Taking Advantage of your Opponents’ Tendencies

Gems of wisdom often pop up in the most unlikely places – even clichés. Football coaches, quite possibly the singularly most cliché-ridden group you could ever hope to find – or hope to avoid, for that matter – can’t seem to bypass an opportunity to tell TV audiences that they won “…because we took what the defense gave us.” With the possible exception of “…we’re gonna play ’em one game at a time,” it’s hard to think of a more trite phrase.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of truth left in that old saw. While Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers might have been famous for running their plays – never mind that opponents knew what was coming next, they just couldn’t stop them – today’s football teams, with their sophisticated “west coast offenses,” are much more likely to read the defense and adjust the thrust of their offense to “…hit ’em where they ain’t.”

Football teams that are much better than their opponents can simply overpower them. You see that in college games all the time. But in the pros, where skill levels are more closely matched, teams usually try to make the most out of what the defense offers.

But what about poker? Can you simply overpower weaker opponents, or should you take what the defense offers by taking advantage of your opponents tendencies, rather than trying to impose your style on your opponent, regardless of how he plays?

Many poker players opt for the Vince Lombardi style of play. When facing a timid opponent who throws away a lot of hands, they raise a lot. When they’re up against a calling station who’s bound and determined to keep them honest, they still raise a lot. Some players are so single-minded and determined, that they firmly believe the power of their conviction can force opponents to their knees – despite the cards they might be holding.

In physically oriented sports that single-minded sense of purpose can be compelling. And when it works, everyone concerned is aware they have witnessed a powerful, lasting, and memorable moment. Mark Messier, in game six of the 1994 Stanley Cup semi-finals, with his New York Rangers down three games to two in a best-of-seven series against the New Jersey Devils, guaranteed victory at a press conference the day before game six. The Devils, apparently undeterred by Messier’s brash promise, jumped out to a 2-0 lead. But Messier, with a superhuman effort, skated rings around the Devils in the third period, garnered a hat trick while staving off elimination, and New York tied the series at three games apiece. The Rangers – buoyed by Messier’s ability to deliver a clutch performance every bit as mesmerizing as Babe Ruth’s must have been when he pointed to the right-centerfield stands in the World Series, then delivered a resounding home run to that very area – went on to eliminate the Devils in game seven, then beat the Vancouver Canucks in the finals to capture the Stanley Cup for the first time in five decades.

Mark Messier is a charismatic hockey player, a true superstar with transcendent skills and an uncompromising will to win, who lead the Rangers to victory by simply refusing to lose, and carrying the team to victory on his back. The strength of his refusal to lose was simply greater than the collective will to win exhibited by the entire New Jersey Devils team.

While Messier’s performance was a sports moment for the ages, you simply can’t do that sort of thing at the poker table, especially when it’s limit poker. No matter how much you want to win, regardless of the strength of your will, discipline, or desire, if you’re not holding cards and your opponents are, they will beat you.

You can’t bull them into submission as Messier did. No matter how forcefully you bet or how skilled a player you might be, regardless of the strength of your personality at the table, all an opponent has to do is quietly call – and if he’s holding a stronger hand he’ll capture the pot.

Poker, unlike hockey, football, baseball, basketball or golf, has an uncontrollable element associated with it: the luck of the draw. And if you are so single-minded that you refuse to acknowledge the reality of the power conveyed by the cards in your hand – or your opponent’s – it’s a major problem. Yet players do this all the time. Many overly aggressive players are notoriously insensitive to the cards they hold. After all, isn’t that what playing hunches is all about? Haven’t you seen some players so thoroughly convinced they’ll make their inside straight, that they’ll call a bet – or a raise – when the money in the pot doesn’t even come close to offsetting the odds against making that kind of draw?

Many hold’em players persist in pushing hands like A-K when the flop hasn’t helped them and it’s apparent that it was a big help to their opponent. A will to win, carried to unhealthy extremes with hands players believe ought to win, frequently causes them to deny the essential reality of the situation: When holding a better hand, your opponent is usually going to call.

While aggressive play is a requirement for winning poker, selectively is equally important. Poker, after all, is more akin to judo than football. Success demands using your opponent’s strengths to your own advantage. Rather than colliding violently against them, you’re usually better off lithely tipping them in the direction you’d prefer them to go. If your opponent is pushing mediocre hands, let him keep pushing. Then snap him off when you’ve got a better one. If he’s timid, you can bet more frequently for value because it provides two ways to win: You may have the better hand, or your opponent might just fold.

The key to taking what the defense gives you lies in being brutally honest and realistic about your own hand – as well as assessing how it stacks up against your opponent’s. Much as you’d like to, you’ll seldom be able to spin straw into gold at the poker table regardless of how determined you might be. Adopting a petulant, I-want-it-now, I-deserve-it, I-must-have-it, it-belongs-to-me, attitude may work some of the time for spoiled two-year old children – but at the poker table a heavy dose of reality, liberally seasoned with some of that “take-what-the-defense-gives-you” bromide, stands a far better chance of getting the money.