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Tournament Play: How To Exploit The Maniac At The Table

Poker Pros Matt Shepsky And Matt Affleck Share Their Tips

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Sep 21, 2022

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Craig Tapscott: When you have a maniac on your left, how does that change your preflop opening ranges? What are the factors that help you to decide how to continue through the rest of the hand?

Matt Shepsky: When I have a very aggressive/active player on my left, I tighten up my preflop ranges, especially if they have a lot of chips and want to play big pots. I’ll avoid small-to-medium suited connectors as these hands won’t play great out of position against an opponent who’s playing and bloating a lot of flops. 

I will lean towards playing big, suited cards and pocket pairs. Knowing I’ll get action on just about every hand I play, I can stay patient and wait for a big hand to play a big pot. Playing too many pots with mediocre hands will often lead to bleeding away chips that I’ll want in my stack when I do finally have a big hand.

The main factor that helps me make my post-flop decisions vs a maniac player is observing how they’ve been playing post-flop on previous hands. Figuring out their tendencies on the turn and river plays a huge role in my own turn and river decision making against them.

Some aggressive opponents will bet the flop and turn, and often give up on the river. Against these opponents, I may check-call the flop and turn with top and middle pair and no draw (if they are very loose), and make a decision on the river if there is one to be made after I check the river.

Wild opponents who bomb all three streets constantly change my strategy, tightening up my post-flop ranges. I’ll often fold middle pair with no draw on the flop knowing I’ll have a big decision with a mediocre hand on later streets. Avoiding these spots and conserving my stack is important when I do have a big hand such as top pair and better later on.

Tightening up in these situations allows me to have plenty of chips to really put a dent in my opponent’s stack when I do have a big hand. When I connect with the flop or hit top pair I’ll try and play a big pot and capitalize vs this type of opponent who is probably going to overplay a lot of hands and bluff more often than most.

Matt Affleck: Having a maniac on your left can be intimidating to recreational players without experience. The first thing to think about in this situation is to put yourself in the maniac’s position. What are they trying to accomplish with their wild strategy? What are their goals?

Most players fight the maniac’s strategy by playing very passive and trappy. This is exactly what a maniac wants. They want you to fold more preflop, granting them more opportunities to steal the blinds. They want you to play passive, allowing them to realize more equity both pre- and post-flop in position.

As far as how I would adjust my opening ranges, I would open pretty much the same ranges. Maybe a tad tighter but nothing crazy noticeable. The main difference is I will be prepared to four-bet more aggressively for both value and as a bluff. The mistake most people make is they simply give up their opens and allow the maniac to steal EV from them.

As far as post-flop goes there are many factors that will affect how we want to proceed. What is the board texture? How wide of a range does the maniac have? How much protection does our holding need? Can we play for stacks with our holding? These are all questions I would begin to ask myself here.

Most people go into bluff catching mode way too often and with too strong of hands vs a maniac. This allows the manic to realize too much equity post-flop once we check. By bluff catching and playing passively you are simply playing into the strategy of the maniac too much.

On a lock-down board such as A-7-3 rainbow, I may play more passive and bluff catch with a hand like A-8. However, on a 9-5-2 board with K-9, I am likely to play my hand very fast since betting not only gets me lots of value, it provides protection from over card hands.

Craig Tapscott: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned when playing with a crazy, any-two-cards type of player at the table?

Matt Shepsky: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned when playing vs a maniac is that it’s okay to let someone else be the “table captain.” If someone is playing every hand and running hot, I’m okay staying out their way and waiting for my time to attack. A lot of people get their ego involved and take a stand vs an opponent like this at the wrong time and it can be very costly. Don’t forget, even the maniac can make a big hand every now and then!

Keeping my cool and not getting emotionally frustrated when having bad table position is something that’s helped me do well in poker throughout my career. Accepting the fact that sometimes you’re just going to have a bad spot is something that I’ve been able to handle well and maneuver through both mentally as well as finding good spots for the current situation.

If the “any-two-card” type of player is a novice, I will play more hands against them, assuming I have a decent stack relative to the blinds and I have position on them. I will try and see cheap flops against them as they will probably make a lot of mistakes post-flop while playing too many hands.

If the maniac is a more advanced player and has position on me, I will play fewer hands vs them and essentially stay out of their way. The pots I do decide to play in this scenario will be bigger than usual pots when I have a big hand.

Keeping your cool is one of the most important things you can do at the poker table. Instead of getting frustrated at how few hands I get to play at a table like this, I feel excited when I do pick up a big hand, knowing it can be a great spot to win a big pot. In some events you can chip up slowly throughout the day and play a lot of small pots. Other times, you can literally win 2-3 big pots the entire day and have a better than average stack to end the day.

Poker tables and opponents are constantly changing every hand. One hour, things can seem absolutely hopeless and then a few big pots are played and all of a sudden the dynamic changes. Sometimes the maniac on your left may lose a big pot to a player on your right and you’re now in a better position to get chips without even having played a hand.

On day 6 of this year’s WSOP main event I had an interesting hand vs a “maniac” with a lot of chips on my direct left. I had 17 big blinds and opened on the button with A-8 offsuit. The maniac was an emotional player and seemed very much tilted at the time as he had just lost a couple pots. I fully expected him to three-bet me light and fold to my four-bet shove.

I raised, and he three-bet me as expected out of the small blind, however, he made a much bigger raise than expected to the point where I didn’t think he could fold to my shove. I felt my A-8 was ahead, but it would be close to a coinflip with me as a slight favorite. This player was getting out of line so often that I felt I didn’t need to take a 55% flip (which is what it ended up being) and I opted to fold.

The flow of the table and how he was playing led me to believe that I should wait for a better opportunity. A couple orbits later I found myself in a much better spot after limping with 7-7 in the small blind. He put me all-in with A-2 off in the big blind and I doubled up.

Matt Affleck: When playing versus a crazy any-two-cards type player on the table, the key lesson to be learned is to go for maximum value. You do not need a set or overpair to go up against a player with “any two.” Even hands like strong second or third pair could be enough.

When faced with these unfamiliar situations, such as playing a player with unfamiliar ranges, it is important to learn to associate the situation to something similar you have studied. For example, you may raise the lojack and the hijack calls. In a normal situation, this would be a spot where we do little continuation-betting as the LJ due to a tight HJ range. However, if the HJ is playing 70% of their hands, what is a similar situation we could relate this to that we may have studied?

The big blind may defend upwards of 60% of hands. So now this is like facing a big blind range rather than a HJ range. However, we are out of position against this wide 60% range. This is much different then being in position vs the BB’s wide range. Well, this is now like a SB v BB single raised pot where we raised in the SB and the BB defended. Except we have an even tighter range than we would normally from the small blind.

So, even though I haven’t studied playing LJ v HJ vs a 60% flatting range, I would treat the spot similarly to playing SB v BB where we have a tighter range than normal and can likely continuation bet more because of that.

Emotionally, it is just important to remain calm and realize you are in a very profitable spot here with the player flatting any two cards. You will lose pots for sure, however you are printing EV and this is the exact situation you are looking for. Never should this be looked at as a nuisance, but rather as a great opportunity.

While losing a pot can be frustrating to an inferior play, your frustrations stem from unrealistic expectations of the situation. You must release the expectations of winning every pot because that will never happen. As you learn to let go of these expectations, your frustration levels in poker will become much more manageable. ♠

Matt Shepsky is coming off a career-best finish in the World Series of Poker main event, earning $262,300 for 29th place. The Chicago native has a WSOP Circuit ring from 2015, and also won the Heartland Poker Tour Colorado main event. In 2018, he won his hometown Chicago Poker Classic. He now has $1.5 million in career live tournament earnings. Matt can be found on Twitter @shep2k.

Matt Affleck is the 2015 Coco Poker Open and 2017 Wynn Fall Classic champion. Back in 2010, he took 15th in the WSOP main event for $500,165. He has more than $3.5 million in earnings. The Washington native shares his poker knowledge at Poker Coaching, where he does weekly live instructional webinars, as well as one-on-one private lessons. For more information visit PokerCoaching.com/CardPlayer. Follow Matt on Twitter @mcmattopoker.