Many players, especially in the small and medium stakes, like to think that they can develop a profitable style that is unique to them. They enjoy trying unique plays and seeing what works.
While there is certainly a bit of wiggle room in terms of developing profitable strategies, for the most part, you should stick to fundamentally sound game theory optimal (meaning they are nearly unexploitable) strategies.
When I am teaching poker to my students, I always start by addressing how to play against someone who plays well. Once you know how to combat strong opponents, you can adjust to take advantage of your weaker opponents’ mistakes.
In this article, I will explain when you should deviate from fundamentally sound strategies to maximise your profits at the poker table.
A Note on Errors
There is nearly an unlimited amount of adjustments you can make to take advantage of your opponents. However, when studying poker, especially when you have a lot of room to improve, it is wise to focus on the spots that occur most frequently. If you make the same mistake over and over on a regular basis, you will spew a huge amount of equity in the long run.
To illustrate this concept, if you make the terrible error of check-folding to any bet whenever you have a straight flush, it wouldn’t cost you much money. That situation almost never takes place (because you won’t make many straight flushes in your career).
If instead, you make a small preflop error each orbit that costs you some fraction of a big blind, it would cost you quite a lot of big blinds each day, and hundreds of big blinds each year.
If a mistake would cost you hundreds (or thousands) of big blinds each year, you should want to do everything in your power to fix it.
When Your Opponents Play Well
Let’s take a look at a somewhat simple hand against a strong opponent and then compare it with how you should play against other inferior player types:
With $200 effective stacks at $1/$2, a strong player raises to $6 from the cutoff seat. You have Jh-9h on the button and decide to 3-bet to $18.
In this situation, calling could easily be the right play if the players in the blinds played poorly. But if they play well, you will find that 3-betting with a decently wide range of premium hands and decent drawing hands is a great strategy against strong opponents.
The preflop aggressor will often be able to continue applying pressure after the flop, usually winning the pot. While it is certainly not ideal if your opponent 4-bets (because you will have to fold unless the 4-bet is tiny), 3-betting or folding in this situation is typically better than calling.
I want to point out that the vast majority of small stakes players call in this situation instead of 3-betting. The difference in profitably between the two options is somewhat small, but calling will almost certainly cost you a large amount of value in the long run.
Only the initial raiser calls your $18 3-bet. The flop comes Js-7c-5h. Your opponent checks and you check behind.
There is certainly merit in betting for value, but against strong players, you usually want to bet with your best made hands and your draws, while checking with your marginal made hands and junk. In this spot, J-9 is on the borderline between a premium made hand and a marginal made hand.
When you have a borderline hand, checking behind has significant merit because it ensures you keep your opponent in the pot with his entire range going to the turn. If you bet, your opponent has the opportunity to fold most hands that are drawing thin.
To correctly identify the borderline hands, ask yourself which value hands can bet on all three streets and reasonably expect to get called by worse made hands. If you are honest with yourself, you will find that J-T and J-9 should often be checked on one street.
The turn is the (Js-7c-5h)-2c. Your opponent bets $24 into the $39 pot, and you call.
After you check behind on the flop, you have an easy call on the turn. There is no merit in raising because your opponent will almost certainly only call with better made hands and draws that are getting the correct pot odds.
The river is the (Js-7c-5h-2c)-3h. Your opponent bets $50 into the $87 pot. You call and beat Kd-Qd.
You could consider folding against players who use a straightforward river strategy, given your pot odds and the fact that it is probable that your opponent is either bluffing or value betting with a hand that you beat. However, calling is the only viable option.
Sometimes you will win, and sometimes you will lose, but calling is certainly better than folding against a strong opponent.
When the Players in the Blinds Play Poorly
The most common adjustment you will make to the previous hand is to just call the preflop raise when the players in the blinds play poorly - to induce them to see the flop, where they can continue making mistakes.
Of course, you want to quantify how the blinds play poorly. If they play in a passive or straightforward manner, you should always call because they will often put money in the pot from out of position and will not defend it properly on the flop. If the players in the blinds will frequently 3-bet squeeze to a huge amount over the raise and your call, calling no longer make sense. You should 3-bet or fold.
As you can see, the initial preflop raiser’s strategy is not the only thing to consider when determining your play.
When the Initial Raiser is Extremely Tight
If instead of being a strong opponent, the initial raiser is extremely tight, you should either call or fold before the flop when facing a $6 (3 big blind) raise. If your opponent plays well after the flop (meaning they are capable of folding hands like top pair if it becomes clear they are beat while also intelligently bluffing with their big unpaired hands), you should fold.
If they almost always lose their entire stack if they make top pair or better, or if they play incredibly straightforwardly, you should call. 3-betting has no merit because your opponent will almost never fold before the flop and they almost certainly have you in bad shape.
If your opponent raised to more than $10 (5 big blinds), you should almost always fold due to your decreased implied odds. Do not fall into the habit of calling large preflop raises with marginal drawing hands. You will not flop well enough often enough to make up for the times you fail to solidly connect with the board.
This time, you call a $6 raise from a tight, straightforward player who usually bets with their best hands and checks everything else, and the big blind (a weak, straightforward player) also calls.
The flop comes Js-7c-5h. The big blind checks and the initial raiser bets $12 into the $19 pot. Only you call.
I do not think there is any merit in raising because if your opponent sticks around, you are almost certainly beat. If they fold, you had the best hand, meaning your raise forced your opponent to play well.
The turn is the (Js-7c-5h)-2c.
At this point, if your opponent bets again, if you are confident in your read that they will only continue betting with strong hands (most of which beat your top pair), you have an easy fold.
If they check, you should usually make a small value bet of about $16 into the $43 pot to try to get called by your opponent’s marginal value hands such as 8-8 and A-K. There is no need to bet large for “protection” because the hands you beat are drawing thin, and if you bet large, they may only stick around when you are beat.
As you can see, this hand played out in a drastically different manner compared to when your opponents play well.
Poker is fun!
It is worth mentioning that if the initial raiser was a strong player and you decided to just call the preflop raise, perhaps because the blinds play poorly, folding the turn would be much too weak.
Against a strong player, you should certainly call the turn and often call the river.
When the Initial Raiser is a Maniac
If the initial raiser is a maniac (someone who relentlessly applies aggression with a wide range), you should call the preflop raise. And then call down on most boards when you make top pair, even if the turn and river are somewhat scary.
The only time you can justify folding a hand like your marginal top pair with J-9s in a heads-up pot against a maniac is when it runs out (Js-7c-5h-Kc)-Ad. Even then, calling turn and river bets may be perfectly fine.
Many maniacal opponents are capable of bluffing all three streets with Q-T, Q-9, T-9, T-8, 9-8, 9-6, and 8-6 as long as their opponent doesn’t show strength by raising on the flop or turn. When you know your opponent plays a wide range of hands, you know they are capable of bluffing all three streets, and there are lots of possible bluffing candidates. You should be willing to call down on somewhat scary boards, even for a substantial amount of money.
If your opponent is an overly wild maniac (who ignores your strategy and instead just piles the money in with any two cards), there may be some merit in raising the flop to get a re-raise, so you can then get all-in.
While it may sound ideal to simply get all-in on the flop with what is likely the best hand, the maniacs who succeed are usually aware that when they get raised, their opponents almost always have reasonable hands - allowing them to ditch their bluffs.
When the Initial Raiser is a Calling Station
When your opponent is a calling station (someone who is unable to fold any hand deemed to have value), you should again just call before the flop with your J-9s. You should then raise any continuation bet to about 2.5 times the bet on Js-7c-5h.
This situation differs from the previous ones in that your opponent will call your raise with many hands you beat, such as worse top pairs, middle pairs, bottom pairs, and all straight draws. You should then continue betting on most turns but then play somewhat passively on the river, because even the densest calling stations realise 8-6 (eight-high) isn’t good when it fails to improve by the river.
When the Initial Raiser is Loose and Weak
If the initial raiser is loose and weak, you should 3-bet with essentially all your playable hands. Make a continuation bet of about 40% of the size of the pot on almost all flops because your opponent will fold too much of his range before and on the flop.
Any time your bets make your opponent fold much too often, feel free to apply aggression. If your weak opponent calls your flop bet and the turn does not obviously change the board (such that it makes most reasonable flopped hands clearly worse), you should give up. If the board gets scary, you should consider bluffing the turn and river to try to make your opponent fold any marginal made hands.
As an aside, if you have a tight image, perhaps because you have been card dead recently, many players will react to your bets as if they must represent strong hands. You should apply aggression and steal all the pots where your opponents failed to connect with the board - at least until they become aware of your strategy.
Moving Beyond the Flop
As you can see, the simple decision as to whether you should call or 3-bet before the flop leads to all sorts of interesting situations after the flop. The same can be said for your postflop strategies.
In general, if you try to lead the hand in a direction that is advantageous to you, you will win in the long run. Constantly strive to pinpoint your opponents’ mistakes and take them where they have holes in their games.
For example, if you know your opponent plays all streets well besides the river, where they play incredibly straightforwardly, get to the river and then steal every pot when your opponent indicates weakness by checking.
If you know your opponent always continuation bets both the flop and turn with an entire loose range, frequently raise or check-raise the turn. This play will result in you stealing a sizable pot quite often, adding a huge amount to your win rate in the long run.
Clarifying When to Deviate from a Fundamentally Sound Strategy
If you are aware of the mistakes your opponents are prone to make, you should be inclined to adjust to maximally exploit them. That said, you will usually have no clue about the specific errors your opponents will commit.
If you don’t know what your opponents will do incorrectly, you will not know how to optimally adjust. With no reads, you should play a fundamentally sound strategy. While a robust strategy based on game theory is a great starting point, it will leave money on the table once you become aware of your opponents’ mistakes.
If you want to win the most money possible, pay attention and adjust.
I hope running up your $10 into $888 is going well.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask me on Twitter @JonathanLittle.