The True Nature and Importance of Aggression – Part 1

Guide To Winning Poker (15)

  • Aggression exposes your opponents to fold too much
  • If they fold too much, we can make a profit from this
  • If they fold the right amount, they can use even calling to exploit us

Aggression Is Certainly A Very Powerful Weapon

You hear all the time that the key to winning poker is being aggressive and using aggression to your advantage. There is indeed a lot of truth in that, as it is a tool that you want to be able to use when appropriate, but it certainly isn’t that simple. A lot of players think that it is, but they are also the ones that will tell you that they struggle a lot playing against it. These are winning players who are aggressive themselves but look to avoid other aggressive players whenever they can.

So leaving aside how we would look to play against aggressive players, we already have some insight into why aggression is a powerful weapon in our arsenal. It may or may not be the most powerful weapon, depending on the tendencies of our opponents, but in general it’s definitely something we need to seek to understand and master.

When you listen to people who look to explain why aggression is such a powerful tool or at least has the capacity to be valuable, they will tell you that aggression gives you two ways to win, which are of course getting your opponents to fold and to win pots at showdown. So we’ll start there, although as you will see, there is more to think about here than just this.

Aggression Is A Double Edged Sword Though

It’s certainly true that by betting and raising we can get opponents to fold more, and thus win more hands. This may not be an advantage in itself though, and in fact can clearly be used against us. Or we may abuse this trait to the extent that it will not even take skill to defeat it. Aggression is a double edged sword, and while the blade on the outside can do damage to our opponents, we must always be aware that the inside part of the blade can cut us as well, and cut us pretty significantly indeed if we are not careful.

What we want to always keep in mind is that while aggression can have us winning more hands, the amount of hands or pots won isn’t the way we keep score in poker. It’s how much money we win or lose overall that of course matters, and it matters absolutely. This isn’t a matter of comparing the two here and saying, well we can focus on both here, both wanting to win more pots and at the same time focusing on winning money, to achieve a good balance or whatever.

This might seem all too obvious, and you might ask yourself why I’m even bringing up something so foolish, but when you have a hard look at what’s behind a lot of people’s approach to using aggression, it actually becomes pretty obvious that they have, to at least some extent, managed to pollute their analysis by considering winning hands as being something worth pursuing in itself, which is not the case. So we only want to use aggression if and only if it is profitable to do so. Not only that, but at the same time we want to always ensure that it is not only profitable in itself, but is also the most profitable course of action in comparison with other strategies we can take.

Aggression Does Force Our Opponents Into Making More Mistakes Though

What we do have going for us though when we bet or raise is that this puts the pressure on our opponents to make mistakes. This is something that better players understand fairly well, but it certainly isn’t that well understood among the majority. For instance, you could bet or raise every time and if your opponents don’t react properly to this aggression, then they will fall prey to this simplest and almost ridiculous of tactics.

So let’s take out our special deck to look to illustrate this a bit, and it’s important to do so. We’re going to look at betting out every time. Now, you might think that it’s totally crazy strategy, but this can be a profitable strategy providing our opponents don’t react appropriately. As easy a strategy as this would be to exploit, there are some players who are tight enough where it can be profitable at least in the short term. However, remember, though, we don’t just want what is profitable, we want what is most profitable.

So with this deck we’re going to work with 4 cards, from 1 to 4. We’ll bet every time, and if we’re called then it’s a matter of who has the better hand. Now of course if our opponent folds every time, then we will of course win every hand. This is the extreme, and no player is that foolish to play this badly. However the point here is that we have created the pressure on them to do the right thing and the important thing to realize is that they have made the mistake in doing this, and by failing to respond correctly, they lose.

What If They Call us Every Time?

So let’s now look to the other extreme, where we are called every time. We don’t have to do the math with this one either, as things will come out as a push, disregarding the rake, although that makes no difference in either of these calculations so we can rightly not need to include it. So in the first case, we can say that the opponent defended in the absolute worst manner, where he or she folded every hand and lost every one of them. In the second, the opponent called every time and it was a wash. So comparing these two extremes, we can see that the pressure is more on the person looking to respond to the aggression as they need to do so correctly.

Now merely from the fact that the opponent can call us every time when we bet every time doesn’t mean that this is the best course of action for them. It would be foolish for instance if they called us with their 1’s, as they would lose 3 times and tie once, for an obvious net loss. So, if the opponents break even if they call every time, and show a profit by folding their lowest hands, then this strategy must show a profit overall. So we’ve put pressure on them, and they have responded appropriately and actually taken advantage of us.

So Calling Can Exploit Aggression If Used Appropriately

So let’s take a look at the numbers here to make sure this is the case. In order to make this realistic enough, there has to be money in the pot, as there always is in every poker decision. So we’ll say we each contributed 1 chip to it. So there are 2 chips in the pot, we’re betting 2, and if our opponent folds we win 1 chip. If we’re called and win, we make a profit of 3 chips. If we’re called and lose, we lose a total of 3 chips. So in this example we’ll take each of our possible holdings and calculate what happens when our opponent has each of the possible hands, meaning 1 through 4. So here’s how things stack up:

  • We have a 4, we tie against a 4, win 3 chips against a 3 and a 2 (+6), and take the pot down against a 1 (+1). This gives us a net total of +7.
  • We have a 3, we lose 3 chips against a 4 (-3), tie against a 3, win 3 chips against a 2 (+3), and take the pot down against a 1 (+1). So that’s a net of +1 and a total so far of +8.
  • We have a 2, we lose 3 chips against a 3 and a 4 (-6), tie against a 2, and take the pot down against a 1 (+1). So this is (-5) and a running total so far of +3.
  • We have a 1, we lose 3 chips to a 2, a 3, and a 4 (-9), and take the pot down against 1 (+1). That’s a net loss of (-8) and a total net loss of (-5).

Folding Correctly Can Be An Advantage Then

I could have just looked at the net effect from folding the 1 hands, instead of calling with them, and it would have provided the same answer. So once again, the opponent loses 3 chips 3 times and ties 1 by calling with this hand, so that’s losing a total of 9 chips versus just folding every time for a net loss of 4 chips. So the difference is an advantage to the opponent of 5 chips, the same as above.

However, I wanted to take you through enumerating the hands mostly to show you the process of doing this and getting used to following along, as we will be using this several times as we go along. It is only because we’re using an example in the extreme that we can just take one of the variables and isolate it, as we’ve done here with the opponent’s 1 hands, and we will usually have to work things out for all the hands to see what the net result is.

Now you might say, well this isn’t a big deal at all, since even the craziest of maniacs don’t bet with every hand. That’s not the point though. There are two main things that are very important to realize though which this simple example teaches us. The first is, once again, our betting initially puts pressure on our opponent to respond appropriately, and if he or she doesn’t do so, it ends up costing them. You may have heard of the power and benefit of initiative in poker, and this is where it comes from.

The second major thing that we can learn here is there is certainly such a thing as being too aggressive, and whenever that happens, we are subject to having it exploited. So while initiative is the side of the blade pointed toward our opponents, having our aggression exploited is the side pointed toward ourselves. You may be thinking that having our aggression exploited can only happen when we fly off the handle so to speak and become extremely aggressive, but as you will see later, this is not the case at all. Any level of aggression can be exploited in fact by the proper response to it.

So I will continue this discussion on the nature of aggression in thenext session.

Ken’s Guide To Winning Poker – Index

Starting With A Solid Foundation

Aggression Series

Position Series

Various Poker Strategies

Mistakes Series