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It is important to realize that in poker, as in life, things are not always as they appear. In poker, one way this concept manifests itself is in the form of bluffing. The vast majority of poker players, especially those who frequent small-stakes cash games and tournaments, think the optimal winning strategy is rigid, tight, and aggressive.
While winning most of the pots that belong to you, plus a few more when your opponents play poorly, is a nice way to keep variance low and to have an edge, that edge will consistently be small. When playing against players who are not world-class (which will almost always be the case), you will win significantly more money by playing in a manner that exploits their sub-optimal tendencies. This usually means getting maximum value from your premium hands (as many recreational players already do) while also stealing pots that do not belong to you (which many recreational players do not do).
I do not want you to get the idea that playing in a generally tight, aggressive style is bad. The problem is that this straightforward strategy does not maximally exploit other tight, aggressive players. At this point in time, almost every poker player has studied one of the now-outdated books that advocate playing mostly premium hands. These players are excellent at being patient and getting paid off when they are fortunate enough to make the nuts against their oblivious opponents. These sporadic large wins are enough to beat the worst players in the small-stakes games for a small amount.
As you move up, however, you will face fewer and fewer bad players to the point that when you reach the medium and high stakes, there will rarely be an obvious, terrible player at your table. Most middle- and high-stakes players strive to ensure they do not make the blunders that the worst players make. But this tendency to avoid appearing dumb opens the door for you to steal pots when these tight, aggressive players do not have a strong hand, and occasionally when they have a strong hand but become convinced that you have the effective nuts.
When looking at graphs of winning online poker players, tracking programs display a green line (the total profit), a red line (the non-showdown winnings), and a blue line (the showdown winnings). Most winning small-stakes cash game players have a highly positive blue line (when they go to showdown) and a breakeven or negative red line (when they win by making their opponents fold). This implies that to beat the worst players, they play tightly (giving up small pots and letting your red line go negative) and get paid off with premium hands (making for a largely positive blue line).
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Those who win at the middle- and high-stakes games often have a similar, but inverse, graph, with a positive red line and a negative or break-even blue line. These players win by making their opponents fold incorrectly, meaning they successfully bluff way more often. When they happen to play large pots, they will frequently be an underdog, but they steal enough small pots to more than make up for their losses.
In general, you will find that each specific player has a point in the hand where they act in an honest manner, betting with strong hands and checking with marginal and weak hands. Some players act honestly as soon as they put a chip in the pot. They raise their strong hands, limp their marginal hands, and fold their junk. Others raise preflop with all hands they deem respectable but then only continuation bet the flop when they have what they believe to be a strong holding. Many players in today’s game continuation bet the flop with a wide range but then play the turn in an honest manner, only betting when they are confident that they have the best hand, opting to check with their trash and marginal hands. More maniacal players are willing to play in an aggressive manner all the way to the river.
All you have to do against these players is figure out when their checks indicate weakness, and then apply an amount of pressure that will result in them folding the vast majority of their range, which will result in your red line (non-showdown winnings) going through the roof. ♠
Jonathan Little is a professional poker player with over $7 million in live tournament earnings, best-selling author of 15 educational poker books, and 2019 GPI Poker Personality of the Year. If you want to increase your poker skills and learn to crush the games, check out his training site PokerCoaching.com. Click here to try PokerCoaching.com for free.