No limit Texas Hold’em is a psychologically exhilarating game so it is only natural that it is my recreational game of choice. While I don’t have any World titles, I have played a statistically significant game over the last year. In fact, I’ve turned 10,000 chips into 150,000 chips over several months of six or nine person Sit n Go tournaments played seven to ten times a week—I’ve had several such runs in the last two years alone. What I like about poker is that it is about making decisions against a competitor and thus the game is a natural laboratory of how choices are made under assumed subversive situations. I assume the game is fairly revealing of how people make decisions in competitive situations because not many people play to lose; that fact combined with personal experience is bringing me to consider taking careful field notes of my games and perhaps publishing them on a blog as a means of documenting a virtual ethnography of poker with emphasis on how people make decisions.
Here’s an example what poker can teach us about human nature…
A year ago while playing a sit and go tournament, I was dealt an Ace and King (both clubs) and limped into play, calling the minimum alongside several other players, the player at the big blind made a significant pre-flop raise, which caused all the other players to fold except for me. On the flop an Ace popped up, which gave me a high pair but I knew I was dealing with an aggressive player so I decided to give him a chance to dictate terms and therefore passed; sure enough he raised by half the pot and so I went all in, he followed—with a low pair! (Giggles.) I took him out of the game but he had the audacity to call me a horrible player, his exact words were “Ace, king! Call the preflop! Horrible player.” My words: “psychosemiotics!” While I have repeated the play on winning hands against aggressive competitors many times that was the only time I’ve been called a horrible player. So let us begin there…
Poker Strategy Lesson: Dealing with Aggressive Players
1. Bad players are good for you! If you complain at the table about other players making bad plays then you’re probably not that good of a player yourself. I see this often enough and it’s usually from tight players directed at loose players. Loose players are good for doubling the smart player’s stack so if an aggressive player frustrates you then that player has an edge over you because it means you’re thinking emotionally rather than rationally. Too often, I see the self-assuming good player push all in on a mediocre hand and get beat by the “bad player.”Lesson: Always keep your cool.
2. Bet proportionately for tight players but go low for loose players. Raise on prime hole cards such as double royals or aces when playing against tight players to the extent that you can get them to put chips in the pot but limp (slow-play) on aggressive players. This strategy does two things: 1. It forces tight players to put money in the pot if they have a decent hand 2. It puts loose players at a disadvantage because they will likely raise against you on a much weaker hand, which gives you an opportunity to take them out of the game or will cause them to think twice about being aggressive against you later in the game. The same strategy works especially well after the flop if you have a straight, flush, or full house or otherwise a very good opportunity for a ranking hand.
There are times when it is dangerous to slow play after the flop; for instance, if there are two cards of the same suit thus creating a possibility for someone making a flush or if the community cards suggest the possibility that a competitor has a chance at three of a kind or a straight, it’s time to bet hard; if they push all in you might even consider folding, after all, pocket aces are only a low pair.
The Psychology Lesson: Poker Players Seek Justice Too
It is human nature to seek justice and the game of poker is not an exception to this basic human need. There tends to be a dichotomy in playing styles with one end relying on good cards and the other end relying on brute force. Calls and raises become a means of signifying the strength of one’s hand and therefore loose aggressive players earn the perception of being liars—bluffing—but tight players aren’t willing to risk good chips on nothing. The strength of the loose player is that s/he forces tight players to play less than prime hands, with punitive motives, thus forcing the tight player to rely more on luck than good plays should (thus becoming an advantage for the loose player). Most professional poker players advocate tight play and therefore many poker players play tight games and expect others to play tight games too but this is a mistaken attitude. The tight player should appreciate the loose player because the tight player need only wait for prime cards—be it twenty rounds (they’ll eventually come).
The best way of dealing with an aggressive player is to be modest on a sure hand and let them raise the stakes and then double up on them when they do; the irony is that loose players internalize and idealize macho play and therefore may perceive slow plays in the same vein as the tight player perceives the habitual bluffer. The lesson is that poker players are motivated toward a justice for what they believe are justified plays and ideal approaches—it’s emotive, which is what makes it interesting. Ultimately, the most rational player has the edge so long as s/he is willing to take needed risks and leverage his or her plays to the ultimate purpose of winning the game. In the long-run, poker is a game of skill but every hand played involves an element of chance and pocket aces are never a guarantee—be prepared to lose graciously for that very reason.
Play to win and not to get even.