Classifying Bets And Raises Part 3 – Aggression Is Overrated

Poker Concepts

June 6, 2008

part 1, part 2

The 10 most aggressive players in Vegas are brokeBob Ciaffone in Improve Your Poker

This is probably going to piss some people off, but Bob’s exactly right. For the last 25 years, the poker literature has been pulling a bit of a con on unsuspecting players by claiming in almost unmitigated terms that aggression is good. Now, up to a point they’re right. But the fact is that excessive aggression, or aggression in the wrong spots, is probably the biggest mistake being made in poker today. By most accounts, poker in the late 70s when decent books started being written was populated by some of the most passive players imaginable. I wasn’t around to see it, but I don’t doubt that for a minute. Today, though, things are turned around backwards from where they were in the 70s and 80s. Many modern players would be well served to calm down and try checking and calling every once in a while. Never fear, though, because I’ll be glad to explain how to tell “good” aggression from “bad” aggression so you don’t fall prey to this antiquated poker advice.

However, before I continue, we have to figure out exactly what it is we’re talking about. Because poker “aggression” means different things to different people. The simplest, easiest definition is that aggression is a playing in such a way that you bet and raise a lot. Others have defined it as not calling (ie both betting/raising and folding are aggressive but calling is not). Still others have defined aggression as playing thin edges. It turns out that the first two definitions are in essence the same thing, although it may not appear that way at first. If you don’t call, and you play any pots, by definition you’re going to be betting and raising a lot. It’s the only alternative.

The third definition is a little more interesting. What does playing thin edges have to do with betting and raising a lot? Everything, it turns out. Let’s refer back to yesterday’s part 2 article where we got this view of the hands your opponent could hold:

hands he will fold | Hands he will call or raise with
worst---------------Opponent Range------------------best

The key point was the dividing line in the middle that split the hands he would fold to a bet from those he would call or raise with. Now, from part 2 we already know that betting hands that are close to the dividing line is not profitable or is minimally profitable at best. And guess what, “betting with a thin edge” and “minimally profitable” are just two different ways of saying the same thing. Another way to think about is is this: if you only got to make a few bets, which ones would you make? The ones with the biggest edge, obviously. These are the bets where the hand you hold is as far as possible away from your opponents dividing line hand. Now, if you had to bet more, you would bet those next closest to the dividing line, and your edge on those hands would be smaller because your risk would increase and your reward would decrease. In other words, betting/raising more hands and betting/raising with a smaller edge are exactly the same concept. So all three definitions of aggression are actually talking about the same thing. That’s a relief! For simplicity sake, I’ll just define aggressive play as betting and raising in more spots, and move on.

If you were paying close attention, I actually tipped my hand last paragraph and explained why aggression is overrated. Simply put, as a player takes more opportunities to bet and raise, the opportunities being taken get worse and worse. Eventually, as you closer to the dividing line hand, the new bets/raises being added become losing proposition. Taken to an extreme, this can become unprofitable in the extreme. My point is simply that opportunities to bet or raise should be evaluated individually, rather than being lumped together under the ‘aggression is good’ banner.

Now, having said that, you may wonder if ol’ Wayne is leading you astray here. Because very frequently when top pros are interviewed about what makes a good player they will answer “aggression”. I think there are several reasons for that. First off, it’s an easy low-content answer to give when someone sticks a microphone in your face. Second, I suspect at least a few of them are leading us on a bit. But there is a grain of truth in what they’re saying – top players are slightly more aggressive than weaker winning players. But the causality there is the opposite of what you might think. Those top players are not good because they’re aggressive. They’re aggressive because they’re good.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s pretty simple actually. We’ve already seen that just making more thin bets/raises doesn’t buy you anything past a certain point, and then it hurts you. In order to profit more you need to make more GOOD bets & raises. In order to do that, you need two pieces of information. First off, you need a smaller & more accurate hand range for your opponent. Second, you need a more accurate idea of what the dividing line hand is. The later piece of information is more critical. These two pieces of information are very difficult to get. They come from logical deduction, hand reading, observing and remembering previous hands, and in some cases even physical tells. The point here is that a very skilled player does a better job of collecting and organizing this nebulous information. As a result, that player will choose to bet/raise in a few places where a more moderately skilled player might pass, and will pass in a few places where his lesser counterpart might bet. Sometimes those extra bets look awful thin and very aggressive if you don’t follow the hand reading logic, but there’s a world of difference between realizing that villain’s range or dividing line is not as it appears and betting accordingly vs. just betting more.

Here’s a homework assignment. Go watch some episodes of High Stakes Poker. A bunch of them are on YouTube. Pay attention to see who’s really aggressive, and who’s not. You’ll find that the highly profitable, experienced pros most at home with NL (Doyle, Tod, Chip, Barry) are not the most aggressive players. Not even close. There’s a lesson to be learned there. On HSP, just like elsewhere in poker, aggression is overrated. Just ask Sammy’s banker.

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