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Standing Up to a Bully

The wrong ways and right ways to do so

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jul 13, 2011


Ed Miller

I’m a bully — at least when I play small-stakes no-limit hold’em. When I sense weakness, I bet. It doesn’t much matter what cards I have. You fold.

I don’t have to sense weakness to bully, either. It’s hard to make a good hold’em hand. I look at the board and imagine the sorts of hands that you’re likely to have. If not many of them are particularly good, I bet. You fold.

Sometimes when I’m bullying people, they start to grumble about it. “You gonna bet every time?” they ask me.

“Only when I have aces,” I say. Naturally.

Occasionally (not often), someone will decide to stand up to my bullying. He’ll change the way that he’s playing in an attempt to counteract my aggression. There are right ways to do this and wrong ways. Most of my opponents try the wrong way, and it just gets them in deeper. In this column, I’ll teach you the wrong ways and the right ways to stand up to a bully like me.

Wrong Way No. 1: Calling Down With Weak Pairs

Don’t react to a bully by starting to call down with weak pairs. This is a common adjustment that I see players make against me. Don’t do it.

Normally, they’ll play a hand like 4-4 and fold on the flop if they miss. Against me, they’ll start to call bets with it. They’ll call the flop, call the turn, and if they get desperate, they’ll even call on the river.

This is bad for two reasons: First, it’s obvious. When a player starts calling my flop continuation-bets and turn barrels much more frequently, I know what hands he’s doing it with. He isn’t going deeper into hands with gutshot draws or other questionable drawing hands. He’s getting stubborn with bad pairs.

Second, it’s extremely exploitable. Once I detect that someone is starting to call me with weak pairs, I flip my strategy. I make fewer continuation-bets with air while simultaneously betting some of my weaker hands for value. For example, on a K♦ 10♣ 2♥ flop, I might normally bet 6-4 and check J-10. With 6-4, I’m hoping for a fold, and with J-10, I’m waiting to get a better idea of whether or not I have the best hand. Once someone starts calling with small pairs, though, I start checking 6-4 and betting J-10.

This simple change thwarts the “let’s call down with small pairs” strategy completely.
Right Way No. 1: Calling Down With Good Hands That You Might Normally Raise*

Let’s say that I open-raise and you have A-K in the big blind. Normally, reraising is a good play, but you might want to call to deceive me. On the K♦ 10♣ 2♥ flop, you check and call. Remember, I’m betting 6-4 and (sometimes) checking J-10. The turn is the 8♣. You check again. This is a turn card that a bully like me might bet with 6-4, and after all of the checking, it’s also a card that I’d bet with J-10.

Depending on the stack sizes, you might want to check-raise the turn, or you might want to check and call again, planning to check and call again on the river.

From my perspective as a bully, this is a very annoying adjustment for my opponent to make. It’s hard to exploit. There’s no simple change that I can make to my strategy to counter it. I can’t start betting weaker hands, since A-K beats those, too. I’m forced to bully less to avoid firing off half of my stack into top pair.

As a bully, I count on my opponents to raise their good hands early to let me know that I’m in trouble. When they refuse to do that against me, I have to either back off or pay off.

Making this adjustment can be harrowing. It puts you into situations that you normally avoid by raising early in the hand. You can be sitting there on the river staring at a large all-in bet with just top pair, not knowing what to do.

Nonetheless, it’s the right adjustment. Remember, it’s often likely that the bully on the other end of that all-in bet is praying for you to fold. If you want to stop the bullying, you have to start spoiling his prayers.

Wrong Way No. 2: Playing Back in Obvious Situations

Let’s say that I’ve recently made a lot of reraises preflop. Once or twice, I had a good hand, and once or twice, I was bluffing. Either way, I know that I’ve been doing it and that other players will notice. I will adjust my strategy so that my next reraise is more likely to be with a strong hand.

Don’t choose that reraise as the one that you “stand up to” by calling or reraising light. I’m expecting it. I’ve been bullying people for years. This is not my first time around the block. I know that my reraising annoys you, and I know that you’ll try to do something about it eventually.

Here’s another one: Don’t wait until you are utterly fed up with me and then decide to bluff-raise a dry flop. I’m expecting this play, too, and it’s transparent. I’ve been pushing you around for three hours, and now you decide to raise me on a K-2-2 flop. What do you have? A deuce? You would slow-play that. You would check and call with most kings. You could have pocket aces. That’s about it. If there’s a reasonable amount of money behind, I’m going to consider playing back at you.

Right Way No. 2: Playing Back in Natural Situations

Yes, you should play back at a bully — but choose natural situations. A natural situation is one in which you have caught a piece of the flop, but you realistically could have hit it pretty hard. Let’s say the flop is K♦ J♠ 7♦. You check, and a bully bets. You have the Q♠ 9♠, for a gutshot and a backdoor-flush draw. Check-raise. From the bully’s perspective, you easily could have hit this flop well. Even if you have a draw, the bully would think that you likely have a much better one than just the Q♠ 9♠. The bully is going to give this check-raise credit unless he happens to have gotten lucky enough to flop something really strong.

A sure way for me to have a bad session is if everyone keeps hitting flops and turns on me. It’s hard to hit the flop, and even harder to make a hand good enough to survive three rounds of aggressive betting. When I go home a loser, it’s usually because my opponents have happened to hit flop after flop on me, and my stabs at the pot all went for naught.

By playing back in natural situations, you simulate one of these bad days. No, you didn’t hit every flop, but you hit some and faked hitting others. Do it enough, and I’ll think twice about bullying you next time. ♠

_Ed has authored six poker books and sold more than a quarter-million copies. His newest book, Reading Hands at No-Limit Hold’em, will soon be available for purchase at Find him on Facebook at