Post-flop Play – V
4 Sep 2009
Arthur S. Reber in Poker,

Okay guys, we’re back ruminating on post-flop play. Today’s thoughts are driven by a burst of testosterone. Not quite sure why but maybe ‘cause I thumped some fish last night and I’m stoked. So, let’s begin with the obvious:

Grow steel cojones. In virtually every competitive enterprise aggression carries benefits. One of my favorite lines comes from the inestimable Mike Caro, “aggression is rarely wrong in poker, and when it is, it isn’t wrong by much.”

But there is more to the “steel cojones” bit than just naked aggression. Virtually every social scientist can tell you that mindless attack ultimately succumbs to tactical counter thrusts. Aggression gains its advantage, not so much as a device for taking down individual pots, but as part of the meta-game. If you become known as an aggressive player you will instill two emotive states in your opponents: fear and confusion.

For example, every once in a while you’re going to have to fire not just one, not just two but three bullets or play like you flopped a set when you’ve got air. Sometimes this will work, sometimes not. Your variance will go up. If you can live with it, fine, because when used appropriately your bottom line will improve.

Aggression is situational: This is a corollary to the above. There are more than a few circumstances where your cards are essentially irrelevant. This may seem a bit extreme, but it often isn’t. A nit limps UTG and a weak, timid player calls from middle position. A raise is obligatory here. Your hand is irrelevant, only the size of the raise is important, and that decision will be based on your position and sense of the situation.

In short, focus and control your aggression. Mindless belligerence isn’t effective at a poker table. Mindful and unpredictable aggression is best.

Attack good players: Yup, that’s what I said, attack solid players more often than weak ones. Standard advice is go after the fish, abuse the fearful, trap the maniacal, intimidate the timid. There’s nothing wrong with this advice but, for the most part, you do not need to attack the piscine opponents. They will make their mistakes without you having to prime them.

If you’re in the mood for a little throw-down, most of the situations that will prove profitable will come from timely attacks on strong players, particularly if they don’t know you and don’t have a read on you. A good player is far more likely to lay down a decent hand than a weak one. You have a much better shot at bluffing a top-flight pro than a rank amateur. The fish will look you up ‘cause they don’t want to be bluffed and they often just “want to see” what you’re raising with. The solid players are more interested in protecting their chips.

Aim to play on Level 3: Level 1: my hand. Level 2: my read on my opponents’ hands. Level 3: my read on what my opponents think I’m doing. Solid players know they must do this. Alas, when the pressure is on the tendency is to fall back to Level 2 and we stop with “what range of hands can I put him on?” Often (more often than you can imagine) the real question to ask is, “what does he think I have.” This is what’s driving his action.

Stakes impact decisions: Like the above, this is a simple credo, but often neglected in the heat of battle. Here are some examples where the stakes have an impact on the EV of a “standard” play:

Low stakes. Here, most players are betting their cards. They are vulnerable to steals when they miss and can be outplayed when they hit a small piece. Board texture is important here. But take care, as players become more tuned to these moves they lose their edge.

Mid-stakes. Here, position rules. Standard gambits become less effective because they may be countered. Be unpredictable. Keep opponents guessing. The more they guess, the more mistakes they will make.

High stakes. Here, you will need moves that rarely occur at more modest stakes. Players enter pots with a wide variety of holdings. They work on being hard to read and trying to keep opponents off guard. There are wheels within wheels of strategy and counterstrategy.

To get a feel for this kind of thing, go check out some hands on this site from the news reports and, of course, sit down and watch a couple of hours of High Stakes Poker or Poker After Dark. The strategic ploys that are effective at this level will not prove profitable in lower stakes games.

So where’s the psychology in these? Actually, it’s everywhere. Virtually every piece of advice here on post-flop play is based on one or another psychological principle involving intimidation, aggression, ego, self-awareness, anxiety, fear, confusion, decision-making. The more psychology you know, the better your poker game will become.

There’s one more piece in this series. It’ll be a look at emotions and bankrolls.

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