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Head Games: The Vital Importance Of Aggression

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Nov 17, 2021


The Pros: Michael Perrone, Kyle Kitagawa, and Adam Levy

Craig Tapscott: Can you describe how you apply pressure on other players and keep the lead during a hand with selective aggression? What are some things you can do to set an aggressive tone at the table?

Michael Perrone: When considering my tactical approach to a hand, I am juggling differing stack depths, impending ICM pressures, and past player tendencies among other things. I ask myself things like, “How many streets of value can I realistically win with my particular hand? How many streets of betting will it take to threaten my opponent’s tournament life?”

In tournament poker, survival is everything. The threat of being all in is perhaps more important than the act of betting. If my sizing on earlier streets plants seeds of doubt that we’re playing for all of it by the river, that selective pressure can be enough to push my opponent to fold.

I pride myself on being sociable and welcoming at the table. It speaks to my love of the game and eagerness to make it more approachable for recreational players. While I would never describe my tone at the table as aggressive, there is a level of intention and presence I bring to the table that some may interpret as intimidating when squaring off in a hand. I may not send an Alex Foxen or Tom Dwan-esque stare down my opponents’ direction, but the former psychologist in me is constantly sizing up my opponents’ behaviors and motivations at the table.

In an era when the average player is investing considerable attention to their smartphone or tablet at the table to pass the time, the mere act of having one’s phone away and attending to the table, even when not actively participating in a hand can go a long way in setting a tone that you’ve shown up to compete. Strong table presence need not be aggressive, per se, in order to root a level of pause or doubt in the mind of your opponent. Intentionality and focus speak for themselves.

Kyle Kitagawa: Aggression in poker adds a second way to win pots without having the best hand, so knowing how and when to apply it is a valuable asset to incorporate into your strategy. With balance, it also allows us to get paid off for max value in some spots. In tournaments, stack sizes, ICM, position, and table image are important when determining if/when we can apply pressure on an opponent, but I think the biggest one to consider overall is board texture and range advantage.

Here’s an example of selective aggression using range-advantage. Let’s say you open from the hijack position with QClub Suit JClub Suit. The big blind calls and checks on a flop of 7-6-2 rainbow. We can put in a one-quarter or one-third pot size continuation bet, and we could even check back this flop for balance (something I’ll come back to). 

Now the big blind calls and checks again on the turn, which is a king. We have range advantage (our range includes A-K, K-Q, K-J, K-10, etc.) and we should be using it to make a larger bet on the turn, especially because our opponent has shown weakness on every street so far. We can bet anywhere from half pot to full pot here and take it down. Betting big here might even confuse some opponents which increases the likelihood of getting paid off on a huge value bet later on.  

I’m going to use this same example, but flip sides and use a different turn card to demonstrate how the big blind could use selective aggression. The hijack opens, and we call from the big blind to see the 7-6-2 rainbow flop and we float the small continuation bet with our J-9. The turn is a 4. On this board, the big blind has range-advantage, we can consider leading this turn, or leading the river if the hijack checks back the turn.  

In these examples, you can also see how poker aggression has evolved over the years. When I first started playing in 2003, the standard was to c-bet the flop a lot. Players adjusted and started floating more flops so that they can use aggression on the turn to take it away. As a result, now we’re seeing smaller c-bet sizing and more flops being checked for balance purposes.  

Adam Levy: Applying pressure has varied greatly over the years. Back in the late 2000s it was important to “be aggressive” because most players were too passive. You bet and people will eventually fold. Three-barrel bluffs, aka betting on all three post-flop streets, were incredibly effective and so was continuation betting. Barry Greenstein used to bet 100% of flops and it worked for a long time. Eventually, the general player pool got better, and we all had to be more creative with our aggression and tone it down a bit. Pure aggression turned into calculated aggression. 

Nowadays, the other players are also pretty aggressive, so what you have to do is use the all-in button a lot which essentially ends the chain of aggression. Being good at going all-in can be really profitable and put your opponents in tough spots, especially if they are not well-equipped to handle that type of pressure. It can end with you gaining lots of chips while players fold too much and with not much pushback. And then when they do pushback, they do it incorrectly and find themselves in really bad spots.

Most of the time, you can’t be that aggressive at the table. Early on in the tournament you can play a lot of hands and show you are willing to be aggro with preflop three-bets, check-raises, and relentless betting on all three streets, but it’s tough when you have an average or short stack in the middle or later stages.

The best time to set the tone is when you wield a huge stack. You take every spot you can and up the percentage of hands you play at the table until people fight back. Sometimes you can do this near the money bubble, final table bubble, or at the final table. This is when poker is the most fun. There have been some rare circumstances where I’ve been able to play 80 percent of hands while everyone folds. Be careful though, because opponents can get great hands sometimes. It’s important to recognize that too. They usually aren’t playing back at you emotionally just because you raise a lot, especially not these days. It’s because they picked up a good hand.

Craig Tapscott: When sitting at the table with a very aggressive player on your left, how does the dynamic change in regard to how you will continue to be and why? And how does that change if the player is on your direct right?

Michael Perrone: Poker is a game of incomplete information. The later the position we hold at the table, the more information we get to collect prior to making our decision. While much of tournament poker is navigating shallower stack depths and stealing blinds, relentless aggression will really eat into your stack if you face imminent pushback from your left. I find that over the years, poker tendencies have been fairly cyclical. In the past decade, I’ve witnessed the era of ultra-light four, five, and even six-bet bluffing shift to Negreanu-style small ball taking center-stage. The path the pros trailblaze is ultimately emulated by the field, but often to their detriment.

When considering how to combat aggression, I reflect on what “level” of thought villain is likely operating under. I’m considering game flow and villain’s general level of table presence and awareness of emerging table dynamics. If the player to my left has been watching Netflix on their phone and suddenly pauses their video after looking at their cards, I may opt to give them more credit when they put in the three-bet. Conversely, when someone who has been attentive and thoughtful puts in a late position reraise, I may be more inclined to challenge them with a four-bet.

While many choose to fight fire with fire, and default to opening up their three- and four-betting ranges, I find in these large open events, it can sometimes be just as advantageous to blend into the passivity of the field and incorporate a greater amount of over-calling and subsequent back-raising into my strategy. Doing so allows me to see more flops in position at a lower price with a wider range, but also to put pause in a villain’s mind that traps are possible.

It becomes rather apparent when someone is playing more than their fair share of hands. As a less experienced player, I often found myself taking raises and reraises personally, resulting in missteps and punts late in tournaments when I should have exercised more restraint. Nowadays when I have a positional advantage, my reraising range naturally opens up, but only to the extent that evidence has suggested they’re getting out of line and not simply card-racking.

Kyle Kitagawa: When you have an aggressive player on your left, in general, it’s better to three-bet more often, because the aggressive player behind us is much more likely to squeeze. The exception to this rule is when we are closing the action because we don’t want to give them the option to four-bet. We also don’t want to be three-betting the aggressive player from out of position as much because it’ll be tough to play them post-flop. For this same reason, our opening range should probably tighten up a bit. You can also get a bit more trappy when they are to your left, but don’t get carried away and cost yourself missed value.  

It’s usually more entertaining when the aggressive player is to our right. Now we can play from position. If you think she/he is starting to get out of line with their opening range, we can start to three-bet isolate and play bigger pots in position. I’d also be willing to bluff-catch more. 

When I say “aggressive player” it’s important to distinguish the difference between an aggressive vs loose player. We can identify an aggressive player as someone who is squeezing, making open raises (no limps), and not just a loose cannon. 
Adam Levy: Whenever a new player sits down at the table, it’s always a mystery. You size them up immediately and try to figure them out, but it can take a bit of time to understand the player. You are trying to compile as much info as quickly as possible. If a player shows you they are being aggressive, raising a lot and being active post-flop to your left, it can really hamper your objective at the table. If they happen to have a huge stack you need to respect it usually right away.

The way I test it out is by playing my normal style and seeing if they do something within the first orbit like three-bet me or check-raise. Once they show their aggression, I shave off a few hands from the bottom of my opening range and tighten up post-flop.

If, let’s say, I’m opening 20 percent from the hijack, maybe it’s 18 percent when I see someone playing a lot of pots on my direct left. Post-flop, I adjust up by checking more to them. If they are three-betting you a lot, you can up the ante by four-betting preflop, sometimes by going all-in. Is this strategy advisable? Sometimes it’s the best option, but it is a more complicated, higher variance move, so be careful when doing this. ♠

Michael Perrone is a professional poker player and mental game coach with a doctorate in psychology. After winning two World Series of Poker Circuit rings in 2019, Perrone is enjoying his best year on the circuit in 2021. In July, he finished sixth in the WPT Choctaw main event for $118,090, and most recently, he won his first bracelet and $152,173 in the WSOP super turbo bounty event. Check out his Instagram @PokerPsyD; and Twitter @jazzinitup.

Kyle Kitagawa is a California-based poker pro and is sponsored by Team PokerBros. He started as a cash game specialist, and eventually began to focus more on tournaments. In 2019, he won the WPT DeepStacks main event in Sacramento for $106,520. . He won the WPTDeepStacks Title at Thunder Valley in 2019. Follow him on Instagram @cali_kidddd; and Twitter @KyleK_poker.

Adam Levy is one of the original online poker greats, racking up millions under the name ‘Roothlus.’ an established professional player who has had great success in both online and live tournaments. The Florida native turned Los Angeles resident has nearly $3 million in live tournament earnings as well, including a 12th-place finish in the 2010 WSOP main event, and a fifth-place showing at the WPT Festa Al Lago Classic main event. Find his Twitter profile @Roothlus.