How to Play A Tight, Aggressive Poker Strategy
- Reviewed by WSOP Winner Chris ‘Fox’ Wallace
Playing a tight, solid and aggressive style is generally a winning strategy for cash games. But what does this mean in practice?
A tight poker player is simply one that does not play many hands. Not only are they selective about the hands they play, but also the position from which they play them.
As a result of this careful approach, it can be assumed that this player has a reasonably good hand whenever they come into the pot, as they will generally play only good starting hands.
Conversely, a very loose poker player is one who never saw two cards they didn’t like and will jump into just about every pot ready to gamble. It is hard to tell what they are holding, because it could quite literally be anything.
Aggressive refers to the way in which a player plays their hands. An aggressive poker player will rarely limp into a pot, but will instead raise or even re-raise if the situation warrants it. After the flop an aggressive poker player generally continuation bets and pursues the pot with all guns blazing.
Passive players rarely raise and simply call or limp into pots. Because they are timid they can often be knocked off pots by aggressive play as they are nervous when the action gets hot and heavy.
So Why Is Tight Aggressive Good, And Loose Or Passive Bad?
Tight players play premium hands, which have good expected value and simplify decision making. Because you are avoiding marginal hands, your poker playing will result in fewer costly mistakes, earning you more profit.
In addition, the other players at the table will learn to avoid tangling with you because you are generally playing premium cards. This give you the opportunity to pick up pots as the other players fold to your raises and continuation bets – allowing you to make well timed and profitable bluffs.
Unskilled or unobservant opponents may not realize you are playing strong hands, and will therefore pay you off when they get into a pot with you.
Aggression is essential because no one is going to give you their chips – you have to take them from them. Therefore, without aggression you are going to struggle to win pots. Once you decide to become involved in a hand, you should also be ready to fight for the pot. If you don’t, your opponents are going to notice your reluctance and they will begin to bully you like you are back in the schoolyard.
But realize that blind aggression is not the solution either. You need to adjust your aggression levels according to the type of table you are playing and the way in which the board develops.
For example, if your table is filled with passive players who continually fold to a raise, then this is an excellent spot to show aggression. But if you are sat with several highly aggressive players, then too much aggression could start a war. Also, betting when the board probably has you beat is just like throwing money down the drain.
So make sure you have a good hand and a good table image before you draw your guns, as marginal situations will lead to you only firing blanks.
Starting Hands And Decisions
You will see a variety of starting hands suggested in charts and tables, some of which are extremely complex and some of which are extremely simple. If you ask experienced poker players to list their top 10 most playable Texas Hold’em hands, the majority of answers will include the following:
- 99, TT, JJ, QQ, KK, AA
- AKs, AKo, AQs, AKo
The reason that these hands are popular is because they have good poker equity and are normally quite likely to win a pot. Another reason is that these cards are generally considered to be relatively easy to play after the flop and should not get you in to too much trouble.
That’s the reason small and medium pocket pairs are not on this list: they are a lot more difficult to play post-flop and can open you up to making costly mistakes.
To paraphrase David Sklansky’s influential book, “The Theory of Poker,” your opponent makes money when you make a mistake, and you make money when they do. A mistake is defined and as playing a hand differently from the way in which you would have if you could see your opponents’ hole cards.
Let’s look at an example where you might choose to play a small pocket pair, e.g. a pair of 4s.
Example Hand 1
Let’s say that you’re on sat on the big blind, everyone folds but the small blind, who calls. You decide to make a small raise with 4s-4c, since there are only two of you in the pot. The small blind calls and the flop is 9h-8d-Jh. The small blind then checks to you.
Do you bet?
If you could see your opponent’s cards and knew that they had missed the flop completely, the answer would obviously be yes. If you knew they were holding a pair, you probably would not. Well one time in three, with random cards, your opponent will have made a pair on the flop. And this means that one time in three, you will probably make a mistake in this situation. And mistakes, as we have already mentioned, cost you money.
Let’s continue the scenario and assume you bet in this position. Your opponent check-raises you!
Your opponent could be holding a wide range of hands. They could be saying “no way” to your flop bet, believing you to be making a continuation bet with a hand like A-K. Or, they could get tricky and be semi-bluffing with a hand containing a 10 or maybe two hearts. They could even be taking a stab at the pot with absolutely nothing like 5-2. Now do you see how hard it is not to make mistakes?
This is why is important to play tight. Your decisions become easier, and easy decisions result in fewer mistakes and therefore waste less money. Yes, you may fold hands which are winners, but it’s better to make a small preflop mistake, than a big post-flop one.
The ability to play marginal hands well is the hallmark of an expert poker player, and even they are not immune to costly mistakes. Stick to premium hands and play tight aggressive. Your bankroll will thank you.
Your opponents are going to be watching you just as closely as you are watching them, and it won’t take them long to pick up on your tight aggressive style. Therefore, it is a good idea to keep changing your playing style to prevent them from spotting patterns that they can exploit.
In addition, some players may take offence at your aggressive play, considering it a personal insult against them. They may play back at you constantly, or wait to trap you with a check-raise. Remember, most profit comes from tables where people are having fun, so don’t keep beating up the same player and don’t let it get personal.
If you keep changing gears, throwing in some loose play along with your standard tight aggressive style, you should be able to keep your opponents guessing and keep your profits at a maximum.
Timing Is Everything
Understanding when to get aggressive and when to let go is fundamental to this style of play. Let’s look at two examples that illustrate the difference.
Example Hand 2
You are playing against loose, but not stupid, players and your table image – for the ones that have been paying attention – is pretty good. You haven’t pulled off any obscene bluffs and you don’t think anyone has any particular reason to believe you’re betting with air.
You are holding J-J and your preflop raise gets three callers, with the board falling A-9-6. You figure that there was a good chance no one had an ace and bet again. Two players fold, leaving you and one opponent.
The turn brings a 7 and you bet again, hoping to charge your opponent for chasing a draw and to try and prevent a medium pair from spiking two pair.
Your opponent calls your turn bet and a 5 comes on the river. This puts you in a tight spot. You have been playing aggressively, so do you fire a third barrel on the river?
If your answer is “no”, go and get a cookie and move to the front of the class.
Against a calling station you can bet away as they will call with all sorts of hands and you are likely to have them beat. But your opponent is a standard player and if they were on a straight draw there’s a very good chance they just made it. If they have an ace, there’s no way they’re going to fold. There is a slim chance they’re holding T-9 and that you have missed a value bet on the river. However, as a rule of thumb, don’t bet on the river unless you can:
- get better hands to fold (no way on this board); or
- get worse hands to call
If you now bet and they check-raise, you will almost certainly have to lay your hand down. Take the free showdown and see if you win. There is a good chance you do not have the best hand here, so caution is the key.
Example Hand 3
You are sat on the button and look down at A-K. One player has limped in, and you raise. The big blind and the limper both call, and the flop comes K-8-3.
The big blind checks, but the limper now bets into you. Neither player has shown any signs of being maniacs or calling stations. So what do you do? Do you raise?
Once again, the answer is “no”.
Raising this flop is not necessarily good. While it is likely that you have the best hand at this stage, (barring your opponent holding a set or a hand like K-8, but both are pretty unlikely), you won’t earn much profit by raising.
Let’s look at it another way. If you raise their flop bet, there are only a few hands they’ll call with that don’t have you beat. They are more likely to check-raise the flop with something like K-T and would normally just call a bet if they were holding something like 9-8. So if you raise and they fold you have let them get away without making a mistake.
Making a further bet on the turn is a worse mistake for them than folding to a raise on the flop. Give them the chance to make that mistake. If they have nothing then you don’t lose all that much by not raising this flop anyway.
Thus the correct play would be to just call, giving the big blind a chance to make a more expensive mistake. You can then trap them on the turn with a raise.
What you should recognize in this hand is that there are no profitable draws available on the board, and your hand is not very vulnerable which makes raising less profitable. However, when holding a hand like 9-9, on an 8-5-2 board, you should definitely raise because almost the entire deck consists of scare cards for you. You must learn to analyze the flop texture and see these differences to time your aggression correctly.
Tight aggressive poker is all about careful, solid play that is geared to minimize your mistakes, while pushing your opponent to make them. By following this style and understanding when to change gears and when to apply the brakes, you will continually rack up good wins against the majority of the opponents you will face in cash games.
But always remember that this playing style is no silver bullet. Tight aggressive poker play still has vulnerabilities that a good player will exploit. Nevertheless, it should definitely be part of your poker arsenal and you should wield this weapon mercilessly whether you play poker online or live.
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