Keep Your Toolbox Well Stocked by Chris Ferguson

I often get asked about my playing style. Rather than answer the question myself, I’m more interested in what my opponents say. And I’ve heard it all: "You’re too tight." "You’re too loose." "You’re tight aggressive." "You’re too passive."

Actually, I never hear that last one, but I’ve heard all the others, which makes me believe I must be doing something right. Loose, tight, aggressive – my style is that I’m all of the above, depending upon the circumstances.

One essential element of playing winning poker is forcing your opponents to make difficult decisions. That’s why raising is almost always better than calling – because it forces an extra decision on your opponents. To take this a step further – you’ll win more money by forcing your opponents to make decisions when they are out of their comfort zones.

Here are some examples:

Your opponent is on your left, playing too tight before the flop. You want to punish him for this. The best way to do that is to raise more often, and be more aggressive. Either you end up stealing a lot of blinds, or he adjusts his play.

If you get the blinds? Great! If he adjusts? Better! It’s the best outcome you can hope for. If he starts playing more hands pre-flop, you now have a real edge. Anytime your opponent changes his pre-flop playing style, he’s going to run into trouble later in the hand. A guy who usually plays nothing but very strong hands isn’t going to know what to do with weaker holdings on the turn and river.

If a tight opponent raises in front of you, wait for a stronger hand to call. By playing tight when you are acting behind your opponent, you avoid losing money to his stronger hands. Again, if your opponent catches on, you’re forcing him to play more hands up front, and you can outplay him after the flop.

What about the guy who plays too many hands? If you’re acting first, you want better starting hands than normal. Most of the value of a marginal hand comes from the chance that your opponent will fold immediately. If your opponent has never seen suited cards he doesn’t like, the value of your marginal hand decreases because it’s unlikely he’s going to lay his hand down. He may win more pots preflop, but this is more than offset by the extra money you’re going to make when you do see a flop with your stronger hands.

If a loose opponent raises you, you can call — or even raise — with weaker hands, and raise with hands you’d ordinarily just call with. By taking control of the hand, you can pick up more pots later. Again, you are daring him to change his style. If he doesn’t, you’re getting the best of it. If he does, he’s a fish out of water, prone to making mistakes later in the hand.

It’s important to have a lot of tools in your arsenal. First, it’s helpful in being able to adjust to your opponents and force them out of their comfort zones. Additionally, it will enable you to take advantage of your own table image when you have already been labeled as a tight or loose player, and to adjust accordingly.

For example, Gus Hansen and Phil Ivey are known as extremely aggressive players. The only way they have been able to survive with that image is by being able to adjust to different opponents and to slow down occasionally, when appropriate. I have seen this happen sometimes just before an opponent starts reacting to their aggression. They are somehow able to sense what is happening, and change their games accordingly. Other times, they won’t adjust much, and force their opponents to try and beat them at an unfamiliar game.

To best take advantage of this, pay attention! To everything. All the time. Not just when you’re in the hand, but especially when you’re not in the hand. Every hand your opponent plays gives you valuable information about how he thinks, and how he’s likely to play hands in the future.

If there’s an expert at your table, watch how he plays. See what hands he expects to work, think about how he plays them, then try incorporating it yourself. See how he pushes weaker players out of their comfort zone. Paying attention is one of the best ways to learn, and a great way to move up the poker food chain.

Chris Ferguson