, provides excellent support for an occasional bluff, particularly on those occasions when you’re involved in a hand with fairly tight, weak, or timid players. Remember, they’ve watched you slug it out with the maniac, and show down a real hand whenever you’re called.

While maniacs can raise your stress level and blood pressure, remember this: They’re ultimately no stronger than the cards they hold. Frequently they’re a lot weaker. As long as you position yourself to act after the maniac, and can withstand the highly volatile nature of the game, you’ll be favored in the long run. After all, a maniac’s worst enemy is himself. They’re aggressive all right, but seldom selective. They know one tune, and one tune only – although they play it incessantly, wielding it over their opponents like a whip. But their only strength is also their greatest weakness, and when you learn to deflect their one-note strategy and use it to your advantage, the sound of their whipsong can also destroy them.