The Texas Hold’em poker phenomenon has taken country by storm. There are reportedly over 100 million active poker players worldwide. Poker’s popularity is largely byproduct of technology and several recent trends: 1) online gaming, where players engage and socialize in real-time over Internet, and 2) broad publicity created by high profile TV shows like World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour.
With all poker-mania, there’s an amazing shortage of quality information to help people learn how to play properly and become great players quickly. This is first in a series of Texas Holdem strategy articles aimed at helping players learn how to win at Texas Hold’em poker. Tournament play is a popular, fun sport. These articles will help players understand how to approach tournaments, which differ greatly from regular “ring game” play.
This installment deals with most-asked question: “How do I deal effectively with aggressive players?” Many players struggle against "maniacs", aggressive, wild players who play most every hand, somehow seem to pull cards out of thin air, and often manage to dominate table.
Here's what actually happened in a recent poker tournament. I entered a tournament at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, about 20 minutes from my home in South Florida. This weekly $300 entry-fee tournament fills poker room with 220 players every Monday night.
The blinds start at 50/100 and go up every 15 minutes. I spent first 30 minutes just hanging out and occasionally limping in to see a flop. The reason for "treading water" was to study my opponents and their playing patterns very closely. There were a number of solid poker players, but right away I spotted aggressive ones.
I was sitting in middle, directly across from dealer. There were two "wild men" to my right. These two participated in most every hand, and agonized with themselves whenever they had to throw a hand away. This was hilarious to me, and it was also very telling. I knew these dudes were doomed from onset, yet they were extremely dangerous if they caught something with one of their trash hands. These types are great targets, but only when you know how to play them correctly. If you do, you’ll end up with most or all of their chips in your stack. The key is to get to their chips before someone else does.
There were some squeaky-tight and solid players, as usual. Finally, there were two other players to my left who knew one another very well and spoke what sounded like Russian. These two played very aggressively. They rarely called or checked. They would bet or raise pot significantly, so if they played a hand, you knew they were going to bet it big and you’d better be prepared to push a bunch of your chips into middle. As a result, table became tight overall, except for these four players who controlled early action and dictated table tempo for first hour or so. They gambled with wanton abandon, trading chips with each other as rest of us just observed and wished for a real hand to materialize.
It became apparent that our maniacs were playing mostly garbage hands, and using assertive chatter in an attempt to intimidate everyone. They were enjoying pushing everyone around with their aggressive betting and raising style. Humorously, they got into a number of showdowns, causing all of their trash hands to become openly exposed; e.g., 69 off-suit, Q3 suited, etc. I definitely had these guys pegged now – if only I could get a strong hand…
Later, one of my Russian "friends" came in over top of a bet I’d placed with a huge raise, then smiled at me as he leaned his head back as if to say “Go ahead. I dare you”. My middle pair just wasn't strong enough to engage with him, but I remembered this little "lesson" and my mistake. He'd used this tactic many times against others and I should’ve expected it. I also realized that we had not seen any of his supposed "big hands", as he always mucked them. Whenever you see an aggressive player dominating, and then mucking all those supposed "great hands", you know you've spotted a target.
We played on, with two maniacs to my right getting busted out by Russian contingent. It’s been an hour and fifteen minutes - and I still haven’t seen even one decent hand yet! This is, unfortunately, typical poker.
After about an hour-and 45 minutes, I finally pick up a pair of wired 9's (99). Now I was hoping flop would yield a set (trips). Sure enough, it came: 9, K, 5. I was elated and jumping up and down (inside). I was finally in a position to make my move, and hoped it would be against one of my aggressive Russian friends with their big stacks.
To prepare my trap, I delayed and muddled around for about ten seconds, and then casually "checked" verbally and using my hand in a chopping motion, with a slightly disgusted look. Next, younger Russian moves in with a big bet of 3,000 chips. I was sure I had him now. As expected, everyone else quickly folded and got out of his way – except me. This fellow had pushed everyone around and I was finally properly armed and ready to do battle on my own terms. Note that this had been my "battle plan" all along. I was deliberately targeting these aggressive characters, knowing that when time was right, their ill-gotten stacks would become mine!
The action came back around to me, so now it was just two of us heads-up. The two Russians said something to each other that rest of us couldn’t decipher. I delayed and bobbed my head around as if to be struggling with my decision. Then, I motioned with both hands and uttered “I'm all-in". I knew this series of actions would likely trigger an aggressive reaction, since my “check-raise” made it appear as if I was trying to steal this pot! A check-raise almost always triggers a full-tilt response from an aggressive player.
He immediately called me - he was so aggressive (and pot-committed) that it was like a fish taking bait and running for deep waters - hook line and sinker! I threw my pair of 9's over, revealing trip 9's. There was a low murmur around table from other players. My young Russian friend reluctantly flipped his five/trash hand over - he had a pair of fives (with a King over-card showing on board!). He was definitely angling to drive me out of this pot with his ascertive play – one too many times…
You see, no one actually gets that many great hands in poker - nobody. If someone plays 30% to 40% or more of time, they're just "gambling" and bluffing. This guy thinks he has a "good" hand, because he actually had a real pair – something he doesn’t often have when pushing everyone around with mostly aggressive betting as his only real weapon.