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Head Games: The Name Of The Game Is Aggression

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Feb 10, 2021


The Pros: Jeff Gross, Ari Engel, Noah Schwartz, and Matt Affleck

Craig Tapscott: Can you share how you apply pressure on other players and keep the lead in a hand with selective aggression. Additionally, what do you do to set an aggressive tone at the table?

Jeff Gross: Blind aggression every hand is not a viable tactic and is perceived as weak and easy to combat. Being in fewer pots, but having the lead in hands is what is known as TAG or tight aggressive. Applying pressure to players is something you can do in a variety of ways but playing position and being balanced with a wide variety of starting hands is key.

Jeff GrossFor instance, if you only three-bet the top of your range, that’s easy to play against. But when you mix in suited connecters and some other hands, you become much more dangerous in your opponent’s mind. Also dropping in some overbets in creative spots is a good way to set the tone and put the table on notice.

Ari Engel: When it comes to playing winning poker, it’s true that almost all the big winners are extra aggressive. If the other players are scared of your aggression then they will tend to give up on pots easily against you. This allows you to win extra pots when neither of you have a good hand. In tournament poker, that can be huge as undeservingly winning a few extra blinds when the average stack is relatively short is quite meaningful.

Furthermore, if you can build a big stack for the final table, it can put you into a position to play even more hands, more aggressively as your opponents look to move up the pay ladder and avoid confrontations with a player who can knock them out. Sometimes, it can make sense to take extra risks to try and put yourself in such a position, particularly when one considers that such a large proportion of the prize pool ends up in the hands of only the top few finishers. 

Noah Schwartz: Aggression in no-limit hold’em plays a pivotal role in one’s success. But before applying aggression, I feel it is crucial to identify a player’s tendencies. Is your opponent passive and tight, or aggressive? What this does is it enables me to put together, in my head, a comprehensive plan on how to approach each hand.

I like to relate it to a boxing match. In the first round or two, the boxers are getting a feel for one another stylistically. Once I have my approach set up, I can use aggression in my favor and take advantage of situations more optimally. An example of this is a passive player who limps in the pot. Instead of limping with a mediocre holding, I am going to increase the price of admission in order to isolate that player to take advantage of this particular tendency. By doing so, I enable myself a much higher chance of winning the pot and adding to my chip count. That is one example on how to stay aggressive.

Things that I like to do to establish my presence at the table early on is to reraise early and often, because I feel it sets the tone for the session. Granted, it’s vital to be able to pivot from one style to another seamlessly depending on different variables. If you’re able to show a big bluff at some point and implant into an opponent’s mind that you’re fully capable and willing to lay it all on the line with nothing, this can be super beneficial later on when you have a real holding.

Matt AffleckMatt Affleck: Applying pressure in no-limit hold’em all begins with the preflop game. Most players tend to fold too many hands preflop, as well as play a passive calling strategy rather than three-betting more aggressively. In all my research and database reviews, when presented the opportunity to three-bet or call with a weaker hand in their range, three-betting usually outperforms calling. Whether it is choosing to open the pot when it has folded to you or choosing to three-bet or cold call a raise in front of you, aggression is the name of the game. Of all the students I’ve coached, 80-90 percent of them play too tight and passively preflop, very few take the aggression too far. If you are in doubt, choose the aggressive route in a hand preflop.

Many players tend to deal with preflop aggression the wrong way as well. When an overly aggressive player is at the table, many players sit back and wait for strong hands to trap the player. This is exactly what this player wants. These players do not want to face extra resistance, they make most of their money by generating extra folds preflop. In reality, the best counter strategy to a very aggressive preflop player is to counter with even more aggression. When they raise, call and three-bet more hands preflop. If they raise you preflop, you always have the option to four-bet aggressively.

The same principles apply post-flop in many cases. In almost all instances, players fold too much at every stage of the hand post-flop. We take advantage of this by bluffing aggressively, until faced with resistance. We strategically use board textures, dynamic turns, and blockers in our hand to choose the appropriate times to bluff and present overfold opportunities for our opponents.

Most players use blind aggression to help them win more pots. We want to shift our mindset from betting just to bet, to betting with an intention and purpose. Have specific reasons for your bet. What part of the villain’s range are we targeting? How does the flop or turn interact with our range or our opponent’s range? In almost all cases, everyone can benefit from more strategic aggression in the correct spots.

Craig Tapscott: When encountering a very aggressive player on your left, how does that dynamic change in regard to how aggressive you will continue to be and why?

Jeff Gross: Having a very aggressive player on your left can be a good thing. Often times this will cause the table to loosen up and play more hands than normal, which is very good. But when the table captain is on your direct left there are some considerations.

It’s good to stick to a plan and have a planned four-betting attack as well as which hands you will defend three-bets with. This should be adjusted to fit your opponent’s aggression and also post-flop skill assessment. Being aggressive is one thing, being a competent thinking player post-flop is another.

I would be looking to mix it up for sure, this is where you can really make a lot of chips. It’s important to remember the player to your direct left should have a big advantage on you and not to let it discourage you if they are dragging more pots. The key is to drag the biggest one. Determining if they know what they are doing is something you can tell relatively quickly when you see the hands they are showing down.

Ari EngelAri Engel: Given the desire to win pots uncontested and accumulate a big stack, having an extra aggressive player on your left can strongly affect the strategy you choose to play. Often times, I’ll sit back and hope they make a big mistake versus me at the wrong time. Other times I’ll try to abuse my opponent’s likelihood not to have a strong hand by playing extra aggressively myself and forcing them to make an even more extra heroic aggressive action. It’s great to have many tools in one’s box, so that you don’t always respond to tough players in the same way.

Generally, it’s very hard to get away with playing a ton of hands. If you pay attention to showdowns, it’s fairly easy to spot if a player is playing far too loose/aggressive but doesn’t have a great strategy. You are determining if their aggression is calculated or if they have any rationale for making the plays they make. Perhaps they are just out of control. Putting together these logic puzzles are part of what makes the game of poker such a fun, difficult, and sometimes a frustrating game to play and master. 

Noah Schwartz: When I take a seat at a table and encounter someone who is considered very aggressive and has a positional advantage over me, I go back to the drawing board. How am I going to have a winning session? How will I accumulate all the chips so I can win this event? One way I counteract a player’s aggression is with my own attack. You meet fire with fire. Not to say this is always the best or most effective approach. Still, by sending a signal to them that you are not going to back down, this embeds into their mind that maybe they should go after someone else who is more likely to stand down and present less of a challenge. Not to say that this is the case all the time. It has backfired in many instances for me, but along the way, it taught me sometimes you need to check your ego at the door.

This is a two-headed monster for most. These types of players make you elevate your game. Another reason for wanting to enter pots with this person is they want to play bigger pots. They are trying to win more often with sheer aggression, which enables you to accumulate more chips, which makes them more challenging to play against, but by the same token, more mistake prone.

Noah SchwartzSelective aggression and random aggression are two very different approaches. Player A could be very calculated in the path he takes, exuding logic and applying skill throughout the course of the hand. While player B could be a ticking time bomb who doesn’t understand the board or hand ranges, and is approaching hands with reckless abandonment. I’m always on the lookout for information, so I can accurately label the player to the best of my ability to develop an approach to manipulating the opponent.

Matt Affleck: When faced with an aggressive player at the table, the best strategy is to keep fighting and likely employ more aggression. In most instances, an aggressive player’s goal is to win as many pots without resistance if possible. Often, when faced with returned aggression, these players play pretty honest, especially since most players do not fight back. If you simply sit back and wait for a hand, this is exactly what the player wants. A skilled aggressive player wins lots of small pots, builds an aggressive image. However, when tons of money go into the pot, many are surprised that they have a good hand. This is exactly what they want, they want you to misinterpret their image as this crazy gambler, when in fact, they are simply waiting for you to make the big mistake.

It is very important to pay attention to showdowns when facing this type of player to see if they are using controlled aggression or just blind aggression. Do they use good blockers and combinations to bluff with? Do they display self-control and know when to shut down a bluff versus a tight trappy player? Some players cannot help themselves and simply pull the trigger every single time. The counter strategies to a very aggressive player are sometimes overthought. If you are on their left and they raise too many hands, the counter strategy is to three-bet more and call more versus them. If you are on their right and they call every hand you raise, use a larger raise sizing preflop. Post-flop, use their aggression against them, and check-raise more for both value and bluffs.

Many tournament players have the mindset that they want to sit back and wait for a better spot. They want to protect their tournament life. I am not a believer in tournament life. Sure, in certain spots you want to consider it, but most players use tournament life as a way to justify tight-passive, bad poker. The best way to protect your tournament life is to win more chips. To be a great tournament player, you need to be able to mix it up. I am having a hard time remembering the last great tournament player who was a nit. ♠

Jeff Gross grinded his way up to playing nose-bleed stakes as high as $1,000-$2,000 as well as $100,000 high roller tournaments. He has over $3.3 million in career tournament cashes. Gross is part of Team partypoker and you can often find him streaming his play on Twitch at JeffGrossPoker.

Ari Engel took down the 2016 Aussie Millions main event for over $1.1 million, and won a coveted WSOP bracelet in the 2019 $2,500 buy-in no-limit hold’em event. Engel has nine WSOP Circuit rings, and has cashed for more than $7 million in live tournaments.

Noah Schwartz is a WSOP bracelet winner and WPT champion that has amassed career earnings of over $6 million despite playing only part time. One of his main passions is philanthropy. Schwartz currently works with many foundations to raise money for multiple causes.

Matt Affleck has more 15 years of tournament poker experience. As well as being a private coach, Matt is a premium instructor for where he hosts weekly webinars explaining advanced tournament poker strategies. Affleck has over $3.1 million in tournament career cashes.