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What’s Up With LAGs?

by Ed Miller |  Published: Mar 29, 2017

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Loose-aggressive players (LAGs) are to many students of the game an enigma. On one hand, they seem to be disregarding the first rule any serious player learns — play tight preflop. On the other hand, they often seem to be getting away with it. What gives? Have these guys learned a way to cheat the math of the game and play swashbuckling, and highly profitable no-limit hold’em? This article will answer this question from a few angles.
Do LAGs Win?

I’ll cut to the chase here. Most LAGs do not win. They lose. They’re losing players. They probably have more fun than other players, but in the end they lose. (I know, I know. Not all LAGs lose. We’ll get to that.)

Most LAGs lose, and yet nearly every tight player I’ve ever met will swear up and down that so-and-so LAG player plays every other hand and wins a bundle every time. This is because LAGs create an optical illusion of winning in two ways.

First, it’s a whole lot easier to run up a monster stack through (mostly) sheer luck if you play loose preflop. When you throw away seven out of eight hands preflop, and you play for only three to six hours at a time, it’s hard to string together enough big wins to build up that stack you want to take a photo of and post to Instagram. Sure, you might leave after four hours up a few hundred more often than not, but that’s not very sexy.

The LAGs can build those sexy stacks much more frequently through pure volume. If they’re playing three or four times more hands than you, they’re way, way more likely to string a few big pots together and build that monster stack.

The flipside of this is they’re also way, way more likely to bust three, four, five buy-ins. Some LAGs will just keep buying in. Some call it a day early when this happens. Either way, it’s not very noticeable to your eyes, since in the first case they’re just playing a normal-sized stack and in the second, they’ve left the building entirely.

So whenever you see them, they’ve got a normal stack or a big stack or a huge, enormous stack. So they appear to be big winners.

Second, since LAG is a fairly common play style, especially as you move up in stakes, there will often be a few LAGs going at it simultaneously. While any one of them is likely to be stuck than not, chances are at least one of them will have one of those huge stacks. And that’s what you’ll see. And you’ll think, “Man, every time I play a LAG has some enormous stack. Maybe I’m doing it wrong?”

The trick is, it’s a different LAG each time. Or sometimes by chance it will be the same person a few times in a row. That’s randomness.

So LAGs appear to win because they can build these big stacks, but in reality most of them are losers at the end of the year.

Do Any LAGs Win?

Most LAGs lose. But not all of them. Some of them win. And the biggest winners at any given level will often play a LAG style—at least sometimes.

I should be clear that most poker players lose, regardless of style. It’s the nature of a raked game. So most LAGs lose, but most players of other styles also lose. LAG is not some particularly inferior style.

So if some LAGs win, how? How can they break rule number one and get away with it? How can they play all those junk hands and come out winners at the end of it all?
This is due to how hand-strengths are distributed in hold’em. We all know that pocket aces is the best hand, followed by pocket kings, then pocket queens, then pocket jacks, tens, and A-K.

This sort of ordering is deceptive, however, since it doesn’t account for the strength difference quantitively. In fact, pocket aces isn’t just better than pocket kings. It’s much, much better. And same for kings versus queens. And queens versus jacks. This is why, by the time you get down to jacks, people are already complaining that the hand is a “trap hand” and that they lose so much money playing it. (I doubt any serious player actually loses money playing pocket jacks.)

But the reality is that even though jacks is the fourth-best hand, it’s really nowhere near as good as pocket aces. It’s much closer in strength to hands like K-J suited that no one gets too excited about.

So that’s what the best hands look like. How about the middling hands. Hands like J-6 suited, 10-9 offsuit, Q-9 offsuit and 7-4 suited. I could probably order these hands from best to worst, but really it’s a bit of a silly exercise because, relative to pocket aces, these hands are all about equally good. And they’re only slightly worse than J-9 suited, Q-J offsuit, K-10 offsuit and 7-6 suited that most players would recognize as often “playable.”

Yes, the first hands are definitely, quantifiably worse than the second hands. But not so much worse that you can’t make up the difference just by playing better post flop.

And this is the concept that the winning LAGs exploit. They play well enough post flop that they can be as profitable with a J-5 suited as an average player can be with J-9 suited.

And once that becomes true, a LAG can win a whole lot more money than a typically tight winning player. Because the LAG gets to play more hands, which means more profit per hour. And they’ll be even more profitable when they do get the great hands like pocket aces and kings.

Should You Play LAG?

Many players ask me if they should start playing more hands. If they should adopt a LAG style instead of their tight style.

My answer is almost always no. The reasoning comes straight from the above discussion. Most LAGs lose. The LAGs that win do so because they play post flop much better than their opponents. If your post flop play is similarly dominant, you will know. You’ll know. You’ll understand how dominant you are over most of your opponents, and you will almost naturally slip into a LAG style when appropriate.

It’s almost never right to “decide” to play LAG. You should play LAG if doing so seems like the obvious thing to do giving your dominant status over your opponents. Otherwise, you should keep on playing tight. Because it’s much better to win playing tight than to lose playing loose. ♠

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