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Why Poker Strategy Centered on a "Tight Aggressive" Approach Can Be Damaging

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If you skim over almost any modern poker book or training resource online more often than not, you will come across the phrase “tight-aggressive” used to describe a playing style or a player who’s adopted this style. When I was first learning poker almost a decade ago, I picked up a few poker books and all of them preached this approach extremely forcefully, and gave a new player like myself the impression that there was no other way to win at this game. I began going to the casino regularly with a friend from school, and he also swore by this playing style. He’d been playing a lot longer than me, he’d talk about some $1k + profit nights, and some big pots he’d taken down, and I was basically sold. I also tried implementing more aggression into my game with varying results, and remember questioning him a lot on basically what he would have done in my position, comparing his style to my own developing one. Even though we’d go to the casino together, he’d usually play at the $2/$5 NLH table, while I’d grind away at the $1/$2 table; however, one evening I joined him at the higher-limit table because I had had a couple winning sessions and was beginning to feel more confident in my skills and was curious how they’d fare at that table. I don’t really remember how I did that night to be honest -- probably broke even or lost a little. But what I do remember is that my friend started the night winning several hundred bucks in like the first 30 minutes that we were playing. This is the first time we’d really played together at the same table and so it kind of confirmed my impression that he was an experienced player, who was successful in his time on the felt. However, throughout the course of the next several hours he not only lost back his profits from the start of that session and proceeded to lose several more $300 buy-ins. What I noticed is that another player at the table basically saw him as predictable, making the same strong raises in the same places trying to pick off pots that he felt like were open for the taking, which was how he always play, and this other guy didn’t want to let that happen. But despite his predictability, the biggest hole I saw in my friend’s game that night was that even though this other player was consistently getting in his way, thwarting his bets, and his actions were repeatedly unsuccessful, he didn’t seem like he was able to adjust at all and just kept making the same misguided bets over and over expecting different results. 

I realize that this is a singular example of one player’s interpretation and implementation of “tight-aggressive” playing style, but since then I have played thousands of hours of poker and went on to have far more success than my friend ever did (I don’t think he even plays any more). I'll add a few pics from my poker highlights at the end of this post for you guys, if you're interested :D But from my experience now, I’ll tell you that this sort of player is fairly common. This is a player who ascribes to the “tight-aggressive” playing style, plays several days a week and is trying to move up the limits, has a fair share of experience and has has moderate success, but is also consistently stifled by tough beats that they can’t really figure out how they fell short. Just as often they blame the cards and “variance”, feeling that they were extremely unlucky, their opponent(s) were unusually lucky, or both. And I’ll give it to them, it is far easier to blame the cards than to face the hard truth that their poker skillset that they have invested a lot of time and money developing is fundamentally flawed, and that in some respects they need to go back to the drawing-boards. 

So to be clear, I have no objections with the foundations concepts of this style, such as the fact that when you enter a pot you should take assertive actions, with a preference for betting or raising as opposed to just calling (especially limping pre-flop), in most cases, and  you should fold a lot of hands, and wait for opportunistic situations to get involved in. These behaviors should be central to any player’s game, including my own, regardless of their individual “style” or level of aggression. So then what’s the problem? A big part of the reason why I cringe when I hear a 21-year-old at the casino talking about how they are a tight-aggressive player, is that I believe this is stressed too early in the development of a novice player. For example, on this course overview for The Poker Stars School, it states, “courses tend to focus on tight-aggressive play as it is the best for a beginner to adopt”. They don’t comment on this assertion any further, but I disagree with this because I think that more often than not, while it may lead to short-term success, it is going to become a crutch for that player in the big picture, because it will not foster the growth and development the player should undergo early in their career to reach an expert level. 

You may have heard the pros comment on the complexities of the underlying psychology of the game -- one common example of this you may have heard also is that there are (at a minimum) four levels of thought that should be considered when you are assessing your hand strength in relation to an opponents -- the most basic level is the face value of your cards and their strength relative to any other combination of cards. The next level is what your opponent could be holding based on past experience, any reads you may have, the course of the hand to that point, etc. The third level is what you think, your opponent believes you to be holding. And the fourth is what you think, your opponent thinks, you think they are holding. Part of the problem with placing so much emphasis on a tight-aggressive style is that most beginning players are still becoming aquatinted with their own range and starting hand strengths, and trying to put the numbers they may have learned into a real-life  scenarios. They’ve barely made it past that first level of thought, and they are being told that they need to adapt this very contrived playing style that says that these are the hands they should play, and that when they get in a hand they should take control and put pressure on their opponent, etc.  And in my opinion, this is especially dangerous, because at the lowest states it actually is profitable to play with a brute-force approach, folding everything except for the roughly the top 10% of hands, because your opponents will never believe “you have it” and will be exclusively focused on their own hand strength. You can’t bluff these players, and you can’t do anything fancy, because they’re gonna call you down with a wide range of hands regardless, so playing strong hands and building big pots is the best thing you can do. And so at these stakes a player who adopts the textbook, tight-aggressive style will likely experience more consistent wins, increase session profits, feel like their game is improving because the are dominating the other beginners at their table. However as they begin to move up even just to the second-lowest limits, they will begin facing a lot more opposition to their actions, and other more versatile players will easily disarm the. At this point they’ll either make excuses that the cards just aren’t hitting them and reason that their luck will turn, losing a lot of their bankroll along the way, or lose their confidence which will result in an even worse results (because there is nothing less effective than an insecure tight-aggressive player, who  will basically just donate to the more advanced players at the table who will snipe their chips and get them to fold any time they lead out with their oversized bets with anything less than premium holdings).

I think of one of these failed poker careers along the same lines as one of those child athletes who was a natural talent in little league and goes on to play on a tournament team in middle school and as things get more competitive in their sport of choice they begin weight-training far too young. They may gain a slight advantage, short-term, against the other twiggy pre-pubescent boys, but all of the time, money, personal sacrifice, etc. they invested in this activity will come to an abrupt halt at the end of secondary school when they do not make any college teams because despite their talent, they stunted their growth and just aren’t big enough. Maybe I took this analogy too far, but it really does mirror what is happening with these type of players -- arming the player with an aggression-focused arsenal of moves will be deceivingly effective early in their development, prompt them to rely to heavily on bullying people around, and allow them get away with bad habits and not be forced to really develop their situation understanding or their ability to read other players.

To give a young player rigid hand selection constraints (referring to the “tight” range of starting hands this methodology would denote as “playable”), and to define a standard temperament that all of their actions are rooted in(the “aggressive” component of this style), completely opposes the most important attribute young players should be developing at the start of their career: adaptability. I realize that I am over-simplifying this playing style in a lot of ways, but there in-lies part of the problem, the name of this style is somewhat misleading as good implementation of it is not nearly as rigid as the name and the basic properties of this approach would have you believe. And the interpretation I am speaking out against is the one that the majority of sort of self-taught players who read a bunch of poker books and show up at the casino have adopted. I think that the pure form of this style, that the pros use profitably to earn an impressive living, would be called something like “Situationally-Exploitive & Dynamically-Assertive” -- let me explain:

Situationally-Exploitive: Beyond the very early stages of learning the basic rules to the game and hand strength relationships, young players should be taught to choose every action relative to the situational aspects of the decision, and place very little emphasis on your hand strength. To limit playable hands to a certain range basically leads to a certain amount of missed opportunities because the player saw their hole cards and disengaged automatically, instead of taking their time and considering all of the different factors outside of just your hand. Your cards do not matter, if you feel like this is an exaggeration, look up the youtube video where Annette Obrestad wins an online tournament playing the entire thing with her hole cards covered up (except for one hand that she peaks at them in an all-in situation after she’d gotten heads up). I think the unimportance of your hand is especially true in a tournament setting, but even in a cash game, this holds true because we should be aiming to avoid going to a “showdown” as much as possible anyway. We should instead look for spots to pick up uncontested chips and win small pots very consistently rather than put-on ourselves at risk of losing big ones. This is not to say that it is okay for a player to get involved in any hand they decide to and go off on some line bluffing away, but it is to say that there are some opportunistic situations where I would get involved with without even looking at my hand because of any number of reasons having to do with money in the pot already, the other players who are in or out of the hand already, my position relative to the dealer button & blinds, or any number of other things. Once again, we should avoid going to “showdown” as much as possible. Whenever you hear a player talk about a hand they lost and say that they knew they were behind but that it was “+ev” or they were “already priced-in”, know that they’re an idiot. In the unlikely event that they did actually make an accurate assessment of the pot odds and determine that it was profitable overall to call there despite overwhelming odds against them, in a lot of situations, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should call just because it is profitable. What all is at risk, just one buy-in when you have 100 more behind or your tournament life? Do you think there will be more, better opportunities to come or are you down to a chip and a chair? Once again if you believe it just comes down to pot odds and starting hand win rate percentages, etc. you will be a losing player. You must develop a more flexible approach with no hard rules constraining the full range your play. If you have never shoved with two trash cards and if you have never folded QQ pre-flop, you are giving too much severance to your cards and not considering situational specifics enough.

“Dynamically-assertive:” So in one respect the “aggressive” part of the above-mentioned style is not altogether off-base. As I said before you should strive to be assertive, and to think through your decisions, and confidently take actions on them -- you should never act passively, or take-half actions, as most times you get involved in a hand you should be betting not calling. However, I don’t like using the word “aggressive” to describe an approach to poker though for one thing -- this word just connotes a behavior driven by emotion, which is something we want to avoid. Instead we should be much more calculating and emotionless as much as possible -- being sure that we made correct decisions and that our actions were well thought-through and appropriate for the situation, and detaching ourself from the outcome. Also, there is this misconception among “aggressive” players I think that bets should be 3 or more big blinds, and that increasing bet size will proportionately deter people from calling. This is not the case, in a lot of situations, 2.5x the big blind is enough to eliminate stragglers and put your opponent to the test. Once again this is not a rule-of-thumb, but a good starting point, and you should experiment to find out what the smallest amount you can put out is that will still have the intended effect. This brings up another missing piece of a lot of the players’ games that I described earlier -- in many cases you’ll see them bet for no reason other than that it was their turn to act at that’s what they know how to do. This leads to unnecessarily large pot sizes that you are overcommitted to, if you are just betting mindlessly with no insight onto what your opponent is holding. Every time you put money into the pot you should: 1. make observations to understand the situation in as much detail as possible (in addition to the specifics of the hand, like the cards, board, pot size, etc.) 2. decide that continue the pot is the right decision 3. decide that betting is the right decision if there are any other options available 4. decide on the sizing of your bet. And all of these decisions should be backed with sound reason and clear purpose. Every bet you put out, every check, every call, and every fold should be intentional, you should be making that play because you believe it is the best play in that situation, and like for the case of betting, you should have a clear purpose of what you hope to achieve and the timing, sizing, etc. should all be tailored to that purpose. “Do you believe you’re the best hand? If so, how do you extract the most out of your opponent? If you think the best way to get max value is through a bet, how much should you put out? If there are cards left to come, are there any cards that would make the hand that you put them on the best hand? And if so, should you just take down the pot with a larger raise and end it right there instead of seeing the cards left to come?” These are the sort of questions you should be asking yourself, and should be able to answer before you do anything. Don’t ever feel self-conscious for asking for time -- I promise that you’ll be glad you spent the extra amount thinking about the hand a little more as it will lead to better decisions. Last, you should not limit yourself to one mode of action, but rather always be dynamic. Sometimes a check is stronger than a bet, sometimes a flat call pre-flop coupled with leading out on the flop is more effective than a large three-bet before the flop, etc. And change your behaviors, varying the subtleties of every action enough so that your opponents will never find you to be predictable, zero-ing in on patterns within your behavior that can end very badly for you if they can translate these patterns into strong reads on your hand strength and confidence that you have the winning hand. Especially if you are new to the game and do not feel like you have a strong ability to read other players, at least make sure that you are minimizing giving off any tells yourself so that you can at least even out the playing field.

So this ended up being quite a bit longer than I had planned and I didn’t even get to all of the points I wanted to cover, but if you made it all the way through this, thanks for reading I hope you got something out of it. The moral of all of this is that if ANY strategy gives you a rigid set of rules or tells you to behave a certain way across the board or always for a given situation, look for a new strategy because the best thing you can do for yourself is to be as fluid, unpredictable, adaptable, versatile, creative, etc. as possible. And here's a few of my own pictures from various tournament wins or chip stacks I built, as promised:

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Thanks for sharing, there's definitely some good insight here worth thinking over. I'm still a novice player and don't have access to a casino so I've had to stick with a small local mtt pub league that runs 4 nights a week. It's a $20 buy in with top 3 cashing other than that I've been playing online cash and sngs, I can see what you're sayings applicable for cash especially live but isn't the logic with tournaments if you're putting in the volume not folding that QQ will pay off in the long run?  There's been a lot of praise thrown to those like shaun deeb mass grinding off gto strategies the last few years.

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