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Head Games: Adjusting to Over-Aggressive Maniacs and Huge Donkeys in Cash Games With Bart Hanson, Randy Lew, and Corwin Cole

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Oct 15, 2014

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Craig Tapscott: You mouth is watering as you sit down at a juicy cash game after observing the table for a while, whether it be live or online. There is an over-aggressive maniac who is in every pot. What situations are you looking to take advantage of and how does it affect your opening ranges when he is to your left?

Bart Hanson: We have all been there before. Late night, usually on a weekend, a guy at your table is playing crazy. How should we adjust to being out of position? Whenever a situation like this happens to me, I tend to let the maniac drive the action. I tighten up to his right and usually only open my value hands. At a nittier table, I like to drive the action and open small pairs and suited connectors in late position and commonly isolate weak limpers. I use my post-flop ability to win a lot of pots when I do not have the best hand. The problem with playing this style against the maniac, however, is that he calls a ton of flop bets and even double barrels with any piece of the board. He also makes an approach of bet-folding for value more difficult because he commonly bluff raises. Even though I am not a huge fan of “pot control” at the mid-stakes and lower levels of no-limit, when we get into a scenario like this, it is sometimes best to check with some of our medium strength value hands and let the maniac hang himself. Maniacs always want to show the fact that they can win pots with “nothing,” so why not allow them to try and bluff you off a good hand?

True good loose aggressive players (LAGs) are very difficult to play against because they can balance large bluffs with value lines. But finding a good LAG at the second biggest game in your room (for some $2-$5 for some $5-$10) is rare because if they really were superb, they would be playing the bigger game. It is sometimes frustrating to see the maniac go on a big heater, but remember, he will almost always lose it all back.

Randy Lew: I would assume this maniac isn’t playing very well post-flop. Thus, I would be trying to play as many pots as I can with him that I think are playable that I might fold to other players. I expect that this maniac is going to either pay me off when I hit a big hand or he’ll try bluffing me off of my hand when I have the nuts. By playing more pots with him, I may end up losing more small pots to him, but I expect the payoffs to make it a very lucrative decision.

If the maniac is to my left, I’ll consider opening wider when he’s in the blinds, mainly because he’s going to want to play lots of pots and splash away while I’m in position. Being in position is going to increase my profit a ton.

If the maniac is to my right, then I’ll call with a lot of hands as well as reraise hands to isolate him that have good value when I make pairs. Hands like K-Q, A-J, A-Q are great because he will not want to fold preflop and I will have him out kicked a lot and he will have a hard time trying to move me off of those hands if I flop a piece.

If I feel that the other players are playing more pots than usual because they are trying to play with the maniac, then I’ll consider making some moves on them when I feel their range is weaker than normal. My focus though will be on playing as many pots as I can with the maniac because, while I may be able to pick up some extra pots against the other players, I’m going to make more by playing with the maniac.

Corwin Cole: Adjusting to a maniac requires a zoomed-out approach and multi-faceted strategy. There have been times when I’ve made the mistake of waiting too long, intimidated by the uncertainty of tangling with a wild opponent, and he has lost all his chips before I picked up a hand that I felt comfortable taking to war against him. On other occasions, I have been too prideful, trying to force a win in a bad situation just because I felt that a crazy player at the table didn’t deserve to win every pot. So, I’ve had to step back and consider all the value being created – both directly and indirectly – by maniacal players.

My first crucial realization has been that even the most insane players can be made uncomfortable. For example, many hyper-aggressive players are happy to tangle in a big pot as long as they are the aggressor, but when somebody else turns the tables and goes all-in first, suddenly, they clam up. I am always gauging what types of pots a maniac doesn’t seem to be playing, because he is probably avoiding them deliberately, and I want to leverage those situations to my favor.

The maniac’s play also influences other players’ decisions, sometimes quite strongly. When I feel that a tight player is stepping out of his comfort zone in the hopes of showing down a mediocre hand just to beat the maniac, I will often get involved with both of them and leverage a post-flop squeeze play to bluff in a multi-way pot. For instance, calling from the blinds and check-raising on flops like QSpade Suit QDiamond Suit 6Heart Suit is one of my favorite moves for this scenario.

Craig Tapscott: In the same vein, people always talk about adjusting to a table full of donkeys. The fish are passive and don’t fold very often. How is this dynamic different than a table with a maniac?

Bart Hanson: Completely the opposite of maniacs are the types of “fish” that are loose, passive calling stations. These players rarely will raise without the goods, but will fall into a check-call shell very often. In the same vein, you want to concentrate on value-betting these guys to death, but instead of playing any type of pot control, you adjust by realizing that these guys are calling down with a much wider range than normal. You must also realize that bluffing these types of players can be suicide. A lot of the time, it is just a waiting game. Pound the pot when you have the goods. And the goods do not necessarily have to be a strong hand in absolute terms, but a hand that tends to be better than the hands that they are calling with.

You can still continuation bet (c-bet) bluff against these players on good board textures post-flop, but where people really go wrong is continuing to bluff later on when the board does not change. Say, for example, we raise with AClub Suit QClub Suit on the button to $25 in a $5-$5 game with $800 stacks, isolating an early limp from one of these loose, passive players. The flop comes out 10Club Suit 4Diamond Suit 2Spade Suit. The limper checks and we c-bet $35. The limper quickly calls. The turn is the 4Club Suit and we pick up a backdoor flush draw. Many players in this spot will continue to fire, not taking into account the lack of fold equity that we have against this type of player. This guy is never folding a 10 or a pocket pair and may have a four. We also are ahead of his straight draws. Even though we have a lot of equity, if the player will almost never fold to a bet on the river, it makes sense to check our hand back here, hope to hit an ace, queen or club and make a value bet on the river.

The other great aspect of this type of opponent is that he will often let you get to showdown and not bluff his draws. Let us say the river is now a 10Spade Suit. If this player bets, it would be almost impossible for us to call, as not many draws missed and he can easily have a 10 or a four. However, he checks and we win at showdown vs. 5-3. This player never even thought to bluff at the end. He is basically playing his own hand and the board, not thinking about our range. That is why we do not have to worry that much about bluffing him early on—especially when he rarely folds—because he will often let us win with ace-high and king-high types of hands on the river.

Randy Lew: Playing with passive recreational players is very straightforward such that their poker fundamentals are very weak. They generally don’t understand how their hand compares to your hand. They only see their own hand and how it relates to the board. You can easily c-bet smaller against them to minimize your risk against them and play a very low variance but high rewarding game. If I feel they are the “c-bet once and done” type of passive player, then I’ll consider calling with some high cards on low flops or gutshot straight draws that I may usually think is not worth calling due to bad odds. However, with these opponents I can get a chance to hit a big hand and, if I don’t, a lot of times they’ll check-fold the turn. If possible, I will always try to play more pots in position against the weaker players. But even if I’m out of position, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if they are playing very weak straightforward.

Corwin Cole: Sometimes I notice that people have difficulty adjusting to loose, passive players. It is crucial to keep in mind that even these opponents don’t fit into a neat, consistent box – there are many types of loose, passive players, and any given one won’t necessarily play the same way from hand to hand. I try to approach every player objectively, making no assumptions before I get to know him, and being ever mindful of points at which he may change gears.

Combating loose, passive opponents differs from fighting with maniacs in the degree of control you get to enjoy. Whereas overly-aggressive players make it difficult to take the reins in most hands, meek players afford you full control of most confrontations.
I find that the most important bit of information to glean is why an opponent is playing in a loose-passive way. Does he just like to gamble on longshot hands? If so, I am going to bluff him frequently. Does he just hate to fold, overwhelmed by fear of folding a winning hand? Then I will be value betting thinly. Is he inexperienced and frequently unsure whether this hand stands a chance at showdown? In this case, I am looking for any critical hands that will change his future play. For instance, I might get a sense that a novice player has learned, during this session, that one pair isn’t necessarily a good hand, and I’ll take that as my cue to start bluffing him, even though he’s played loose so far. Is he just steaming, sick of folding, trying to make something happen? This type of player is about to run a big bluff, and I’ll be there to catch him when he does. ♠

Bart Hanson is a professional poker player who has commentated on several network poker shows including WSOP final tables and is the regular co-host of “Live at the Bike.” He has observed and analyzed more poker hands than anyone else in the poker industry. Bart also writes a weekly column for Card Player, “Crushing Live Poker Through Twitter” and has made four WSOP final tables.

Randy Lew of Team PokerStars has made Supernova Elite at PokerStars in 2007 – 2011 and 2013. He is known for playing 24 cash games at once on PokerStars and is a Guinness World Record Holder. You can follow Randy on twitter@nanonoko or visit his blog at www.nanonoko.com.

Corwin Cole is a cash game specialist and a coach and video instructor for CrushLivePoker.com. He can be reached at corwin.cole@gmail.com.