Combating the LAGfish

Alex Rousso

In the good old days, categorising players was quite easy. The dimensions of “tight or loose” and “passive or aggressive” gave us a two by two matrix with four rough categories of player (such as TAG, for tight and aggressive, or LAG for loose and aggressive). This provided a template for pigeonholing players. Granted, reality is never so easy, but for every day grinding, this was a remarkably simple and useful approach.

  Passive Aggressive

As poker education became more popular, things got more complicated. New breeds of player emerged. While it still remains pretty fundamental in most forms of poker that loose and passive (LAP – see above matrix) is a money losing style, the two other quadrants in the matrix became relatively more likely to produce making money strategies. With increased likelihood of being up against hyper-aggressive tables, TAP became useful in certain circumstances. LAG, a style that in the past was only the reserve of extremely talented players with big bankrolls, also became more popular. (Note LAG was also the reserve of a massive group of fish who thought that they were great at poker but were hopelessly deluded, but more of that in a minute).

Perversely, the boom in poker tutorial videos, books and Boot Camps was responsible for the emergence of new categories of bad player. Take, for example, the player who knows to play TAG because the book/video tells them to do so, but does not have the gumption to work out how not to be exploited. In the simplest sense, they’ve been given a strategy to follow, but they don’t know how to vary or manipulate it; they don’t fully grasp the principles upon which the strategy is set. Hence the oft-given term for this new breed of fish: Harringbots, so called because they follow Harrington for the early levels of a tournament, playing mostly tight, until their M becomes too low to do anything else but shove where they instantly change gear. Daniel Skolovy refers to these players as TAGfish, and has written an excellent article on how to combat them.

Since Harrington, players have migrated to more aggressive styles. Terms like SuperLAG and HyperAggro are bandied about on the forums and in general the average aggression factor of tables has increased a great deal. But it’s not just about aggression. Especially relevant is the growing use of position to combat aggression in opponents. Hapless TAGfish don’t have the first idea what to do when they dutifully raise it up in early pos with AK, get a call from the button, the flop comes X-X-X (it doesn’t really matter, let’s say J-7-6), they c-bet, their opponent calls, the turn’s a blank, they check and their opponent bets.

With the growing number of TAGfish in the pool, LAG is becoming a more popular style. For brevity’s sake I won’t go into too much detail about the LAG style. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of literature out there on this subject, and if you want a general idea, a LAG usually adopts a mixture of the Smallball style and the super aggressive style, with a heavy accent on using position to outwit their foes.

Of course, while the experience and strategic knowledge of players might have increased over time, their average intelligence has not. Thus, there figures to be many out there who are now playing LAG but are not actually very good players. It’s them I want to talk about here. To be sure, there are good LAGs, but as with good TAGs, you should probably do the standard thing of getting involved with them only (a) when you have to, (b) when you have position, or (c) when you have a premium hand. Just as TAG spawned TAGfish, so LAG spawned LAGfish. These players know they’re supposed to be playing LAG, but don’t really have a good handle on why.

Let’s put it this way, if James Bond were a poker player (and by the looks of Casino Royale he’s just “LOL – donkament”) there’s no way he’d be a nitrolling, bankroll-harbouring, tournament chopping TAG like me. No, 007 would out-LAG even Antonius, Durrrr and Ziigmund. But James Bond is a fictional character. Lots of people (very, very sad people) want to emulate him, however. These are your LAGfish. This is great news, because playing LAG badly can be a lot more costly for your opponents than playing TAG badly.

First, you need to identify the LAG style in general. It’s most clearly associated with calling raises in position to use flops to scare opponents. Depending on their holding and what they think of their opponent, they may often mix up their calls in position with three-bets in position. The aim here is to inflate the pot to the stage where the next bet is enough to wield the threat of being all in on the bet after that – usually with a decent amount of leverage. For example, a three-bet preflop on a $1/$2 table might be to $19. Say there will be $40 in the pot on the flop if the opponent calls. A c-bet here will be in the $20-$30 range. Raising – or even calling – this c-bet means that one party is likely to be all in (or near enough so) on the next bet.

LAGs will bring it in for a raise in position just like TAGs, but will be much more likely to call three-bets, especially if they will have position on the flop. They are also much more likely to “float” (make speculative calls on the flop or turn with marginal or non-existent values in order to take the pot away on a later street).

The pre-flop stats of the LAGfish will look very much like those of a LAG. Since it can take tens of thousands of hands to know whether someone is money making or not, there’s little point in trying to establish from profitability stats whether a player is LAGfish or not. I’m afraid you’re going to have to get your hands dirty.

Simple things to look for are fundamental mistakes. For example, bad players are forever calling draws when they simply do not have the odds to do so. No, this isn’t about advertising, it isn’t about floating or setting up a later sting – it’s because they’re bad. If you see an opponent exhibit this category of error, it’s usually gold dust. Agreed, they may be multi-tabling and simply didn’t have time to make the “correct” decision, but even knowing that is a result for you.

Keep an eye open for autobetting. LAG is actually quite a subtle and inventive style. It’s largely predicated on flops which are scary for an opponent. If an opponent checks to the LAG on one of these flops, they can bet with anything, knowing that they are likely to take it down (in fact, they might opt to bet here with nothing rather than something – preferring to see how marginal hands such as bad pairs or inside straight draws might develop.) The LAGfish misses the subtlety of this and simply autobets every time they’re checked to. Of course, this provides you with a great opportunity to check-raise your really good hands. If you’re extra lucky, the LAGfish will have made the mistake of betting with a hand that is committed to a check raise, and you may well stack them.

It’s important to tighten up on your opening requirements when you have a LAGfish to your immediate left. You should for the most part treat a LAGfish with the respect that you reserve for a good LAG here. Remember, the point of raising pre-flop and c-betting is because much of the time you take it down without a fight, either preflop or post flop. Against a LAG, all that fold equity evaporates – they are calling and you know they are – so you are left playing your hand a lot more for its value. Against a good LAG that’s bad news. So much so you might consider a table or seat change if you can (as Ivey says, “my Grandmother could beat me if she had position on every hand”).

The tricky bit is when you actually do have something of a hand against a LAGfish who has immediate position on you. If it’s just heads up, prepare for battle. You’re going to have to play it for value and maybe get them to do some of the betting too. Remember that a LAGfish – unlike a decent LAG – will usually autocall the c-bet on the flop but won’t call the second barrel unless they have something (in contrast, a good LAG may double float, raise the turn with air . . . anything really). This is good news if you’re bluffing. Just have the balls to fire the second barrel. If both of you have something marginal the chances are this isn’t your pot. Position is just too important. Feel free to make the odd hero call here and there, but in the long run these situations are probably worse than break even. A big part of playing the LAGfish out of position is to fold when heads up and you haven’t got a lot.

However, if the pot is multi-way and the LAGfish is to your immediate left, you have some nice options. Check to the LAGfish to use your relative position to maximum effect. The LAGfish will almost certainly bet if checked to, and you can see how the rest of the field react to his bet before you act. If you have a monster you gain extra equity this way, if you have a marginal hand you can either call for value if it’s a draw or squeeze with a raise. It’s important to use relative position wisely.

If you have position on a LAGfish, then happy days. Would you believe one of the best strategies to combat the LAGfish when you have position on them is to use LAG. It’s one of the more amusing things in modern poker that you can exploit these players by adopting the style that they use simply because they don’t understand their own strategy. It takes a lot less skill to play hands in position well, so I won’t say too much here. Just remember to bet your value hands strongly and play smallball with more marginal hands. Position is everything. Don’t lose it by inflating the pot unless you want to stack your opponent. Remember the threat of position is (a) the threat of further action (i.e. leverage), and (b) that your opponent will always have to speak first.

Finally, what about bluffing? Apart from the two-barrel bluff mentioned earlier, I’d give bluffing the LAGfish a wide berth for the most part. Remember the James Bond psychology of this character. He’s likely to be playing poker to show everyone how clever he is, which in his case means how many bluffs he can catch. This is accompanied with a Gallic shrug on the occasions that he turns up with a decent hand. The advertising value here is that he never meant to have a good hand, he just backed into it by accident. Despite your misgivings, LAGfish do know how to fold a hand and the better among them will know to target the weaker TAGs and passive players. Remember the point of LAG is to play hands in position, so if you’ve got a difficult decision against this guy, it’s often because you’re out of position. In these cases, keep the pot small and try to fold marginal hands sooner rather than later. River bluffs will work less often than you think. By the same token, it’s absolutely paramount that you bet for value on the river. The strategy of “check and call on the river to induce a bluff” will not work here. If your foe has come this far, he might well have something. Remember, the L in LAG stands for “loose”!

So in sum, remember that a huge part of the LAG style is position. For that reason, avoid being out of position, even against the LAGfish – it really is no shame to fold. When you have position, go to town. Do unto him as he would do to you. Overall, you should avoid the temptation to outplay the LAGfish and just let the cards and position do the work.

This article first appeared in Bluff Europe magazine.