Requirements in Conservative Play

These suggested opening hands apply to a full table of nine or ten players, where you are the first player to act.

Early (first or second) Position: Raise with a high pair (aces, kings, or queens). Raise also with a medium pair like jacks or tens in an effort to reduce the field. Raise with ace-king (suited or unsuited) or ace-queen (suited).

Middle (third through sixth) Position: Raise with all the above hands. Also raise with nines or eights, as well as ace-queen, ace-jack, or king-queen (suited or unsuited).

Late (seventh or eighth) Position: Raise with all the above hands. Also raise with sevens, ace-x, or high suited connectors like queen-jack or jack-ten.

Remember there is a difference between opening a pot and entering a pot that has already been opened. If you decide to enter a pot that someone else has already opened, you want a better hand than you would require to open yourself from his position. If someone before you opens from middle position, you want one of your early position opening hands to make a raise. David Sklansky, in his excellent book Tournament Poker for Advanced Players, called this the "Gap Concept," and we'll discuss the reasons for it in a later chapter.

When you play conservatively, a number of things will happen:

  1. You'll enter comparatively few pots. Good, solid hands don't arrive all that often.
  2. When you do enter a pot, you'll usually be the favorite in the hand. Players will have to draw out to catch you.
  3. You'll have relatively easy decisions to make after the flop. If you start with good hands and the flop hits you at all, your hand will be very strong. When the flop misses you, you may still have the best hand, even if someone else has improved.
  4. You'll win a lot of small pots, but not many big ones. Unless the players at your table are asleep at the switch, they'll soon peg you as a "rock," and adjust their play accordingly.

Most books recommend that beginners adopt conservative play as their style, at least until they acquire some experience. I agree. Playing conservatively has the great merit of keeping you out of a lot of trouble, and that's very important. Every pot you enter has the potential of consuming all your chips. That grim reality necessitates a certain degree of caution when starting out. In the 2003 World Series of Poker, one player had seized the chip lead by the middle of Day Four by virtue of many, many hours of solid, patient play. In the space of just two hands and five minutes of play, he was out of the tournament. Always remember that no-limit hold 'em is a very dangerous game.

If you try conservative play and you like it, that's fine. It may he your natural style. But if it leaves you feeling a little cramped, Perhaps you're just a bit too flamboyant for conservatism, then you may want to look at the merits of the aggressive style.

Someone using the aggressive style would open with all of the hands used by conservative players, plus many more. The following hands are all possible opening hands for an aggressive player:

  1. All pairs
  2. Any two face cards.
  3. Ace-anything
  4. Suited connectors, even as low as five-four suited.

Aggressive players aren't terribly concerned with positional requirements, so all of these hands are suitable for opening even in early position.

Compared to conservative play, aggressive play has several advantages.

  1. An aggressive player plays a lot more pots.
  2. An aggressive player steals a lot more pots.
  3. An aggressive player is much harder to read.
  4. It's much harder to tell if the flop helped an aggressive player or not.
  5. An aggressive player is more likely to win big on his monster hands.

That's the good news. Balancing it is some bad news.

  1. By playing lower-quality starting hands, an aggressive will face more difficult decisions after the flop.
  2. By playing and betting more hands, an aggressive player will more often run into well-concealed monster hands.
  3. An aggressive player will face much bigger swings in stack sizes.

The aggressive style is not inferior to the conservative style in theory, but it requires much more skill to play well. That's why beginners are well-advised to begin with conservative play, and only later experiment with aggressive moves. Aggressive play requires a well-developed feel for the table. Playing aggressively, you'll often find yourself after the flop holding medium pair or low pair, and needing to figure out if your opponent has a better hand or is just making a move on you. Beginners tend to lose all their chips in these situations, but an experienced player with a good read on his opponents can stay out of a lot of trouble.

If even aggressive play seems too tame for you, then perhaps you're ready for the very highest-octane mix. Let's look now at the super-aggressive style.

"Starting requirements? We don't need no stinkin ' starting requirements!"

We don't need to spend a lot of time on opening hands for this style, since there are none. A super-aggressive player is quite capable of opening with any two cards, in any position, at any time. That's what makes this style so exciting to watch, albeit dangerous to play.

The idea of the super-aggressive style is to play a lot of pots and see a lot of flops, cheaply. Because a super-aggressive player can play a lot of hands from a lot of different positions, his opponents can't easily look at the flop and tell if it is dangerous for them or not. When facing a conservative player, a flop of

is almost certainly harmless. Against a super-aggressive player, you could be facing a straight, two pair, or a set.

Super-aggressive players decide whether or not to enter a pot in two ways. Of course, they'll come in with two cards that represent solid value. But even if their hand doesn't have solid value, they might still enter the pot if the other elements of their position are favorable. Have a lot of players already folded? Will they have position after the flop? Are the players behind them weak or intimidated? Do the players behind them have smallish stacks? Are the players behind them playing conservatively?

If the answers to these questions are mostly yes, then a super-aggressive player might take any two cards and make a move, figuring he could win in three ways:

  1. No one calls and he takes the blinds right now.
  2. Someone calls, but he hits the flop and wins with the better hand.
  3. Someone calls, and he misses the flop, but bluffs his opponent out anyway.

To succeed with this approach, you must be observant and imaginative. It's a highly demanding style, but its most successful practitioners, players like Gus Hansen, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey, have enjoyed great success recently.

The main advantage of the super-aggressive style is that you play, and have a chance to win, a lot of pots. At a table of weak players, whether active or passive, simply getting in the pot is advantageous, and the super-aggressive style is probably optimal for that situation. The disadvantages of the style are the energy required and the danger courted. You're always dancing on the edge, always facing tough decisions, and mostly you're holding weak cards. All the delicate maneuvering required is tiring, and a tired player is more likely to blunder at some point.

When I first started playing tournament poker in the 1980s, most players assumed that the same conservative style that was correct for money play must be correct for tournament play as well. But as I started to get some experience in tournaments, I began to get suspicious. Many of the great no-limit money players didn't have especially good tournament results. At the same time, I saw players doing very well in tournaments who weren't feared in money play.

Before I played poker full-time, I had spent some years playing competitive backgammon, where I had seen the same dichotomy. Strong money players were not doing as well as they should in tournaments, and successful tournament players weren't respected in money games. In backgammon some of my friends and I had reasoned out that a more aggressive doubling strategy paid off in tournament play, because players were unwilling to put an entire match on the line at a crucial point when they were an underdog; they'd rather pass a double and start a new game where they were even money. But the points they surrendered without a fight were just too costly. They were getting offered the odds they needed to take a bad position, but they were passing anyway. The equity they surrendered couldn't be recouped with skillful checker play.

I began to watch the players who were doing very well in the tournaments of the 1980s. The best players of that period were Stu Ungar, Jack Keller, and Bobby Turner. I could see that their approach to the game was very similar. Although they would start a tournament in a conservative mode, much like the other players, after a while they became very active, playing a lot of hands and moving in on a lot of pots. As the blinds grew large and the tournament wound down, they became even more active, stealing pots while other players were hunkering down, just trying to get in the money. Ironically, it was their very willingness to pick fights just before players were in the money that brought them into the money so often. (A fact immortalized in Amir Vahedi's great quote — "In order to live, you must be willing to die.")

Eventually, I realized that in order to be successful in tournaments, I had to incorporate their insights into my own style. Conservative play was fine, perhaps even optimal, for the early stages of a tournament, but some variation of super-aggressive play was necessary for the end of tournaments. My own approach was to use elements of the super-aggressive style in a way that worked for me. Many of the early super-aggressive players just shoved their chips in the pot without proper regard for the situation at the table. Even that approach was good enough to work, but I tried to pick my spots a little more carefully. Since I had already established a tight reputation, it wasn't hard to play off that and maneuver just below everyone's radar screen.

If you know an opponent's basic style, how do you defend?

Against a player with a conservative style, there's surprisingly little you can do. Conservative players are playing mostly good cards. If they bet, and you don't have much, you just get out of their way. When they move in, you need a real hand to play with them. Of course, this advice illustrates the power of the conservative style which, as long as the blinds are small relative to the chip stacks, is close to an optimal style in a game-theoretic sense. Even the most conservative player will be bluffing from time to time, and their bluffs will tend to be very successful because of the image they've established.

Against a super-aggressive player, there are a number of things that you can and must do. The two main defensive strategies are the Hammer and the Rope-a-Dope.

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