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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: Taking Advantage Of Loose Play

Targeting The Pots Nobody Is Interested In

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I’m doing a series of companion articles to my most recent book, The Course: Serious Hold ’Em Strategy For Smart Players. It’s a step-by-step guide to mastering the live no-limit hold’em games that you will find in most cardrooms around the world.

Once you have mastered the basic concepts to win in $1-$2 games—solid preflop play, refusing to pay off when you’re likely beaten, and getting value for your good hands—you need to broaden your thinking. Those $1-$2 skills all have something in common — they’re mostly about being able to judge your own hand strength correctly.

The first place $1-$2 players with these skills get caught when they move up is when their opponents don’t play as expected. For example, the entire concept of refusing to pay off when you’re beaten relies on a fairly well-developed set of assumptions about how your opponents will play hands of certain strengths. He’s going to bet a flush, but check trips. She’s going to check down top pair, but bet two pair or better. And so forth.

The thing is, there’s nothing that says these assumptions have to be correct. They just usually are correct for most players at small stakes. Some players might flaunt these assumptions by playing recklessly or erratically. These are the players you will often hear people complain about. “You never know where they’re at. They could have anything!”

Better players will recognize in your play the assumptions you are likely making, and turn those assumptions against you. “When you bet big after the flush card comes, he gives you credit and folds,” they might think. Then maybe they start betting more when the flush card comes.

Considering the assumptions your opponents are making is the shift in mindset you need to move up from the “how good is my hand” level of thinking. Making this shift really begins to pay off when you get to the $2-$5 level.

Never is the importance of this clearer than when you want to make money off loose opponents.

How many times have you played in a game, seen half the table playing each pot, and thought to yourself, “This is going to be a great table?” Then four hours later, you’re stuck half a buy-in, and you’re wondering if it was bad luck, or if there’s a piece of the puzzle that you are missing.

This is obviously a well-known phenomenon, and over the years I’ve heard countless explanations for it. “The fish are schooling,” some people say, implying that multiple loose players protect each other from their own mistakes.

“They play so bad you can’t beat them,” is another one. This bit of logic doesn’t withstand scrutiny, but it can begin to make sense the more frustrated you get.

Here’s the thing. If you’re stuck thinking about your own hand strength, and you aren’t actively thinking about your opponents’ assumptions and how to exploit them, you will struggle against loose players.

Why?

First of all, it’s hard to make a good hand. It’s even harder to make a hand that feels good against three or four opponents. So when you’re focused on your own hand strength and not really thinking much about your opponents, most hands you’re going to feel like you don’t measure up.

Second of all, it may not be as easy to get paid off as you think—even against loose players. Lots of players figure that when that one great hand finally does come along, with all this action, it’s a near-lock to get paid off for stacks.

Of course when I put it that way, it’s obvious that it’s nowhere near a lock that you’ll get paid off. Just because four of your opponents paid $25 each to see a flop doesn’t mean that at least one of them will be happy to dump $1,000 to you when you finally make your full house.

In modern games, in fact, not getting paid off tends to be the rule and not the exception. If you wait for good hands to make your move, and you don’t get paid off (as a rule), you aren’t going to win. It’s that simple.

How To Take Advantage Of Loose Play

The most important thing to realize about loose players is they usually make bad hands. It’s in the definition of loose—players who are loose play bad preflop hands. Bad preflop hands are bad because they usually make bad postflop hands.

So the way to take advantage of loose play isn’t to wait for good hands. If you sit around waiting for hands, you’ll watch these folks dink around in a lot of pots with weak pairs versus flush draws versus gutshots. This will be both frustrating and unprofitable.

Instead you want to stick around in hands early. Feel out your opponents and try to sniff out the times they do make a hand. When they do, oh well. Give it to them.

But every other pot you should consider stealing. Every time you see someone win a pot with J-7 on a board like J-9-3-A-8, it’s a sign you may have passed up an opportunity to win. Don’t let your loose opponents get to cheap showdowns with each other.

The turn bet is your best friend. In many pots with loose players, the betting from your opponents will begin to stall by the turn. For example, say someone raises to $25 preflop, and there are four calls. The preflop raiser bets $50 on the flop (not a particularly large bet into a $125+ pot). A couple players call. Then the preflop raiser checks the turn.

Even if there are other players besides the raiser who could have good hands, this situation is usually a good risk to put a bet out and try to steal. It certainly won’t work every time, but it works enough (combined with whatever chance you have to win the hand on the river) to be a good bet.

Final Thoughts

Many regular $2-$5 players make a fundamental mistake that prevents them from winning and moving up. They see their opponents play loosely, and they think that the right response is to play nittier.

That’s not the right response. The way to win in loose games is to become more aggressive on the turn and river. Don’t let weak hands win pots. Take more than your share.

The goal isn’t to try to get your opponents to make big laydowns. You just want them to make lots of small laydowns. Those $100 and $200 pots add up fast. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.