Win A $1,000 Tournament Ticket To The Event Of Your Choice!

Winning the War

By focusing too intently on winning poker's individual battles, you may lose sight of the big picture - winning the war

by Byron Jacobs |  Published: Aug 08, 2006


I don't wish to sound overly dramatic, but when you sit down to play poker, you make a decision that you are going to war. The hands that you play are the battles and the overall session is the war. It's always nice to win the individual battles, but - at the end of the day - it's winning the war that counts.

What this means is that sometimes it may not matter if you play an individual hand in a suboptimal fashion. You may have made a weak or unusual play, but your opponents will notice this and may expect you to do the same later on in the session. If you are alert to how your opponents perceive you, you may be able to exploit this. The modest amount of equity that you have sacrificed with the initial weak play will now act as an investment that can lead to greater gains later on.

However, you have to pick your moments if you are planning to play some hands in a deliberately weak fashion. Some poker books advise that it is a good idea to occasionally open-raise from under the gun in a tight, full ring game with a weak suited connector such as the 7heart 6heart. The theory is that when you get to show this hand down, your opponents will notice, and you can then get more action later on in the session when you open-raise with your genuinely strong hands.

In principle, this is a fine idea, but there are many problems with it - the most obvious being that you may not get to show your hand down. If this occurs because everyone folds (either immediately or later on in the hand), that's all well and good; at least you won the pot. However, if you end up with a small piece of the flop and an opponent gives you action, what are you going to do? Are you going to go all the way to the river and spew a load of bets just so that you can proudly show down your feeble holding?

If you are playing online, this strategy becomes even more questionable. Players who are playing online often have their attention elsewhere. Many of them are multitabling - playing several games at once - or are distracted in other ways. They may be surfing, watching TV, or arguing with a partner who is complaining (most unreasonably, of course) that they are spending far too much time playing poker. They may even be distracted by reading columns in Card Player. (Hey! If that's you, stop!

Concentrate on the game; you can go back to the column later.) Whatever they are thinking about, it is unlikely to be the feeble suited connector that you have gone to such great lengths to exhibit. Most likely, they wouldn't notice even if you turned up on the river with a pair of bananas.

However, if you are playing in heads-up or very shorthanded games with just three or maybe four players at the table, your opponents probably will be more observant. In such games, you either are playing every pot or the vast majority of pots against the same opponent(s). If they are good players, they certainly will be watching how you play. However, even if they are quite poor and unobservant, they are playing every hand against you and can hardly fail to pick up on the basics of your game: how aggressive you are, whether you make tricky plays, and so on. Being aware of your own image now becomes important.

I recently had the good fortune of being involved in a threehanded game in which my two opponents were pretty weak. The session was going very well. Both of them were frequently limping in when they happened to be on the button. Anyone who is remotely familiar with shorthanded games knows that this is dreadful play. It may be OK as a very occasional move in order to provide a bit of variety to your play, but as a general strategy, it's just terrible.

Naturally, when I was on the button, I was raising much of the time and either stealing pots or putting my opponents under pressure by forcing them to play raised pots from out of position. However, when I was playing from the blinds, I was getting to see a load of free or cheap flops. We were rattling through the hands and I was doing well. I was winning a lot of the battles, and the war, too.

Then, I made a mistake. It was quite a subtle mistake, and it didn't even occur to me that I had done anything wrong until after the session was over. My mistake was a rather peculiar one: I kept playing in a good, aggressive style. All continued to go well, but after a while, my opponents woke up. I could almost sense each of them thinking: "Just a minute. This guy is raising almost every single time from the button - and it's horrible. I am always under pressure in the blinds. And yet when he is in the blinds, he's doing OK. Well, I'm not putting up with that … "

Indeed, they didn't and sure enough, they soon started raising from the button themselves. They also began playing in a generally more aggressive style, and - not surprisingly - started to do much better. The game was still good, but I was no longer taking candy from babies. It was now more like taking candy from teenagers with a bit of attitude.

In retrospect, what I should have done was start limping from the button occasionally myself. Not all the time, of course - that would have been far too generous. However, if I had three genuine raising situations and raised twice while limping in the third time, I wouldn't have been giving up all that much and it would have helped to camouflage my (correct) strategy.

It also would have served to "validate" their own play and perhaps keep them happy. They thought it was OK to limp in from the button. Great - that made my life much easier. So, why disabuse them of that notion? By limping in occasionally myself, it would have been like saying, "Limping from the button is fine. Look, I'm doing it now." By endlessly raising when I had the button, it was almost as if I was yelling at them: "Look - dummies - this is the way to do it. Raise - don't limp!" They may not have been the most observant players in the world, but when someone is screaming in your face, it is hard not to notice it.

I suffered from a failure of imagination in that session. By focusing too intently on winning the individual battles, I lost sight of the big picture. I still won the war, but it was a minor victory rather than the total rout it should have been. spade

Byron Jacobs is the author of How Good is Your Limit Hold Em? with Jim Brier, and Beginner's Guide to Limit Hold'em. They are available through bookstores and Byron may be contacted at