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Holding Your Own

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: Sep 04, 2013


Andrew BrokosNo matter how good you are at poker, you’re bound to run into someone better now and again. This can be frustrating when you were planning on a stress-free session of easy money, but it also presents a learning opportunity. This article will discuss strategies for losing the least while making the most of the experience.


You don’t make money by playing poker against people who are better than you. It’s as simple as that. If your number one goal is to make money, then you should consider changing tables. If the game is otherwise especially good, then it could easily be correct for you to stay with a tough opponent or two, but if the next table over is comparable except for the absence of any tough players, then that’s where you want to be. Don’t let your ego get in the way.

If you play poker for challenge and entertainment, then maybe you welcome the chance to test your mettle against top-caliber opposition. One of the cool things about poker is that anyone can find himself playing with a legend of the game, and matching wits with one of your idols can be an awesome experience. Still, you might as well give yourself every advantage you can in the confrontation to come.

If possible, try to get position on the toughest player at the table. In a game where the two of you are head-and-shoulders above the rest of your opponents, you’ll mostly be chopping up profit from the mistakes that everyone else is making. Even more than the relative skill difference between the two of you, the deciding factor in who comes away with the lion’s share of the profits will be who has position on the other. A good player with position can punish you for a lot of your bread-and-butter plays — raising to isolate a weak limper, for instance — so even if you don’t plan to do the same to him, sitting on his left will keep him from doing it to you.

Of course, in a tournament or at a full table, you won’t have the luxury of changing seats. The next best way to avoid tangling with your toughest opponent is to err on the side of giving up in small pots where he’s likely to get involved. This may mean opening fewer hands than you ordinarily would from your position when he is the button or the big blind. It may mean calling or three-betting his raises a little less often than you would against a weaker player. It may mean check/folding some of the weaker hands you would ordinarily continuation bet (c-bet) if he calls your raise.

This might sound like cowardice, but remember the saying, “discretion is the better part of valor.” I’m not telling you to fold kings to his three-bet. Just maybe let go of the A-J offsuit. Outplaying someone doesn’t have to mean making a sick bluff or a heroic call. If your range is stronger than his when money goes into the pot preflop and on the flop, then you’re already outplaying him, at least on those streets, and it should be harder for him to outplay you on the turn and river.


While we’re on the subject of outplaying, let’s talk about what your goals should be in that regard. If you think this player is better than you, then you shouldn’t be trying to outfox him in the sense of figuring out exactly what he has and then tricking him into making the wrong decision. By definition, a player who is better than you will generally have an advantage in that sort of leveling war.

Rather, your objective should be to make your own hand as difficult to read as possible, so that your opponent won’t have the opportunity to exercise his superior skill and craft a strategy to exploit you. This dosn’t mean playing all of your hands contrary to what you think he’d expect — that’s getting back to the leveling game again. It means playing different types of hands in the same way.

The simple way to do this is, whenever you take a non-folding action, to think not only about how to play the hand you actually have, but also how you would play different types of hands in the same spot. For example, if you hold JHeart Suit 10Heart Suit on a QHeart Suit 9Diamond Suit 5Spade Suit 7Heart Suit board, think about what you would do with aces or a set of queens in the same spot. Try to ignore which hand you actually have and come up with a good play you could make with any of those three hands. Whether you ultimately bet or check, call or raise, your opponent won’t know whether you have a hand that’s probably best, a hand that’s definitely best, or a hand that’s behind but drawing very live.

This is useful even when your only option is to call or fold. A common fear when seated with a world-class player is that he’ll make some huge bet on a scary river and you’ll have no idea what to do with your pair of aces.

That’s a reasonable fear, and the best way to approach the situation, rather than trying to get inside of your opponent’s head, is to think about your own range. Not what it looks like, but what it actually is. What other hands would you have played the same way on earlier streets? If you can think of a lot of stronger hands you could hold, and especially if that scary card could easily have helped you, then fold. If you would rarely or never play a stronger hand than the one you have in the way that you did, then you should call no matter how weak your hand is in an absolute sense. As long as you’re honest about these things, your opponent won’t be able to exploit you no matter how much he is or isn’t bluffing.

The Sucker Punch

I’ve saved the best for last: there’s one exception to my “don’t try to outfox the fox” rule, one way in which you really might be able to outplay one of the greats. It requires you to be aware of and honest about your physical appearance, mannerisms, and demeanor. If you know that you are often stereotyped as a particular type of player, you may be able to find an edge by subverting that stereotype.

If you’re going to attempt this, it’s important that you decide in advance what assumptions you expect your opponent to make about you and what you will do to subvert those assumptions. It’s much harder to be honest and objective if you wait until the heat of the moment and then try to guess whether your opponent will or will not expect a bluff from someone who looks like you.

For example, in your first few minutes at the table, you might say to yourself, “I am a 65-year old woman. Everyone expects me to play only good hands preflop and never to run big bluffs postflop. I am going to play that way until I find myself holding a weak hand on the river in a big pot. Then I’ll make a big bluff that my opponent will never expect!”

Great players don’t form inflexible reads, especially not based on something as unreliable as your appearance. So if you’re going to attempt something like this, you need to either pull the trigger on it relatively soon or be disciplined about keeping up appearances until you get the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. If the woman in the above example came out of the gate playing every hand preflop, her opponent would quickly realize that she wasn’t the average “little old lady” and wouldn’t be taken in by her big bluff.

This isn’t something you should expect to get away with again and again. Even if our heroine’s bluff succeeded and she didn’t show, she still shouldn’t try to get away with it again. A single successful move like this in a big pot can be enough to turn a losing session into a winning one, and you’ll always be able to remember that hand where you outplayed a great player. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He blogs about poker strategy on and is co-host of the Thinking Poker Podcast. Andrew is also interested in education reform and founded an after-school debate program for urban youth.