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Exploiting Rocks’ Fears

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Nov 07, 2018


They are so afraid of losing that they just sit there, doing nothing. They see very few flops, and they often fold on the flop, turn, or river. Instead of betting and raising, they check and call. They can play for hours without a showdown, and they win most showdowns.

Their fears protect them from losing with weak or marginal cards and draws, but those fears also prevent them from protecting their good hands or getting full value from them.

Jim Brier, Nick Christenson, Betty Tanenbaum, and I recently discussed this fear. Jim is qualifying for a huge free roll tournament at a room that spreads only no-limit hold’em and $2-$4 limit. Since Jim dislikes no-limit, he’s reluctantly playing $2-$4.

Players get extra freeroll chips and other incentives for playing many hours, making high hands, getting football squares, and so on. He’s won many bonuses, but the players severely frustrate him.

Some very loose players frustrate him the same way they irritate you and me: They play trash, chase with nearly hopeless hands, and draw out. He has often complained about them, but our recent discussion was about Rocks.

He just can’t understand them. Their play seems illogical, and he’s a very logical person. He earned a master’s degree in engineering and had a very successful career in NASA, the National Aviation and Space Administration. He co-authored Middle Limit Holdem Poker with Bob Ciaffone.

Because he’s a logical, well-trained engineer and an authority on middle-limit hold’em, Jim can’t understand why so many $2-$4 players are Rocks. If you have played in these games, you’ve probably had the same question Jim asked us: “Why do they play so badly?”

That’s one question this series is answering. The most general answer is that many people – especially in small games – DON’T play to maximize their profits. Of course, they’d like big wins, but they won’t do all it takes to get them.

You can’t understand and fully exploit their mistakes unless you accept that they think and feel differently from you. Their decisions are primarily driven – not by the rational desire to win – but by their emotions.

Emotions vary immensely between players. My previous column analyzed action-loving Maniacs. Rocks are the exact opposite. They detest action because they’re driven by their fear of losing. As Nick told Jim, “They don’t play to win in the cash game. They hope to minimize their losses, get a large stack for the free roll, and win high hand and other bonuses.”

I’m a psychologist, and Nick’s a mathematician, but he improved my understanding of Rocks. Let’s analyze them more deeply.

Why Are They So Weak-Tight?

Not all Rocks just try to minimize losses. A few beat small games because so many players are much too loose. If five or more players are seeing many flops, and some of them chase with nearly hopeless hands, Rocks can win a few dollars. They certainly won’t maximize their profits, but they fervently believe that winning a little is immensely better than taking risks.

Many Rocks, especially the older ones you’ll find in small games, have a second reason for their style: They have much more time than money. They want to play many hours to pass the time and get those bonuses. They’re afraid that, if they loosened up, their money wouldn’t last as long. A shift manager said there are far more small games in the first days of each month because social security checks arrive then.

How Can You Quickly Recognize Rocks?

They have such a low profile that they’re hard to identify quickly. They play very few hands, hardly ever raise, and may be very quiet. You may not even notice that they are just sitting there, doing nothing.

However, it’s less important to identify them quickly than most other players, especially loose-aggressive ones. You’ll play far fewer pots against them, and those pots will be much smaller.

They’re so boring that poker authorities generally ignore them. I’ve read dozens of articles about how to adjust to aggressive players, but much less advice about how to identify and adjust to Rocks.

The first principle is that – since the have such a low profile – you must work to recognize Rocks. My book, The Psychology of Poker, listed several signals. The more of them you see, the more confidence you can have that a player is tight-passive, and the more extreme that player is likely to be.

All signs of tight emotional control such as neat clothing, little or no jewelry, passive or timid words and gestures, an apparent desire to avoid attention, and hardly any facial expressions. They are conservative, not just with their money, but with almost everything.

Very organized chips. Carefully organized chips – such as very neat stacks with the colored bits lined up – show that a player values neatness and control, and Rocks have plenty of time to waste arranging their chips.

Indifference to other people. Ignoring other players, waiters, and dealers suggest a tight-passive style. Miserly tipping supports that inference.

Indifference to the action. If someone seems uninterested in the game, he’s probably tight-passive, at least for the moment. This indifference can signal his general style or just his current state of mind.

People who intently watch televised sports are a special case, particularly if they are betting on them. They may be tight-passive while they are trying to pick a winner or see how their bets do; they glance at their cards and fold all but the best hands.

Some Rocks are so bored that they casually watch TV, read, or play with their cell phones. Gamblers care too much about the action to ignore it. A gentle or even timid betting manner clearly suggests a fear of losing. They may place their chips close to them because they’d like to pull them back.

Minimum buy-in. People who make one will usually play like Rocks, at least as long as they are short of money. They may have only enough for one buy-in, and they hope to play many hands and grind out a small win.

Older people obviously tend to be tight-passive. People get more conservative as they age, and many Rocks are retired, trying to fill up their empty hours and make a few dollars.

As always, observe how other people react to him.

Indifference to his arrival. If nobody seems to notice him, he is probably a stranger or a Rock. They almost seem “invisible.”

Grumbling or rude remarks, especially by loose-aggressive players. Hardly anyone wants to play with them because you can’t have much fun or win much money. Listen for comments such as, “This isn’t the game for you; we’re gambling.” If they are not made as jokes, the newcomer is probably a Rock.

Identifying Rocks is the critical first step toward exploiting their fears. Then you must make large adjustments in your own style. If you play your usual style, you won’t like your results. That’s the topic of my next column. ♠

Alan SchoonmakerPlease visit my website, You can check out many articles, blogs, videos, and books.