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When I was a golf instructor, innumerable students would come to their first lesson with the same complaint. “I just want to have a better swing”, they’d say as they stared, helplessly, expecting me to go into a lecture on swing plane, posture, keeping their left arm straight, or whatever other gobbledygook they heard that week on the Golf Channel.
I loved — relished, even — the looks on their faces when I responded “What does that mean?” It was a treat: Confusion flavored, with sprinkles of surprise and chunks of self-doubt mixed in. The cherries on top were their answers, which ranged from attempts to explain what they did “wrong” in their swings (if they knew that, btw, why did they need me?) to the less common, but still frequent, “It’s supposed to look like Adam Scott’s, right?”.
My favorite moment of each first lesson came next — I got to feel like Socrates, Kant, or Sun Tzu must’ve when they changed a person’s entire perspective in an instant with just one sentence — when I dropped this knowledge bomb:
“The ‘best’ swing is the one that gets the ball into the hole in as few strokes as possible.”
Their eyes brightened, their spines straightened, it looked as though a weight lifted off their shoulders. They realized the game may be a hell of a lot simpler than they’d thought and that, maybe, they didn’t have to be slaves to mysterious concepts like how to shift their weight just so, whether or not their heads should move during the swing, and exactly, down to the millimeter, where the ball should be in relation to their feet (and to their hands…and to their belt buckles…and to their heads…and to the buttons on their shirts…and to th-).
You see, that shit didn’t matter. None of it did. As long as a golfer isn’t breaking any rules, what the hell is the difference between making a 4 looking like Adam Scott and making one looking like Bubba Watson? There isn’t one, and that’s the point.
Get the ball into the hole in as few strokes as possible.
That long-winded golf story was how I chose to introduce today’s lesson, on poker playing styles (anyone else just looking for extra shit to do at work these days?).
There is not a single “right” way to play poker. Like in golf, players can have success utilizing many different approaches. Yes, there are a handful of fundamental things they can do to ensure their style is profitable long-term (or, in the case of golf, to ensure their swing is repeatable), but even those things exist more as grey-area-having concepts than as black-and-white rules. Understanding those concepts, and how to operate within their grey areas while still staying faithful to them, is key to playing good poker.
In this article, we won’t go into so much detail regarding the merits of different styles as we will simply introducing each style’s characteristics. In future articles, we’ll go into depth discussing the pros and cons of each style, as well as ways to exploit the opponents of yours who use them, but today we’ll only focus on what each style is and how to identify it.
I’m going to divide this discussion into one of 2 different spectrums: The hand selection spectrum and the aggressiveness spectrum. All players will find themselves at a certain point on each of these, and the most common way to classify players is as a combination of the names of their two points. If that was a confusing definition, don’t worry: What we’re doing here will become much more clear in a second.
The Hand Selection Spectrum
The hand selection spectrum measures, essentially, how picky a player is about the hands they play. Are they “tight” players — those who only enter the pot when they have strong starting hands, opting to fold before the flop most of the time — or are they more “loose”, meaning they’ll play lots of different starting hands, even if those hands are more speculative, like suited connecting cards.
Identifying, with certainty, where a player falls on this spectrum isn’t as easy as it may appear. If you sit down at a table and see a guy playing 9 of the first 10 hands, it’ll definitely seem like he’s a very “loose” player — and he probably is — but it’s perfectly possible that he truly had 9 very solid, playable starting hands. Is it unlikely? Yeah, of course, but it isn’t impossible. Don’t immediately assume this guy is just playing any two cards and is out of his mind, simply take note of how many hands he seems to play and wait for further evidence to confirm or deny your suspicion.
What you really want to look for are the hands each player shows. You can make as many educated guesses as you want, and doing that is never a bad idea, but you can never be sure you know what was happening in a hand unless you see the cards. EVERY TIME someone at the table shows their cards, you should be working backward through that hand, stopping at every decision they made, thinking about that situation and making a read on what they may have been thinking knowing what their cards were. The information you glean from these opportunities is exponentially more valuable than anything you’ll get from guesses, no matter how educated you think those guesses are.
If that same guy, who played 9 of the first 10 hands you saw, got to showdown (or just showed his cards) three times, and had strong starting cards each time, take note of it. It’s now all the more possible he’s actually much closer to the middle of the spectrum than you originally assumed (be real, though: It’s unlikely he’s all the way on the other side of the middle of the spectrum, as the chances of even a slightly “tight” player getting 9 playable hands out of 10 is astronomical).
To summarize, our first spectrum goes from “Super Loose” on one end to “Super Tight” on the other, with the middle of the spectrum being a somewhat reasonable approach where you don’t really have a reason to think a player is playing anything “crazy” — like calling an early-position raise from middle position with what turns out to be 96o — nor are they just folding 99% of the hands they’re getting.
The Aggressiveness Spectrum
Our second spectrum measures…you guessed it…how aggressive a player is. This one can be much more tricky to nail down, as many players have a tendency to show different levels of aggression at different stages of a hand, but the best way to establish a read on someone is to focus on their decisions preflop and on the flop. These are the stages at which most hands will end, so knowing a player’s tendencies during them is vital if you want to succeed.
The first thing you want to monitor is each player’s tendency to raise preflop. Do they only enter a pot by raising the BB? Do they never raise the BB? The frequency with which they enter the pot isn’t as important (that is what the Hand Selection Spectrum measures) as what choice they make when they enter the pot.
If this ratio of raising:calling is extremely high, the player likely falls on the “Aggressive” side of the spectrum. If it’s extremely low, they’re likely to be on the “Passive” side of the spectrum. To fall somewhere in the middle, you’d look for a player who raised/called in a 50:50 ratio.
Notice I said the players above “likely” fell onto their respective sides of the spectrum. Remember the blue box, above: You don’t know shit until you start seeing cards.
The second thing you want to monitor is each player’s habits on the flop. Look for any consistency between these decisions and their preflop ones. If a guy is entering almost all of his pots with a raise, and then routinely follows these raises up with bets on the flop, it’s pretty safe to say he’s a somewhat aggressive player. By the same logic, if a passive preflop guy always seems to check and/or call on the flop, you can be pretty sure he’s on the passive side of the spectrum.
To summarize, our second spectrum goes from “Super Passive” on one end to “Super Aggressive” on the other, with the middle of the spectrum being a player who raises/calls preflop with somewhere near a 50:50 ratio, and who behaves consistently with that on the flop.
In an upcoming piece, I’ll show you how to combine these two spectrums into an overall “type” you can assign to each of your opponents, and what you can then do to exploit the weaknesses of each of those types. For now, though, thank you so much for reading, and check out the pink and grey boxes below!
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