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Misplaced Aggression

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jan 16, 2019


I got an email recently from an aspiring $2-$5 player that I think exemplifies a problem many small stakes players have. They know that aggressive play is good, but they’re not sure exactly when to be most aggressive, and when backing off is okay.
Here was the hand. The player was in the small blind with 7-7. Two players limped, one who had $200 behind and the button, who had $550 behind. The player raised to $35, and both limpers called. There was $110 in the pot and three players.

The flop came K-K-Q rainbow. He bet $65, the first limper folded and the button called. There was $240 in the pot.

The turn was a 4. Both players checked.

The river was a 5. The player checked, and the button bet $200.

The email asked me how to react to this bet, and also if he should have bet the turn or river instead.

In a typical $2-$5 game I’d probably reluctantly fold to the $200 river bet. It’s almost a full pot bet so you have to win about 30 percent of the time to break-even on the call.

The thing is, the typical $2-$5 player simply won’t have too many bluff-worthy hands in this situation. On the flop, most players wouldn’t call without a king, a queen, a pocket pair, ace-high, or J-10. I wouldn’t expect most $2-$5 players to turn any of these hands into a bluff except for J-10. And even then, I’d expect many to take a weaker shot at the pot (say $80 or so) rather than a near full-pot bluff.

Some $2-$5 players would be bluffing here often enough to call, but most I think wouldn’t, so I’d fold.

Unfortunately, however, it’s a close enough decision that this is definitely a bad spot to be in on the river. If you fold, you will for sure sometimes be folding the best hand. And if you call, very often you will lose.

I would have approached the entire hand differently from the very first decision.
I would have just called preflop. I know most $2-$5 players would do the same—just call the small blind with a smallish pair—but players trying to add aggression to their games, like the emailer, will sometimes try raising.

If the stack sizes were deeper, I think the raise would be fine. With $1,000 or deeper stacks against weaker players, I would tend to raise this hand. This would set up a stack-to-pot ratio of 10 or more. This is a bit of a sweet spot for maximizing the leverage of flopping a set.

In this hand, however, you have stack-to-pot ratios against your opponents of 2 and 5. These are both too small to maximize the set potential, and it’s especially bad because 2 and 5 are very different. This places you in the awkward situation of wanting to play one strategy against the player with 2 and a different one against the player with 5.

For example, if the player with $500 were out of the hand, you’d likely be fine getting all-in against the player with $200. The presence of the other player makes this riskier.

So, while raising preflop with 7-7 is sometimes a good play, even out of position, with these stack sizes it’s definitely not good since it sets up an awkward post-flop situation against your two opponents due to their stack sizes.

It’s easy to see this awkwardness during the actual hand as it played out. It’s an okay flop for your hand, but you have a dilemma immediately.

If you bet the flop and get called, chances are you’re in a bad situation. But if you check to fish for information, you risk a free card and another difficult decision about whether to bet the turn. A pair like pocket tens would be safer checking the flop, because if it checks around it’s likely the turn card will be below a ten, and you can either check again to induce bluffs or bet for value.

When Aggression?

So we know that generally aggressive play is good. But when should we turn the aggression on?

Preflop, aggression usually does two things. First, it allows you to set the stack-to-pot ratio to one that is good for your hand and the situation (number of opponents, opponent tendencies, and so on). Second, it gets more money into the pot, making later bets bigger as well. Basically, it increases the stakes of the hand, and if you have a general advantage in the hand, increasing the stakes makes you money.

A lot of people think of aggression preflop as a bluff or as setting up a bluff on a later round, but I don’t think that’s a useful way to think about it. Yes, it’s true that if you raise preflop and bet the flop, you’ll win a lot of pots. But you can win most of those same pots by betting the flop without having raised preflop. And often you can win an extra bet if someone else raises, you call, and then you check the flop, let them bet, and then take the pot away.

So, in general when you’re playing small-stakes live cash games, raising preflop will help you manipulate stack-to-pot ratios and just raise the stakes for the hand because you have some identifiable advantage.

Post-flop, aggression is used primarily for one of two reasons. To make worse hands call and to make better hands fold.

Many players think of betting for information, but in small stakes cash games, you’re usually better off checking for information rather than betting. If you bet for information, often you’ll get called (as happened in the example hand), and then end up with a difficult decision at some point later in the hand. What’s the point of betting for information if you end up with a tough decision anyway?

Checking lets your opponents act and often this gives you even better information than you would get if you see them react to your bet.

Final Thoughts

Aggression is good, but you need some method to the madness. Preflop aggression should be setting the hand to play to your benefit after the flop. And post-flop aggression should usually either be a clear-in-your-mind attempt either to get everyone to fold or to get worse hands to call. When you’re confused about your situation, trying to bet your way out of it is usually a mistake. Just check, let your opponents tell you what they have, and react.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you’ll make good decisions with aggression far more often than not. ♠

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