Saturday, June 27, 2015

How to Play Optimally Against Unknown Opponents

Playing against an unknown opponent in poker
Something that a lot of people struggle with in poker is how to play against unknown opponents. This is especially the case for people who play Zoom because the player pools are often large and therefore you rarely see the same people.

Unknown opponents are difficult to play against for anybody though because by definition we don't know anything about them. If you are using a HUD then you will have 10 or less hands on them. This is not a useful sample size for any statistic.

However, I do think that there are some baseline strategies that can be effective at the micros in particular when dealing with unknown opponents. I am going to discuss them in this article.

Do Not Give Unknowns Too Much Credit 

The first thing that I always suggest is to never give anyone at the micros too much credit especially when you know nothing about them. Most people at the micros (especially the lower end) have several large and glaring leaks in their game. This is why I always take a "wait and see approach" before giving anyone credit for being more than another mediocre reg or recreational player.

However, this does not mean that we should assume that they are maniacs and make huge call downs with weak hands. Nor does this mean that we should value bet them insanely wide like we would versus a typical rec player fish.

It simply means that we should assume that they are the typical break even or slightly losing weak/tight opponent that you see everywhere in today's games. We should never assume that they are thinking about the game on any kind of deep level but they aren't completely clueless either.

We can probably expect to get a street or two of value with our big hands depending on what they have and we can also get away with a few bluffs here and there. On the flip side, when they apply a lot of pressure or fight back in a big way we can usually expect them to have what they are representing.

Play ABC Versus Unknown Opponents

Now the standard advice has always been to play ABC versus players who we have no information on. What is ABC poker?

ABC poker is a bare-bones TAG approach to the micros where we:
  • Play a fairly tight and position based game
  • Be fairly aggressive and in control of hands most of the time
  • Be able to fold good hands versus big pressure from a passive opponent
I can't really argue with any of this advice.

I mean, it obviously makes sense. You should always have a reason for everything that you do in poker. And of course when we don't know anything about our opponent then it is hard to have one.

So I don't think that you can go wrong with this strategy and I think that it should certainly form the foundation of your approach to playing against unknown opponents. However, I do think that there are some tweaks that we can make which will get us playing closer to optimal.

Play More Aggressively That Normal Against Unknown Opponents

Unknown opponent in poker
An idea that I discuss frequently in Modern Small Stakes is something that I call the "first encounter theory". This basically suggests that we are likely to get more respect from somebody when there is no history and no information. 

So for instance if I have never played against somebody before (I am assuming that they have no information on me either by the way), then I might take a hand like 55 or A9 and make a 4Bet with it instead of flatting or folding. 


Because I think that a typical weak/passive player at the micros is likely to give me credit the first time and move on. In fact I think that they will fold all sorts of better hands and only continue if they happen to have the nuts. This is a huge win for me of course.

Important Caveats

1) Adjust Fast

It is important to mention that I will adjust and show up with a much stronger hand the next time that I 4Bet them. This is because I expect them to give me much less credit. Micro stakes players typically give too much credit the first time but too little the second or the third.

The same idea goes for postflop situations as well. I might be more inclined to make that turn raise or river bet as a bluff with a weak hand. I might 3Bet the flop with a draw more often and so on. But only the first time. Next time I will have the goods. 

2) Never Against Recs

Another extremely important point is that I will never do anything like this if I have noticed any of the signs that they are a bad poker player. These include:

  • Limping
  • Posting a blind OOP
  • Buying in for less than 100bb 
  • Not using the auto rebuy feature
  • Making ridiculously small bets postflop
  • One tabling

And so on. Recreational players are of course well renowned for their prolific ability to hit the call button. We don't want to be 4Betting them with small pairs and weak aces.

Induce Bluffs and Make the Call

Something else that you should be doing versus unknowns is inducing a bluff and then making the call. The reason why is because we don't really have enough information to triple barrel them for value with a hand like TPTK for instance. However we also can't rule out the fact that they might be capable of making some silly bluff on the end either.

I just discussed how we should be bluffing them a little bit wider at first. It is safe to assume that especially given the right circumstance, they might be thinking the same thing as well. Somebody sent me a hand the other day which I think perfectly illustrates this situation.

NL10 6max (Stacks are 100bb Effective):

Hero opens to 30c from MP with A♦J♣
Villain #1 (unknown) calls from the BTN
Villain #2 (unknown) calls from the SB

The flop comes,


Villain #2 checks
Hero CBets
Villain #1 calls
Villain #2 folds

The turn comes,


Hero CBets
Villain #1 calls

The river comes,


Hero checks,
Villain #1 bets

All bet sizes throughout this hand were roughly 75% of the pot. So hero was facing a bet of about 35bbs (or 1/3 of a stack) on the river into a pot of nearly 50bb. 

The person who sent me this hand ended up folding. I think he played it perfectly up until the river including his check. However I would have called the bet instead of folding.

The reason why is because I think that in a situation like this an unknown opponent can have quite a few bluffs in his range and even a silly "value bet" with a worse made hand from time to time. The texture of the board is really important here. There are a lot of missed straight and flush draws and very few big value hands besides 9x or a flopped monster that he could have.

If you remember at the top of this article I said that we should not give unknowns too much credit. This is a perfect example of that. I think checking the river here is good. It is a little bit unreasonable to expect that we can get three streets of value here against anyone who isn't a huge fish.  

However, when we do check here with a hand as strong as we have (TPTK) and we are up against an unknown on a board with a lot of missed draws then we do need to realize that we are inducing a lot of bluffs here. For this reason it is important to go ahead and make the call. 

Final Thoughts

I hope that this article helped provide some guidance to you in playing against unknown opponents. Honestly though, there just isn't any super secret top strategy out there that I or anyone else can give you to crush these types of players. We don't know anything about them and therefore it is impossible to know what the highest EV line is much of the time. 

This is why I suggest that you always assume that they are the typical micro stakes opponent, fairly tight and weak/passive. We can probably get away with opening up our bluffing range at first against these players.

At the same time it is reasonable to assume that some of them might be thinking the exact same thing. Therefore on boards that include a lot of missed draws where we beat everything except a huge hand we should be willing to make a big call sometimes. 

In general though, you really should just be playing ABC poker against these players most of the time. When you don't have any history or HUD stats to refer to then you don't have a strong reason to take a non-standard line.

If you choose to make some play against them then you are really just guessing. This is not something that we ever want to be doing in this game.

Let me know in the comments what types of strategies you use against unknown opponents. Do you think it is a good idea to try and bluff them as I suggest in this article?

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How to Play Optimally Against Unknown Opponents


  1. Found it specifically profitable to bluff more at the new limit (like while starting to move up from 50NL to 100NL, for example) your first couple of sessions while the regs up there don't have much hands on you (in case they don't mix up your lower limit though).

    So it's like the effect of what you're saying in this article but using it kind of backwards :) I mean exploiting your short-term 'uknowingness' in the eyes of your opponents to your advantage (specifically, pulling out more big bluffs on later streets).

    1. Great point sandr1x. Agree for sure!

  2. Blackrain79,

    Thankyou. I have been reading up on ur posts most recently. Can i pm you? Gk

    1. Glad you enjoyed this article! There is no pm feature on my website. You can email me however at