Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to be a Bully at the Poker Table

How to be a Bully at the Poker Table
Poker is mental warfare. You should use whatever weapons that are available to you in order to be successful. Getting under people's skin, being a dick basically, is something that is frowned upon in general in our society. But in poker and some other sports it can be a key difference between winning or losing.

I come from a hockey background which presents a good analogy. Everybody hates to play against a "pest" but would love to have one on their team. A pest is the guy that won't stop chirpin' after the whistle (trash talk for you non-Canadians). He is the guy that gives you an extra little slash, jab or punch just to piss you off.

Basically, while mostly sticking within the rules of the game, he tries to do everything in his power to get you off of your game and focused on him. The very best pests will go after the other teams best player in an attempt to get them so mad that they start a fight. Now not only has that good player completely lost focus on what he does best which is scoring goals. But he will also be spending at least the next 5 minutes in the penalty box as well. Score!

And likewise in poker, one of the best ways to create a +EV (expected value) situation for yourself is to put your opponents on tilt. Tilt literally runs the industry. It is a state of mind in which someone becomes so agitated that they start making irrational or emotional decisions and thus bleeding money. With fish this is really easy. They tend to flip out after you play aggressively versus them and win just a couple of pots. You are that "bully" that they hate so much!

With regs it can be a fair bit harder. While there will be many exceptions at the micros, especially with the hordes of bad regs in today's games, in general terms they are still quite a bit more disciplined and harder to get off their game. However you will play many more hands versus them than fish over time and the bad ones will tend to always remember that one or two times where you played like a maniac versus them. This will ultimately pay off for you at some point in the future. So you can think of it more as a long term setup.

Bullying the Fish

I will start with the fish though. It is really quite easy to set them off. It is amazing how many regs at the micros though either don't bother to go after them near enough or don't understand how to do it properly. It is of such vital importance to your winrate that I devoted a large section on it entitled "fish psychology" near the end of my book.

I should mention that I don't just mean massive drooler (52/5 type guys) when I am talking about fish here. I mean that huge array of SLP (semi-loose passive) players that populate these limits as well. They will have stats like 25/7. The reason that I suggest raising these players up nearly every single time that they limp and even light 3betting them a bunch in the early going is because you want to create an image of yourself as a maniac in their mind right off the bat.

When a fish sits down at the table (or you sit down at their table) your entire goal should be to get their stack faster than anybody else. So the earlier that you can get them thinking about you, and focusing on you, the better. It is then that the game begins. The great thing is that people in general are much more likely to give you credit in the early going when they don't know much about you. And so you are likely to get away with some shenanigans several times no matter how ridiculous your holdings.

After this is where most people go wrong though. It just boils down to psychology. People don't put up with abuse forever. Once you have been picking on someone for awhile you need to understand that they are going to start giving you far less credit. Expect this to happen much sooner with fish than with regs. You will need to readjust your ranges accordingly.

So when I first see a fish doing his limp or mini-raise thing I will just iso-raise or 3bet him nearly 100% of the time unless I have some totally ridiculous junk hand like 83o, 92o etc. After I get away with it several times by either taking it down preflop or on the flop I will start to adjust my play. I will up my standards a bit and let him get away with a few limps so that I can enter the pot with a stronger hand. I will also sharply reduce my light 3betting frequency versus them to almost a regular 5-6% type range as well.

I will still cbet nearly every flop especially in position. But I will also start to barrel a little bit lighter because I know that they will call me lighter. I also expect them to start flipping out a bit at this point. Therefore I can start to make a few hero calls with light holdings as their bluffing frequencies increase.

Also, almost invariably when the fish gets pissed off enough they will pull the old "donk, donk, donk" play on you. This is where they will limp/call preflop as per usual and then lead all three streets with something silly like top pair no kicker, middle pair, bottom pair, some draw or even total air. If you have middle pair (good kicker) or especially top pair this is a perfect spot to just call down the whole way. Do not raise them at any point as their range is pretty light and you want them to keep tossing in their dead money.

Eventually you will make a strong hand versus them however and this is where the game really pays off. Your hand does not need to be a set or better by any means. This is another area where people get mightily confused. Again it is just about psychology and ranges. Top pair (any kicker) is easily enough to play a big pot if the fish is sufficiently agitated enough.

There are some common signs like donking into you a lot or limp re-raising that usually give it away. But with experience it will become second nature for you to understand where your opponent is at mentally in regards to you. He will be more than happy to stick all his money in the middle with a wide range of stuff that top pair no kicker is ahead of. You should always accommodate them by putting in the money by yourself (bet, bet, shove).

This is a recipe for success that I have used on countless occasions. You don't even have to stack them with a big hand. You can just slowly chip away at their stack until they have 20bb's or less left and start open shoving pre or postflop. But often you will eventually make a big hand and they will either just go crazy bluffing into you or call you down the whole way with bottom pair or worse. It's a very simple formula.

I think a lot of regs at the lower limits fail to realize that the fish are scarce these days and you have to go get their stack faster than the next guy. Sitting there waiting for aces and sets versus them (which is what everybody else is doing) won't get the job done. This is why I am so big on table selection and knowing where the fish is at at all times. I don't even bother tagging anyone else anymore. I am only there for one reason.

Pissing off the Regs

Putting regs on tilt is a little bit harder because as mentioned they tend to be quite a bit stronger mentally than fish. They play the game to win after all and they understand the discipline and patience that poker requires at least to some degree. With that said, as I mentioned previously, there is a wide range of regs in today's games. Many are borderline fish in their own right so it is difficult to make any sweeping generalizations on the entire player type. With many of the bad regs you should try to get under their skin in much the same way as with the fish. Play very aggressively versus them pre and postflop especially in the early going.

I will often just pick one particular bad reg at the beginning of each session that I have position on and just be as annoying as possible against him. Often these guys will put up with an incredible amount of abuse before they start to fight back so it is important to deny the natural urge to lay off the gas pedal. If you have 3bet him 3 times in the last 10 hands and he has folded every single time just keep doing it until he starts showing signs of life.

Usually at some point they will wake up and start 4betting you light, floating OOP or other stuff like that. Many bad regs in low stakes games are actually incredible calling stations as well so be careful not to take it too far. The main goal is just to get this disturbance in their mind for future encounters. You will play versus this guy again and again. At some point he will be running bad and prone to tilt. Who do you think he is going to dust off a stack against? You, the guy who annoyed the crap out of him last week or some faceless 13/10 nit who he has very limited history with?

There is almost like this camaraderie especially among the bad regs in today's microstakes games. They grind out their miniscule winrates or breakeven for rakeback every day. They will make a light 3bet here and there, bluff a turn from time to time. But in general they are all just automatons doing the same thing. In essence, their whole goal is to stay out of each other's way and get their small piece of the pie.

If you want to rise above this mediocrity then you will need to take a different approach. Although I should say that it is still commendable to win at poker by any means given that perhaps as high as 80 or 90% of people lose in the long run after the rake. So I don't mean to bash the rakeback pros by any means. Often they have good hourlies mass tabling so good for them. If you want to be in that top 5% or so however who truly crush the game then you are going to have to get in people's way and actively create confrontations at times.

There is a natural inclination in humans to not want to "rock the boat." They want to fit in with the crowd, collect their small reward and move along. Exceptional people do not think this way. Take a look at the two arguably most popular online poker players of all-time, "durrrr" and "Isildur1." Why do the railbirds go crazy over these two guys? Because they are both batshit insane at the poker table on a regular basis. They do stuff that is just unheard of and they most certainly enjoy rocking the boat. Did he really just 3bet ten high all in on the turn? Yes he did. They look like massive idiots or huge geniuses on a regular basis. They embrace the outside of the box and tilt the hell out of their opponents on a regular basis.

Now this is the microstakes that I am talking about here and trying to imitate either of these two highstakes players at these limits is a surefire recipe for disaster. The point though is that if you want to get ahead then you need to be willing to get aggressive in some spots where most other people would just give up. And this mostly involves pounding on the fish and bad regs even when it feels like you are totally out of line. Just to be clear again, I am talking about the small money streets here (preflop and flop). I am not advocating barreling the big money streets with weak holdings against bad players who are on tilt and love to call.

I should lastly mention a bit about the good regs. Luckily there aren't too many of them at the micros. It is generally pretty hard to get them really tilted. They are among the best at the stake for a reason, they don't tilt that much. Versus these types of players I try to avoid getting in too many spots with them in general. But I will be 3betting and 4betting them light from time to time (as they will to me as well). And I will do some crazy stuff like float and semi-bluff ship turns once in awhile (as I also expect them to do to me). I don't really use the 3bet them every hand type stuff that I talked about above versus the bad regs because I expect them to adjust much quicker and not make too many big mistakes.

No Friends in Poker

As a sidenote, it should be fairly clear from this article why I often recommend not making too many friends in poker and especially with the regs in your primary game. You don't want to have any reason to like anyone at the tables. Never having the chat turned on should be a given. It is -EV for a variety of reasons. Getting friendly with the locals is just one of them. Even worse is getting drawn into the incoherent rants of someone who doesn't think highly of your game. As you choose to play more hands and play more aggressively overall more and more people will not think highly of your game anyways.

Also, don't hang out in those silly "reg chat threads" that are popular on forums. They are mostly populated by bad regs anyways sitting around complaining about their "variance." You won't learn anything worthwhile. If you want poker friends find winning higher stakes players or even people who play in completely different formats (MTT's, SnG's etc).

You are That Guy Now

That's right. We have all seen these guys. I have gone on tilt and blown off countless stacks to them many times. I often just straight up leave the table if one of them gets a seat on my left.

I eventually just learned to play like them. At the micros these days most regs are in fact not too far removed from the total beginner level. For many of them, literally all they know how to do is play tight. At NL10 and below this is for sure the case. They are very easy to get off of their game and that is why I think a LAG (loose and aggressive) or SLAG (semi-loose and aggressive) style of play is absolutely optimal these days at those limits.

Not as easy to do if you want to mass multi-table so I don't really do that very often anymore. Anytime I play these games these days if I am not playing at least 20% of my hands in full ring or 30% in 6max and 3betting up a storm then I know that I am doing it wrong. I recently finished up a 12 part series on Zoom for DragTheBar at NL2-NL10 (full ring and 6max) and purposely played as LAG as possible with good success.

Don't be afraid to push the boundaries in your game and explore new territory. Many people are frankly too afraid to do this and they ultimately get left behind because poker is always changing. In order to be successful you have to change with it. You can push your limits by experimenting with new forms of aggression. If you find that something works and you start doing it all the time then you will wonder what the big deal was before.

I started out as a horrible nit like many other people. Many of the biggest breakthroughs in my game such as opening up my 3bet and LP range just came about through experimentation. It didn't feel right at first but when I eventually saw that it was working, it became normal to me. It was not weird or crazy anymore. It was just a "standard line."

Let me know in the comments below what kind of strategies you guys use to get your opponents on raging, monkey life-tilt. Or, if you are frequently the victim of such abuse tell us what sets you off.

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How to be a Bully at the Poker Table


  1. thats a good article.... i'm trying to lag it up a bit more, but dont have the confidence yet... its still feeling weird, cause i find myself in too many awkward situations postflop.... i'm killing 2,5,16NL but still up and down @ 10 and 25nl, and i know i need to be more aggressive at those limits or i get 'agressed?' i did start 3 betting more, but not the slp's as much , cause they drive me nuts with their call, call, call, mentality... i was 1 of those sets and big pairs guys u were talking about but im working on the my agg factor up tp over 2 and my 3bet is now at 4, but i'm shooting for being comfy at 5ish... i added a 'raise the limpers' stat to my hud, so i can 3bet guys like that are raising the limpers too much, when i have position... when i encounter too many lags on my left ( i color code everyone), i just leave the table. i used to get into pissing matches with them, then realized its the fish i should be focusing on. Although at higher limits i'm sure dealing with lags is a big part of the game.

  2. Thanks Steelersfan,

    Not having enough postflop confidence is a common sentiment and something that held me back for a long time also. I think I finally realized that #1, I have some skills postflop, they are probably just as good as most players at these stakes.

    And perhaps more importantly #2, who cares. By this I mean that 95%+ of situations are just so automatic. Cbet/give up. Cbet/barrel due to turn card and/or player type, fold to full pot donk, raise min bet donk etc. Totally standard stuff that requires no real thought for the most part.

    The facts are, they do fold a lot preflop and on the flop. So I don't need to be some hand reading genius. I just need to raise preflop and bet the flop for the most part. A 3 year old could do this.

    Obviously you will get better at dealing with tricky players and hand reading over time but raising a fish limper IP for instance and betting the flop is a straight up winning play even if you believe you don't have any postflop skills at all.

    That is good that you are starting to re-iso the isolaters like me for instance. It is an important next step as you move up. I will try and say something about that in a future blog post. GL and thanks for reading.

  3. Terrific blog topic. I've always liked the motto that you learn more when placing yourself out of your comfort zone.

    I've been thinking about this too, as I'm still playing too nitty to try higher limits than 2NL and 5NL (10/8 in FR and 13/10 in 6-max). In certain table conditions I do play looser than this, like 16/13 in FR or 24/20 in 6-max, but this is only for those tables with nits to the left that I'm robbing blind (pardon the pun).

    The biggest issue I face at 2NL FR especially is holding something middling but raise-worthy like QT or 66 IP, but already with 3 or 4 limpers before me. I find it VERY difficult to raise with medium hands on loose tables because these hands are generally not so great if you don't flop big. So i find myself being one of those nut-peddlers like you mention (although TBF this strategy will still give you a decent WR in 2NL and 5NL). At 10NL this wouldn't be enough from what I've heard?

    With hands like 66 i just call behind the limpers to set-mine and fold QT because I'd hate to play this multi-way. Don't get me wrong, these loose tables are still very profitable, but i think i'm missing lots of value by playing too tight.

    Reading this has given me inspiration to forget my ego and just experiment at times, getting out of this comfort zone.

  4. Thanks Gez,

    Regarding those two specific spots, QT and 66 IP with 3 or 4 limpers, as you can probably guess I always raise there. I think it is a lot more profitable than calling or folding.

    I think one of the biggest things that deters people from being more aggressive in spots like this is that they get way too many callers which makes it really hard to win the pot even when they have position. This tends to happen a lot at NL2 and NL5. After having coached a ton of players at these stakes now I know that chronic under-betting preflop (and often postflop as well) is a huge problem for many of them. And almost all of them do not make it enough when OOP which compounds their problems even further due to the increased difficulty of winning the pot.

    Your goal with a preflop raise should always be to get them all to fold or get one caller. Two callers should be very rare and you should never get 3 or more. Then you either just take it down preflop, free money. Or you have to usually just get one guy to fold after you make your cbet. Not that hard. So make it whatever amount you need to make it in order to create this situation.

    I always mention the absurd case (play money) to illustrate the point. In play money (at least at the lowest stakes lol) everybody is 100% VPIP and 3x, 4x, or 5x preflop raises are not something that they even consider folding to. All-in is usually your best option to get them to fold or get one or two callers. You have to make your bet size for how the game plays.

  5. Just an update. I've played about 1000 hands since reading this particular blog, and it's helped immensely. Only had AA once in those 1000 hands, no action with KK, and only one occasion winning a 100bb stack, but it feels that being slightly looser wins you a helluva lot more small pots, and not so reliant on monster hands to make the winrate. I'm convinced I won the above stack due to relentless c-betting making him tilt - flopped a set against his overplayed OVP. So your monsters are more likely to get paid if you're not an uber-nit.

    That's the problem with nut-peddling during times when you're card dead or getting no PF action with AA/KK etc. And let's be honest, nut-peddling is also boring!

    I'm not playing the LAG stats you mentioned yet, but getting up to about 18/15 now in 6-max. Quite pleased with the results so far of 14bb/100 given that I haven't experienced a heater yet (well, had no big coolers either tbf). It's also much, much more fun being involved in more action, so feeling more motivated to play. Kinda the point of sitting down and opening a few tables innit....

    It's not half as scary as I first imagined, just a matter of gritting your teeth and enjoying new experiences. Thanks Nathan, this blog has been inspiring.

  6. I guess that explains the monkey who's now desperately 3beting me :D

  7. This worked AGAINST me last night.

    Background info: When I have no choice but to play on tables where the average VPIP is about 13 and the average PFR about 9 (long story), I raise all suited aces, kings, and connectors, all broadways and pocket pairs from all positions. At least 2 times out of 3 I take down the blinds without a fight, and if I do get called and the caller has a high fold to c-bet I'll take down the pot with a c-bet. As long as I don't get stupid and start betting 3 streets with A5 on a A72 flop against a nit it's profitable.

    There's a specific villain who i feel 3-bets me a lot. His overall 3-bet % is only like 2, but it seems like if he has position on me at a table he 3-bets me at least 33% if not 50%+. Every now and then, when I fold to his 3-bet he'll show me QQ. We have 5,000+ hands on each other so I just assumed he's picked up on what I'm doing and is just showing the QQ so I'll think he always has QQ.

    Last night after this villain had 3-bet me twice, I woke up with JJ in the SB. HJ raised, BTN called, I 3-bet (both villains had very high fold to 3-bet so I felt okay taking it down) and villain, on BB, shoved. The combination of thinking he's just effing with me and his short stack at that moment (unusual for him) made me call.

    Y'all already know what he flipped oveer.