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Beating Aggressive Players

by Ed Miller |  Published: Dec 21, 2016


I’m doing a series of companion articles to my most recent book, The Course: Serious Hold ’Em Strategy For Smart Players. It’s a step-by-step guide to mastering the live no-limit hold’em games that you will find in most cardrooms around the world.

In this article we get to the material on $5-$10 games. These ideas can apply to games of all stakes, but generally they will apply most once you get to the more experienced—and unpredictable—players that inhabit higher stakes games.

Succeeding at $1-$2 and $2-$5 means developing an aggressive post-flop game. In some situations, you want to bet your good hands for value aggressively, even taking risks with some marginal hands others would just check down. In other situations, you want to bluff aggressively, stealing the pots that others are too timid to fight for.

But either way, the key to success at these levels usually involves aggression. Once you get to $5-$10, however, you will encounter many players who have learned this lesson. Aggressive play is successful play. And that brings a new question. If aggression wins, then how do you beat players who are also aggressive?

When successful $2-$5 players first encounter the aggressive players from higher levels, they tend to get run over. That’s because they’ve trained themselves to fold their weak hands to bets, and they get lots of weak hands, as do we all. Each of these folds they see as “correct,” so they get puzzled when it seems obvious in the bigger picture that something is wrong.

The problem is that the folds were indeed correct at lower levels, but only because their opponents weren’t aggressive enough. It can be right to fold a hand to a bet from a passive player, but to call (or raise) against a more aggressive opponent.

When your opponents get much more aggressive, “correct” folds become costly. It doesn’t take most players getting run over for too long before they figure out that they need to change something.

The next stage many players go through is the “fight fire with fire” stage, where they try to out-aggression the aggressive players. After all, if a little aggression is good, then more must be better, right?

This tends to be a poor approach, however, for two reasons. First, it doesn’t create solid, reliable edges. If your opponents are pushing too hard with weak hands, and you react by also pushing too hard with weak hands, then neither you nor your opponents are getting the better of the deal. You’re just playing a high variance game with perhaps small edges going one way or the other.

Second, if you play in full-ring games, when you and a few opponents play in an ultra-aggressive dynamic, you create situations for other bystander opponents who aren’t participating in the arms race to wait for hands and pick off pots.

Because of these reasons, it’s hard to make progress with the fight fire with fire approach.

The key to handling aggressive players is to go passive in the right situations. This is a very difficult adjustment for many winning players to make, as playing hands passively often offends their sensibilities to the core.

To understand why playing passively can be a correct adjustment, you have to understand that what you may think of as aggressive play could actually be overaggressive.

The best style in a smaller stakes game is often actually overaggressive in a vacuum. If you absolutely dominate your local $2-$5 game, there’s a good chance you do so by playing a few extra hands preflop and hammering the pot in certain key situations after the flop.

This is overaggressive because the extra preflop hands make extra weak hands after the flop. In soft, smaller games, you can turn these extra weak hands into profitable ones by playing them aggressively. But you are vulnerable to an opponent who understands this and reacts by calling down.

The worst nightmare of the overaggressive player is an opponent who is tight preflop (and therefore tends to make good hands post-flop), and who calls down unpredictably, but frequently.

This is the tactic that beats overaggressive players. You want to keep your opponent guessing about how you plan to play out the hand, and you want to end up calling all the way down often.

Here’s an example. It’s a $5-$10 game with $2,000 stacks. A very aggressive player makes it $50 to go from four off the button. The player on the button calls. You call in the big blind with QSpade Suit JSpade Suit. There’s $155 in the pot.

The flop is 9Heart Suit 8Heart Suit 3Spade Suit. You check, the preflop raiser bets $100, and the button folds. You call.

The turn is the QDiamond Suit. You check, the preflop raiser bets $300, and you call. There’s $955 in the pot.

The river is the AHeart Suit. You check, and the preflop raiser bets $800.

This is a good situation to call down against many aggressive players. That river ace is surely a scare card, as it completes the flush as well as being an overcard. There’s a decent chance that the card beat you—or that you were beaten already. But the pot is laying $1,755-to-$800 or over 2:1. That means you have to win a little over 31 percent of the time to make calling better than folding.

At lower stakes, often winning 31 percent of the time in this situation would be a pipe dream. These players realistically wouldn’t be aggressive on the river like that without holding a flush—or at least a straight. Sure, maybe once in a while they would throw in a big bluff, but nowhere near 31 percent.

But aggressive players would often find themselves in a situation to be bluffing here. The flop continuation on a rag board would be standard for many players no matter their two cards. When the queen hits the turn, many players would see an overcard and feel like they should continue the bluff.

After getting called and catching perhaps the perfect river scare card, they wouldn’t be able to resist firing again on the river. So if you call down certain aggressive players here, they will show up with literally any two cards that they started the hand with, regardless of hand strength. Their aggressive play was dictated by the board texture and the turn and river cards, not by anything about their own hand.

If this read is correct—or even if your opponent is bluffing somewhat less often than this, but still bluffing—then you will win well more often than 31 percent of the time, and you should call.

Final Thoughts

Learning to beat aggressive players can mean a dramatic shift in how you approach the game. When at lower stakes winning play just meant finding the right places to shove your chips around, when you play bigger you have to think more about how your opponents are trying to push you around and where not to back down. Because against aggressive players, sometimes just calling down is the best weapon that you have. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site