Nearly every time you read some poker advice, there is an exhortation to play aggressive poker. However, it is rare to get an interpretation of just what “aggressive” means. As interpreted by the kamikaze pilot, it means whenever it is your turn, you bet or raise. To my eye, and to other professional players, it is difficult to distinguish this interpretation of aggressiveness from simply giving away your money. Yet aggressiveness when harnessed to a brain instead of an arm is clearly a poker virtue. Since becoming a poker teacher, I have come in contact with a number of players whose most serious poker fault is insufficient degree of aggression. In this article, I will discuss how the limit hold’em player can make sure he is playing aggressive enough poker without going overboard.
Let us be clear that one can play tight in terms of initial involvement and still be an aggressive poker player. It is not how many pots you enter, but how you play once you are in, that determines if you are playing the kind of aggressive poker that is necessary. This proper kind of aggressiveness means betting your good hands strongly, rather than contending for a lot of pots. Aggressiveness and playing only high-quality cards complement each other. It stands to reason that if you play only the cream, you should have a better hand than the opponent who is not particularly fussy about what he plays. And if you figure to have a better hand, it is natural to want to bet it. Is this not the essence of poker? So lets look at each place where you can be properly aggressive: preflop, on the flop, on the turn, and on the end.
Preflop: Most players are aware that a raise can be used to drive opponents out of the pot, and make this type of raise. But some individuals fail to raise on strong hands when they know the field is coming. When all you can do is double the amount if the bet with your raise, there is no tool for thinning the field, as you can with a raise in most stud structures, where a raise usually triples or quadruples the bet. But a raise can also be used to increase the size of the pot, which is what you want to do when you are the player with the best chance of winning. Whenever you hold A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, A-K, or A-Q, and nobody has raised, you are entitled to assume you are the chalk horse in the race, and should increase the size of the purse. Sometimes I will limp in with one of these hands instead of opening with a raise, to vary my game, but I always shoot it up when others are already in the pot. Note that I am not an advocate of raising with the intermediate pairs (10-10, 9-9, 8-8) in this situation. If the flop comes all small cards giving you an overpair, the extra money in the pot encourages the opponents to stay in throughout the deal, which is not what you want with so frail a leader. Overcards make bigger pairs, and undercards make a compact board where there are a lot of straight possibilities, so you are in constant danger of being overtaken.
It is a poker axiom that the smaller the size of the field, the more aggressively you are supposed to play. So when nobody has opened in early or middle position, the players in late position and those in the blind are supposed to rumble. When I am in either on the button or in the cutoff seat (the immediate right of the button), as soon as the betting has gotten to me, and nobody has opened, I am thinking about stealing the blind money. If I decide to open, it will be with a raise, so I have a chance to win it right there. Heads I win, tails we fight; pretty good odds. When stealing, I am scarcely expecting to need a big hand like a straight or a flush to win, because I figure to play a heads-up or threeway pot. Normally, all I need to win is a decent-size pair. Being suited or having cards that are touching in rank are not nearly as important as they would be in a large field of players contending the pot. Hands like 9-8 suited are bad hands for stealing the blind money, and I usually fold them. Desirable hands for stealing are hands with reasonable highcard content such as A-9, K-10, Q-J, and the like, and being offsuit is not a big drawback. Intermediate pairs go up in value when heads-up, so having hands such as 8-8, 7-7, or 6-6 will also bring out the larceny in me.
If you are in the blind, and a person in late position opens with a raise, it is particularly important to know what type of player you are up against. Is he someone who figures to have a big hand, a player with a touch of larceny in him (like me), or a compulsive kleptomaniac? You do not need to see what he shows up with when raising to categorize him if you have a chance to observe him for a while, as you can make a pretty good guess what sort of player he is by the frequency with which he raises.
Against a late-position raiser who is a non-rock, I will call on a wide range of hands, including an unsuited ace, suited low connectors, or a couple of facecards. These are hands that will fare poorly if the raiser has the type of strong holding we would expect from a raiser in early position. But if people are going to be trying to steal your money on trash such as a J-10 offsuit (a hand that a panel of expert players were almost unanimous in saying that trying to steal the blinds was the proper play), you have to fight fire with fire. When I hold a reasonable-looking hand like 7-7 or A-Q, and some klepto raises in late position, I will reraise him. My hand figures to be better than his, and the initiative is important in shorthanded pots, where all might miss the flop.
On the flop: We are all familiar with the desirability of having outs when making a move on the pot. Outs are nice, but in many circumstances they are not a necessity. There are quite a few flops that do not figure to help anybody, if the field is small. Suppose the flop comes Q-7-3 rainbow (no two-flush) and you are first to act. What do you need to bluff at the pot? Second pair? Third pair? An overcard? In my opinion, the most suitable answer is “No more than two opponents.” That’s right. You simply reach down into your stack and put a bet into the pot. The dealer will either push the pot to you or he won’t. I believe that you will win at least half of the heads-up pots and at least a third of the threeway pots by this bet. If you do not overwork this play, and have the table-image that a player who does not play a lot of starting hands usually has, you will win enough pots to show a profit. Of course, the opponents need to be the type that throw a hand away on occasion, not compulsive calling stations
One of the most common errors made by players who are insufficiently aggressive is to just call on the flop unless they are confidant they have the best hand. The right attitude is to raise if you are even suspicious you have the best hand. Here is an example. You are on the button with Kh-Jh in a five-way unraised pot. The flop comes Kc-9c-3h. The first two players check, third player bets, the fourth player folds, and it is up to you. The player who bet is a sound player who had called preflop in middle position. Is your top pair with a jack kicker any good? Damned if I know. However, I’m certainly going to raise him. I do not want any player to take a card off and make a bigger pair by hitting an ace, two pair (or trips) with a piece of the board, or a gutshot straight. A flush-draw will probably stick around, but at least my raise figures to get out the lightweights. Here is the proper way to look at this situation. There is a decent chance that I am going to win this pot, and by a small investment relative to the pot size, I can make a reasonable improvement in that chance, so I will do so. Top pair with a decent kicker is a raising hand when there is a normal-looking flop. Players will draw at a wide range of longshots on the cheap street, so you must confront them with a double bet to protect your hand.
The Turn: If you have a large number of opponents that stayed for your bet on the flop, when a bad card for your hand comes on the turn, such as an overcard or the third card of a suit, you must respect the size of the field and check. But heads-up, or against only two other players, most of the time you need to bet again. Naturally, if you get raised, reevaluation is in order. But if the opponent raises, he is likely to have a good hand. If instead you check, and then the opponent bets, it is uncertain whether he bet because you showed weakness or he actually has the goods. It is wimpy poker to check with the intention of calling a bet. Naturally, if the card is truly horrendous, such as an overcard that is also the third card of a flush, what we call the “death card,” it could easily be right to simply check and fold.
On the End: Many players are good about betting a hand with cards to come, trying to whittle the field, or at least charge a price to those who want to draw out. But there are a large number of people who after the last card seem to have the attitude of, “It’s over; now let’s see who wins.” They are unwilling to bet, even though they think they still have the best hand. However, if the opponent bets, they will call without hesitation.
There is some simple reasoning you should use. If the opponent failed to raise on the turn, and the last card does not have danger written all over it, you still have the best hand, and should bet. On the end, the opponents are getting big pot odds. If there is a potential draw on the flop that did not come home, they will call you with any pair, just in case you were pumping the pot on a drawing hand. Don’t be reluctant to squeeze the last drop that can be milked.
These are the main situations where I see people playing insufficiently aggressive poker at limit hold’em. You should not be in the pot on inferior starting hands, so when you connect, you are supposed to be betting and raising, particularly in heads-up and threeway pots. Max out and make all the dough you can!