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Chris, what's your playing style?

By Chris Ferguson, December 8, 2004

chris-fergusonI'm surprised at the number of times I hear this question while chatting at FullTiltPoker.com. Equally surprising is the number of different opinions people seem to have on the subject. I've heard it all. You're too tight. You're too loose. You're tight aggressive. You're too passive. Actually, I never hear that last one. But I've heard all the others.

Which means I must be doing something RIGHT!

If you ask me (and many of you do), I don't have a style ? not one that you can so easily pin on me, anyway. Loose. Tight. Aggressive. I am all of the above, depending upon the circumstances.

One essential element of playing winning poker is forcing your opponents to make difficult decisions. That's why raising is almost always better than calling - because it forces an extra decision on your opponent. To take this a step further, you will win more money forcing your opponent to make decisions when they are out of their comfort zone.

Here are some examples:

Your opponent is playing too tight before the flop. You want to punish him for this, and the best way to do that if you are acting in front of him is to raise more often, be more aggressive. You're going to start stealing a lot of blinds, which is great. But what if your inexperienced opponent catches on, and adjusts to your play? Interestingly, that's even better. Now they start playing more hands pre-flop, and that's where your edge really comes in. Anytime your opponent changes their pre-flop style, they're going to run into trouble later in the hand. A guy who usually plays nothing but very strong hands is not going to know what to do with weaker holdings later in the hand. Either you steal a lot of blinds or force your opponent to play outside his comfort zone. It's a win-win situation.

If a tight opponent raises in front of you, wait for a stronger hand to call. By playing tight when you are acting behind your opponent you avoid losing money to his stronger hands. Again if your opponent catches on, you're forcing him to play more hands than he is used to up front which will allow you can outplay him after the flop.

What about the guy who plays too many hands? If I'm acting first, I'm going to want a better starting hand than normal. Most of the value of a marginal hand is the chance that your opponent will fold immediately. If your opponent has never seen suited cards he doesn't like, the value of my marginal hand decreases because it's unlikely he's going to lay his hand down. He may win more pots preflop, but this is more than offset by the extra money you're going to make when we do see a flop with your stronger hands.

If a loose opponent raises me on the other hand I will be more likely to call or even raise instead of folding with weaker hands and more likely to raise instead of calling with stronger hands. The reason I will frequently raise with weaker holdings is to take control of the hand, so I can pick up the pot on later. Again, I am daring them to change their style. If they don't, I am getting the best of it. And if they do adapt, once again they are like a fish out of water and prone to making mistakes later in the hand.

It's important to have a lot of tools in your arsenal. First, it's helpful in being able to adjust to your opponents, to force them out of their comfort zone. But equally importantly, it will enable you to take advantage of your own table image when you have already been labeled as a tight or loose player, and to react accordingly.

Gus Hansen and Phil Ivey are known as extremely aggressive players. The only way they have been able to survive with this image is by being able to adjust to different opponents and slow down occasionally when appropriate. I have seen both these players slow down, sometimes just before an opponent starts reacting to their aggression. They are somehow able to sense this. Other times they won't adjust much, and force an opponent to beat them at an unfamiliar game, which invariably leads to the opponent's self destruction.

One critical skill is the ability to pay attention. To everything. All the time. Not just when you're in the hand. Especially when you're not in the hand. Every hand your opponent plays gives you valuable information about how he thinks about poker, and how he's likely to play hands in the future. If there's an expert at your table, watch how he plays. See what plays he expects to work and think about the play and incorporate it yourself. See how they push weaker players out of their comfort zone. Paying attention is the fastest way of figuring out an opponent, one of the best ways to learn, and a great way to move up the poker food chain.

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