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Play Up to Your Own Level

How to Take Full Advantage of Bad Players

by Matt Matros |  Published: Nov 30, 2011

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Matt MatrosCompeting against strong poker players is fun, intellectually stimulating, and ultimately beneficial for your game in the long run. For all these reasons, it’s tempting to spend a ton of time thinking about how to handle tough spots against professionals. With what hands should you should be four-betting and five-betting them? Are you representing a balanced range? How can you stay one step ahead? It’s helpful, certainly, to have a well thought out game plan against good players. But the simple fact remains that most of the money you make in poker will come from bad players.

“Sure Matt,” you might say, “but it’s easy to play against bad players. When I see one at the table I only have to count my blessings and wait for the money to flow to me.” What’s troubling is that you’re probably right. If you’re a regular reader of this magazine, it’s very likely that your normal level of poker play will be good enough to earn comfortable sums against the worst players who wander into your typical low or middle limit casino games. The issue is that it’s not enough to merely win—you need to beat these players for as much as you possibly can.

Do you want to concentrate on finding the tiniest of advantages against the toughest players in the room, or do you want to make your already big advantages much, much bigger? The answer is you should want to do both, but most players don’t. In my experience, many otherwise strong players have a flaw in their game, which is that they’re not maximizing their earn against weak opponents. This flaw will eventually have an enormous impact on their bottom lines.

There are a few tell-tale signs that you might be leaving money on the table against poor players. First, make sure you’re playing enough hands against them. If you find yourself playing as many hands (or more) against the tough opponents as you are against the weak ones, you need to adjust your strategy. Your goal at the poker table is to find your biggest advantage and to exploit it. Colliding repeatedly with tough players goes squarely against this goal. There are a number of reasons why people make the mistake of not engaging enough with bad opponents. Consciously or unconsciously, they might enjoy the challenge of going up against a good player. Or perhaps they’re paying too much attention to their own hands, and not enough attention to the ranges of the bad players. A-9 offsuit is not a hand you’d normally play from middle position, but if a habitual limper to your right enters the pot, the situation changes drastically. Make a concerted effort to play pots with your weaker opponents.

Another symptom that shows you might not be doing your job is playing the same style as everyone else. Football announcers like to accuse teams of playing “down to the competition” when they lose or nearly lose games they’re supposed to win. The same thing can happen to poker players. A (normally) very strong player once told me that he open limped with Q-J offsuit “because other people at the table were doing it.” This is the world’s worst reason for making a poker play, and yet I hear endless variations of that kind of thinking. Your edge comes from playing better—meaning, differently—than your opponents. Nothing should ever become part of your strategy by virtue of how routine is it at your table. In fact, when bad players are limping in front of you, it should be standard procedure to either raise their limps or fold your hand. Yes, there are times when you should limp along with them and use your position and post-flop skill to create your edge. But, generally speaking, your preflop edge over passive players comes from taking the initiative (raising), playing bigger pots with superior holdings, and smaller pots with inferior ones. Don’t let your opponents’ poor play rub off on you.

The last indication that you’re not taking proper advantage of poor competition is that you’re calling raises too often. On the first day of a recent $10,000 buy-in event, a good player opened, and a straightforward, very passive player made an all-in reraise of 25 blinds. A (normally) outstanding player on the button cold-called the all-in with A-J offsuit. Against an aggressive three-bettor this is a perfectly fine call. Against a tight opponent who has shown that he’s willing to fold and fold in order to survive the first day of a big event, the button’s call is awful. Good players are usually fearless, and so they’re used to making tough calls in marginal spots. Against nitty opposition, though, these tough calls are not tough, they’re just wrong. Recognize bad players for what they are. Most are quite passive. When they’re raising, you should usually get out of their way.

It might not be as interesting as bluff-reraising on the river to represent quads and convince a good opponent to fold a full house, but shoring up your basic strategy against weak opponents—bleeding them of every last bet you can—will make you a big winner in the long run. I’d rather be winning than interesting. ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player. He is also a featured coach for cardrunners.com.