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Passive Versus Aggressive Play

by Rep Porter |  Published: Mar 30, 2016


Last week I was discussing what I call the tar baby approach with a fellow poker player. The tar baby is a character from a story in a children’s book I used to have. To trap the wily rabbit, the fox and bear made a baby rabbit out of tar. When the tar baby wouldn’t say, “good morning” to him, the wily rabbit was insulted and punched him. He got his hand stuck in the tar so he punched him again then kicked him twice, getting both hands and both feet stuck in the tar.

This situation parallels how passive players get value from their overly aggressive opponents. They act weak, whether in body language or by checking, then they just call the bets of their opponents. I think they do just fine in getting value for these hands using this approach. And I completely understand why they end up with this style of play. But I think passive players are capped at being small losers to breakeven in the long run.

The reason they can’t be consistent winners is that they never win the pots where no one makes much of a hand. In hold’em, this is a reasonably frequent occurrence, both in limit and no-limit. Let me say that again. In order to be a consistent winner at hold’em, you must win at least your share of the pots where no one makes much of a hand.

Let’s talk a little more about passive players. I think that most passive players start out just playing the values of their own hand. So they bet when they have something and check and fold when they miss. Then their opponents notice this and stop calling them without good hands. The passive players soon realize that they aren’t getting any value for their holdings. They think, well that guy always bets when I check because I don’t have anything. Maybe I should try checking when I have a good hand and see if he still bets. Then the aggressive player bets, so the passive player feels rewarded for checking and starts checking for value more often. And so begins the journey to poker mediocrity.

So what should a beginning player facing this dilemma do? The other side of the coin is to be aggressive. I think the journey to being an aggressive player goes like this: They start out in the same spot as the passive player. They know their hand and they bet when it is good. Then their opponents start folding when they are betting. But the aggressive player thinks this is great. I can win the pots with just a bet. They start betting more when they have less of a hand and they start winning some of these pots. This reward causes them to bet a little more often and then even a little more often after that. Eventually, they are winning most of the pots when no one makes a hand. Not all aggressive players are winners though. As they become more aggressive, their opponents start calling more often.

This does a bunch of positive things for the aggressive player. It allows them to get good value when they make a good hand. They can even get excess value with their very good hands. It also allows them to win more than their share of pots when no one has made much of a hand.

It also does some bad things. Aggressive players are capable of spewing chips. Often they will continue to aggress far too late into a hand. Each street may bring a new reason to bet, such as a scare card or a missed draw. Aggressive players often fall prey to the tar baby approach from the passive players. The biggest trap that the aggressive players fall into is playing too many hands. They see that they can just win pots by betting, so they start to think that the value of their hand isn’t important anymore. Then they think, well I should just be playing more and more hands, because I can win by just betting. This doesn’t work. The reason you are able to win more than your share of the pots is because your opponents are folding too often. If you start playing every hand, then your opponents will start folding less often. The percentage of the time you will show up with a good hand is reduced significantly. Your opponents will notice this and start calling more often. The result is you will get to showdown more frequently, and whichever opponent chooses to call this time will have a stronger hand range than you. This will mean you lose more pots that you win.

The key to playing aggressively is to keep it in balance. This starts with having a solid starting hand range. I will dig into this idea more in my next column. ♠

Rep Porter is a two-time WSOP bracelet winner and is the lead instructor at, whose mission is to help poker players achieve better results through better decisions and that is done by teaching poker in a way that makes learning easy and enjoyable with high quality courses taught by professional players.

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