Poker Against the Grain

March 27, 2013 Jordan Greene Poker psychology

Poker is Constantly Changing

The game of poker is a constantly evolving beast. If one were to chart playing styles from the beginning of the WSOP (just as a benchmark) to the present, there would be definite stages. In the early days, before books like Doyle Brunson’s Super/System, players had to learn the game from trial and error. Most players learned the relative value of different hands pre-flop, and became adept at being patient and waiting for top level hands. Playing a tight range of cards preflop ensured that these players would have an advantage over the loose players who did not understand the fundamentals of the game.

But even against this backdrop, elite players like Brunson found other styles of play. In his Super/System, Brunson describes playing a wider range of hands and constantly attacking small or abandoned pots. He explained how players would often think that he was lucky because he would end up hitting his draws or hitting flops with his wide range of preflop hands, giving the appearance of someone whose main skill was, well, getting lucky. In reality, Brunson was exploiting the players by playing a style that was counter to the norm. Whereas the “skilled” players tightened up their range, Brunson loosened his and was aggressive, amassing enough small pots to be able to gamble on the bigger ones using his opponents’ money.

As poker became more mainstream and players discovered Brunson’s Super/System, Brunson’s style became somewhat common place, albeit, perhaps not as nuanced as the when it was wielded by the master himself. Aggression was now a prized trait, and the poker community adjusted accordingly.

Poker continues to go through changes. It’s a constant. It also is inevitable. If everyone is playing one style, then the person who can find a way to exploit the style will dominate. Once everyone realizes that there is a way to exploit the common style of play, more and more players switch over and join the new “in” style. The cycle then repeats itself.

When the poker boom occurred around 2003, suddenly, poker tables across the country were filled with new fish. The fish learned poker from TV, so they mimicked what they saw. Most of these early players were style over substance. It looked cool to push all-in and they did not fully understand the nuances of the game. In that environment, the tight players cleaned up, because they were playing against loose, inexperienced players. When everyone learned that “tight is right,” the sharks then realized that loose aggression was once again favorable, since they could get the tight players to fold more often. Three-bets and all-in shoves became more common.

Playing Opposite of Conventional Wisdom Is Often Profitable

If this trend shows anything, it is that you can gain an edge in poker from playing differently than everyone else. The tight player at a loose table is going to have the dominant hand pre-flop compared to his loose opponents. The loose player at a tight table is going to steal a lot of pots from tight players. And if the game changes from a tight one to a loose one midway through the session, the player who can adjust accordingly will be in the best position to be successful.

For this reason, I highly recommend that the more serious players always question conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom, by its very nature, has been absorbed by the general consciousness as accepted. Once you can identify that everyone thinks the best strategy is to play a certain style, you can exploit those players by finding a counter-intuitive style that attacks the style’s weaknesses.

This is where things get confusing. I explained earlier that if the table is loose, the tight player has an advantage. That is generally true. However, it is also conventional wisdom, and we now know that conventional wisdom must be questioned. This is a constantly moving target, as the game and styles change.

Conventional wisdom states that you should play tight against a loose table, so, if we were to go against conventional wisdom, then the solution would be to play loose in a loose table. In reality, that is probably the right play. How? This takes a bit more analysis.

When a table is loose, the players are naturally playing weaker hands. You can follow conventional wisdom and tighten up in response, in which case you will be in a lot fewer hands but be dominant when you do play. However, a smart loose table will catch on to this, and when you do play a hand, your opponents will know you are strong and fold. Of course, if your table has a bunch of mindless players, then tight is probably right, since they will not fold even when you show strength. However, if the table is conscious of your play style, it will be like playing with your cards face-up. So, how do we avoid this situation?

This is where looseness at a loose table is good. You do not necessarily want to become one of the table maniacs, but you should loosen up your starting hand requirements because your opponents are likely to play weak cards, so even middle-strength cards may be strong.

A brief example. Some players would not play AJ because it is often dominated by AK and AQ. Lord knows I have faced that situation more than once. However, if your opponents are just as likely playing A8, A7, A5, etc., then AJ or even AT are fairly strong hands.

Here is another example from tournament poker. The majority of players tend to tighten up as play nears the money bubble. If you were to follow everyone else’s lead, you may be able to fold into the money. But if you were to try the opposite tact and play more aggressively, then you will likely pick up more uncontested pots against the players who are tightening up, setting yourself up for a large stack that will hopefully allow you to go for the top paying spots, rather than the lower paying spots.

If there is a lesson, it is twofold: (1) the game is always adapting, so you must adapt with it, and (2) the players who can go against the grain and exploit common knowledge have a natural step up on the competition.

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