We all love poker both online and at land based casinos. We look to improve all the time as well. One advice we hear a lot is play tight. Another advice we hear a lot is be aggressive. How can we tell when it's time to play tight and when it's time to be aggressive?
Developing your Poker Style: Tight or Aggressive?
We all try to continually hone our online poker skills. To play tight or to play aggressive is one of the finer skills to improve our play. But when is each approach the best to use?
When Should I Play Tight and When Should I be Aggressive?
Poker players get a lot of advice about how to play poker. This advice is important and it is especially important to new poker players. In some cases the advice may be correct for poker players at land based casinos but incorrect for online poker players. This is a huge subject so here we’ll focus on two contradictory pieces of advice, namely, to play “tight” and to play “aggressively”.
Advice like this is actually harmful because it takes poker playing out of context and, in poker, almost everything we do depends on the context in which our decisions are made.
Here are some nuances that will naturally affect your decision to play tight or aggressively.
Observe Your Opponent
Clearly, it’s a lot easier to observe your opponent when he or she is sitting at the same table you’re sitting at. We learn volumes full of information simply from observing our opponents. This is also why we should pay as much attention to what is going on around the table when we have already folded our hand as we do when we are still in the hand.
It is very difficult to observe an opponent when we are playing online. That does not mean that we can’t observe an opponent when we sit down to play poker online. The method of observation changes, not the importance of observing opponents.
In the context of aggressive versus tight play, we need to see how our opponents are playing. If you’re playing against a tight player who rarely bluffs and he or she has raised aggressively, it’s a very clear sign that said opponent has a strong hand.
If you’re playing against a player who plays tighter than most players and folds in the face of strong bets and raises, then being aggressive is the tactic you should use in that context.
It should be clear that there are many contexts that come up over the course of a poker session. Understanding the context of any given situation quickly is probably one of the characteristics that separate good players from the top echelon of players. It also means that advice to play tight or conversely to be aggressive is woefully inadequate out of context. It also indicates that context should be one of the most important areas of study for you.
We suspect that the top pros study hands for the setting and context in the same way that chess players study past chess games and positions and musicians study complex music. Becoming really good at something takes hard work and, in poker, requires close and careful understanding of all the factors at play in any situation.
Observing Players Online
You can’t see your opponents but you can sense how they play. If a player bets quickly in a situation that seemed complex to you, that is a sign that you need to pay extra attention to her or him. If a player plays slowly in a situation that you felt was easy to figure out, it could mean that they are setting up an opponent or it could mean that they are generally very unaggressive players.
It is generally a good tactic to be aggressive with passive players even if you yourself are generally a tight player. It is generally a good tactic to be tight, meaning to fold a relatively good hand, if your opponent is a generally tight player and has suddenly become aggressive.
Once again, we get to the point that you have to use the down time between playable hands in order to get the best read you can on your opponents.
How Much Money is at Stake
At a land based casino, you see how much money an opponent has. Some players are a lot more aggressive when they have a lot of money relatively speaking in front of them and become tighter as their stack dwindles. This type of opponent will be aggressive with less valuable hands and you can win some money from them by playing into their aggressive play.
The same player usually becomes far less aggressive later on in the session so, if they are in that less aggressive state and bet strongly, it’s a clear sign that they are holding a very strong hand.
You can’t see how much money a player has when you’re playing online. In an online poker session, you need to monitor your opponents’ every move and try to place them in the context of the size of their bankroll. This is not easy at all to do but the top players all learned to do it when they began their professional poker careers online.
We see in other sports that previous actions taken by an opponent is valuable when that same situation comes up again. In football, if you are defending an opponent in open space and you know that he almost always fakes left and goes right, you will not be fooled by the fake left.
In professional poker circles, one of the most valuable situations we can watch on YouTube is when one player has a critical decision to make. The commentators may observe that the player upon whom the decision lies is “going through all previous hands”. That means that the pros keep a mental book on every opponent and every situation.
When you play online, you can keep this mental book in written form. It points to the oft-repeated maxim that there is no true down time in poker.
How Well You Know the Opponent
This is a corollary heading to the previous observation. One of the things we don’t usually get a sense of from watching poker on YouTube is how well the top pros know each other. The one big exception is Tom Dwan. No matter how many times a pro plays against Tom Dwan they don’t really know him. That’s why the term “you were just durred” has become part of poker tournament lexicon.
A great benefit from playing for a long session is that as the session goes on, you’ll come to know the opponents much better. Familiarity with your opponents pouts every context into sharper focus making the decision to play tight or to be aggressive somewhat easier to make.