Newer players tend to play a more timid game. It makes logical sense, too. Poker is risk, and newer players are generally risk adverse. But as my fellow Academy writer, Jeff, recently stated in his last article, there is a tendency to learn how NOT TO LOSE at poker, as opposed to how to win, and for a newer player, that tendency may cause the player to play too weak and passive.
Aggression is the key to any successful poker game. In any given hand, the player taking control of the hand is at an advantage, and the only way to take control is aggression. And in poker, aggression is betting (although, some I can also make the argument that in some situations, folding can be an aggressive play...but we’ll save that for another day).
The best way to explain it is through an example. You have AQo (Ace Queen offsuit, i.e., Ace Queen of two different suits). This is a solid starting hand for sure, but its strength varies widely depending on how you play the hand and who is in control.
For simplification, let’s assume that a player in middle position with 10,000 chips raises to 300 at a table with 50/100 blinds (i.e., he bets three times the big blind). The action folds to you in the big blind. You also have 10,000 in chips at the beginning of the hand (less the 100 big blind), and were dealt AQo. You are likely going to call, at the very least, but an argument can be made for a more aggressive re-raise. Let’s look at the two scenarios:
In our first scenario, you decide only to call because “Ace Queen is a drawing hand.” The flop comes down AT2. Now what?
And herein lies the reason why we want to be aggressive. Thus far, you know very little about your opponent’s hand. He raised preflop from middle position, so he is likely not betting with complete air (i.e., poor cards). However, there was no action before him and he may have been betting to thin the field with a marginal low pair like 66 or even...22. That doesn’t help much either, since you can beat 66, but are dominated by 22. He could also have a hand like AK or even AT, which dominates your hand as well...or a hand like AJ that you dominate. In other words, you know just enough to know that you know NOTHING!
So, you check out to get more information, and your opponent bets 600 into the 650 pot (the pot is made up of his 300 bet, your call, and the 50 small blind). Now what?
Well, your guess is as good as mine. A call would be acceptable. A raise may be preferred, but we’ll get to that in a moment. A fold is likely very weak, and may set yourself up for trouble later, if players believe that you will always fold to a continuation bet.
But what about the other scenario?
In our second scenario, you decide to be aggressive with your AQo. After your opponent raises to 300 and the action folds to you, you decide to re-raise to 900 (three times his bet). The action folds back to your opponent. You have effectively taken control, and now he is reacting to you (and giving up information) rather than the first scenario, when he was in control and you were reacting to him.
If your opponent has that dreaded and sneaky 22, now is likely the time that he will fold, fearing that your raise means that he has to hit his set to win the pot (or at the very least is a slight favorite in a near-coin-toss (i.e., almost 50/50) situation. The same is true for other weak or marginal hands, like AT (which would flop two pair) and hands that would have completely missed the flop, like KJ. Granted, in these situations, you do not win a bucket load of chips, but winning a small pot without any risk (i.e., you cannot be out-flopped or sucked out on if your opponent folds) is a fine way to build a stack and earn a tough table image that will discourage players from playing back at you.
But what if your opponent does not have a weak hand? Superior hands like AA, AK, KK, or QQ are likely to see your re-raise as an opportunity to shoot for the moon with a re-re-raise, to build the pot while they hold a monster hand. And this is your polite cue to fold (most of the time). By giving your opponent and opportunity to re-re-raise preflop, you are essentially fishing for information. Information is not your only goal — your bet is intended to win you the pot — but information is always useful in poker. Once your opponent re-re-raises, you can more confidently fold for a fraction of what you may lose if you flop an Ace-high board (like the AT2 board discussed above) against a dominating hand like AK or even AA. Even though you may catch up to a hand like KK or QQ (such as in the AT2 board), at the time of your fold preflop, you are making the correct statistical play. If the flop comes down Q54, the KK or QQ will still be ahead, and you may get yourself in trouble thinking your top pair top kicker hand is good.
To be clear, aggression and over-aggression are too very different things. You should not be raising with junk cards just because you read somewhere that aggression is good. You should, however, see aggression as a tool, and do your best to take control of hands when the opportunity arises. Not only will you win more pots when your opponent folds, but you will also gain more information by making your opponent react to your actions.
As always, play with your head and remember the advice you learn at the Academy, but most importantly, remember to have fun. Poker is a fine pursuit, and an even finer game of leisure, but there will be days when all the aggression in the world will still see you lose hand after hand. The key is to stay in the game (mentally) so you are ready when the good times come.