Whenever you sit down to play a poker cash game, you are sitting down to play this game in its purest form. Long before the huge tournaments that are so popular today, poker was played for money wherever men gathered — without any of the superstar trappings it has now accumulated through its television popularity.
But the one thing that has not changed about poker is that playing a tight, solid and aggressive style is still a winning strategic play for cash games.
A tight poker player is simply one that does not play many hands. Not only is he selective about the hands he does play, but also the position from which he plays them.
As a result of this careful approach, it can be assumed that this player has a reasonably good hand whenever he comes into the pot, as there is a limited set of opening hole cards that he will play.
Conversely, a loose poker player is one who never saw two cards he didn’t like and will jump into just about every pot ready to gamble. It is hard to tell what he is holding, because it could quite literally be anything.
Aggressive refers to the way in which a player plays his 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.
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 money – you have to take it 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 on 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.
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 favorite top ten hands, the majority of answers will include the following:
The reason that these hands are popular is because they have good 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 is the reason that small pocket and medium pocket pairs are not on this list. They are a lot more difficult to play post-flop and thus open you up to making costly mistakes.
To paraphrase Sklansky’s Theory of Poker, your opponent makes money when you make a mistake, and you make money when he makes one. A mistake is defined and as playing a hand differently from the way in which you would have played it if you could see your opponent’s hole cards.
For example, let's say that you're on sat on the big blind and the small blind completes. You are holding 4s-4c and decide to make a small raise 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?
Do you bet? If you could see your opponent’s cards and knew that he had missed the flop completely, the answer would obviously be yes. If you knew that he was 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.
Still not convinced? OK, let’s continue the scenario and assume you bet in this position. Your opponent check-raises you!
Uh oh, now what? Your opponent could now be holding a wide range of hands. He could be saying "no way" to your flop bet, believing you to be making a continuation bet with a hand like A-K. Or, he could get tricky and be semi-bluffing with a hand containing a 10 or maybe two hearts. He could even be taking a stab at the pot with absolutely nothing like 52. 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 is better to make a small pre-flop 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 screw ups. 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. This will enable you to become a constant winner.
In addition, some players will 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.
Understanding when to get aggressive and when to let go is fundamental to this style of play. We are therefore going to wrap up with two examples that should serve to illustrate when you should bark and when you should bite.
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 pre-flop 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 to continue.
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 aggressive, 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 he was on a straight draw, there's a very good chance he just filled up on the final card. If he has an ace, there is no way he’s going to fold. There is a slim chance that he’s 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:
If you now bet and he check-raises, 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.
You are sat on the button and look down at A-K, raising a single limper pre-flop. 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 him ?
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 his flop bet, there are only a few hands he can be holding which he will call with and not have you beat. He is more likely to check-raise the flop with something like K-T and would normally just call a bet if he was holding a 9-8. So if you raise and he folds you have let him get away without making a mistake.
Calling a single bet here is a worse mistake for him than folding to two bets. Give him the chance to make that mistake. If he has 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 him on the Turn for two big bets.
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. Raising thus becomes imperative. 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 online or live.