Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine

Stages of a TAG — Part IV

Now a tough competitor in most games

by Ed Miller |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


This series of columns describes a model for player development that I call “Stages of a TAG.” I think most players go through a series of stages or realizations about no-limit hold’em as they improve their games from rank beginners to decent tight-aggressive (TAG) players and beyond.

In total, I have identified 25 stages that I think most players go through, roughly in order, as they improve. This column begins with Stage 16.

Stage 16: Double-barreling can be quite effective, and sometimes I should resort to firing three barrels.

Stage 7 players learned to make continuation-bets and sometimes follow up those bets with turn barrels. After raising preflop, a flop continuation-bet will frequently win the pot. And even if you get called, sometimes a stiff turn bet will succeed.

But before Stage 16, players typically give up if their turn barrel gets called. They figure that a player needs a fairly good hand to call a turn bet, and they don’t want to try to bluff out a good hand. While this reasoning is often sound, sometimes a third big bluff on the river is the best play.

This is particularly true against players who limit their hand ranges by calling on the turn. As a simple example, let’s say that a player would almost always raise the flop or turn with two pair or better, but just call with one pair. A turn call would then indicate a good but not great hand. It could be something like K-Q on a K♦ J♠ 8♠ 7♦ board. A large bet on the river could be enough to convince this player, finally, to give up on top pair.

Stage 17: I can take aggressive donk bettors who bet many flops off their hands with well-timed raises and floats.

In Stage 11, players learn to attack small pots that no one seems to want. Some players take this principle too far, however, and begin to attack small pot after small pot with many flop bets. At Stage 17, players can identify this pattern of over-aggressiveness and counter it by playing back at opportune times. Stage 17 players can resteal from aggressive donk bettors either by raising the flop or by calling on the flop with the intention of taking the pot away on a later street.
In order to identify good times to play back, a Stage 17 player must be familiar with the likely hand ranges of his opponent and how well those hands connect with the board.

Stage 18: I should seek out bad players and try to isolate them, to play as many pots as possible with them.

By Stage 18, a player has the basic tools to succeed at no-limit hold’em. He plays tight when out of position. He opens up a bit when in position, and opens up a lot when given the chance to steal the blinds. He defends himself against aggressive opponents by ramping up his preflop aggression. He plays carefully when opponents show strength, but attacks weakness after the flop. Finally, he can identify bad players, against whom he should loosen up.

In Stage 18, a player learns that he can sometimes play much looser and more aggressively than normal when a weak player has entered the pot. It is wrong to open the pot with a hand like the 8♣ 7♠ from two off the button. The hand is simply too weak for the position. But it can be correct to raise a limper with the same hand from the same position. In an unopened pot, playing the 8♣ 7♠ would be an attempted blinds steal that would fail too often to be profitable. Raising a limper, however, is not a blinds steal at all. Instead, it’s an attempt to play a pot with someone who will, over time, give his money away. The downside to playing the weak hand is the same in both scenarios: Players behind you will wake up with strong hands and muscle you out of the pot. But the upside is potentially much greater against a limper. Instead of winning the blinds, you now can win much more from a bad player. This difference can make playing bad hands worth the risk.

At Stage 18, a player learns to evaluate opponents and customize a preflop strategy to maximize profit.

Stage 19: Preflop hand values usually depend far more on the situation than on the intrinsic value of the cards.

Naive players might rank preflop starting hands in a list from strongest to weakest, with A-A being the strongest and 7-2 perhaps the weakest. A Stage 19 player realizes that, apart from the extremely strong hands like A-A and A-K, preflop hands have only modest intrinsic value. Instead, their value is primarily situational. This is a generalization of the principle that players learn in Stage 18. That is, in some situations (blinds stealing from two off the button), the 8♣ 7♠ is not worth playing; in other situations (isolating a lousy player), it is.

Hands have strengths and weaknesses. A small pair like 3-3 can flop a set and win a huge pot, and sometimes can win in a cheap showdown against one or two opponents. But without making a set, it’s a hand that doesn’t offer many semibluffing opportunities, and it’s usually too weak to withstand any betting pressure. A hand like A-3 is likewise often too weak to withstand betting pressure, and also can sometimes win cheap showdowns. But, it offers card-blocking value, as it makes it harder for an opponent to hold an ace in a hand like A-A or A-K. Suited connectors create lots of semibluffing opportunities, but they stink in situations where bluffing opportunities are likely to be scarce.

A Stage 19 player evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of hands, and he also evaluates the situation and the types of strengths that are called for. Does the situation require semibluffing chances? Does it value card-blocking? Is making top pair likely to be valuable? He then matches up hands to situations, and decides how to proceed.

Stage 20: The size of the pot determines how aggressive I need to play and how committed I am to the pot.

All poker decisions boil down to risk versus reward. The risk is what you could lose by proceeding in a hand, and the reward is the pot you can win. The Stage 20 player realizes that all evaluations of situational values depend on the pot size. In general, the bigger the pot, the more aggressive and committed one needs to be. But, as always, the devil is in the details, and a Stage 20 player has learned to incorporate yet another important variable into his decision-making.

By Stage 20, a no-limit hold’em player is a tough competitor in most games. But there are still five more stages of a TAG, and I will present them in my next column. ♠

Ed’s latest book, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em, is available for purchase at He is a featured coach at, and you can also check out his online poker advice column,