How to play poker
Tight, aggressive, loose: discover the main poker styles
Tactical thinking and hard-headed calculations are key to poker, however this does not mean that personality does not also influence the game. As you play more, you will come to identify different styles of play by the way people bet, raise and fold. Being able to identify these styles in others and in yourself is crucial to success.
Here are the three key poker-playing styles. Click on each to find out more:
Playing tight means keeping a tight control on the number of hands you play, or playing very few hands. This is because it is estimated that only about 10%-25% of all poker hands are actually worth playing. However, within the category of tight play there is a spectrum that ranges from aggressive to passive that you need to understand.
Playing against tight players can be difficult, but there are certain techniques that can help. Here we explain how to play against different types of tight player:
However you play, you will soon come up against tight players. They keep close control over the number of hands they play and only stay in a hand when they are confident they have strong cards. These can be the trickiest of opponents, because they are the hardest to get anything out of. So, learning how to deal with tight players is an essential poker skill.
Playing against the tight-aggressive player
This type of player is generally regarded as the strongest type of poker player. They are tight because they only play when they have a good hand, and they are aggressive because when they do rouse themselves into action they raise rather than call. If you want to stay in the game, this will force you to pay for it which means you'd better be confident you have the best hand.
Possibly the simplest way to combat a tight-aggressive player is to fold whenever they start betting. You know they have a strong hand, so don't take them on. If you have a seemingly unbeatable opponent, there is no shame in stepping out of their way.
If on the other hand you would like to take on this seemingly invincible opponent, you need to know how to do it properly. Playing loose-aggressive is the best approach, but it is a tactic that requires skill and confidence to be able to pull off successfully. This is not an approach if you still consider yourself to be a beginner.
Playing loose means you will be playing a wider selection of hands, including less strong ones. Although it will mean fewer of your hands will have the same bite at the end of each game, you will also make the rest of the table unsure about their strength. You can then exploit this uncertainty to advantage.
The advantage loose-aggressive players have over their tight-aggressive opponents is that the latter often overestimate the strength of their hands. They do this by mistakenly playing the whole game on the strength of their hand before the flop and forgetting that what may initially have looked like a good hand can turn out to be not so strong after the flop.
Meanwhile, loose-aggressive players can use their reputation for playing hands which are not always too strong to scare fewer players into folding, thereby ensuring the pot is bigger. Alternatively, by betting aggressively, they can scare other players into folding thereby increasing the 'fold equity', the amount in the pot and the number players competing for it.
It is also important to remember positioning when playing loose-aggressive. You will play a bit more in the risky early position than tight-aggressive player would.
Playing against the tight-passive player
Now we've got that poker jackal, the tight-aggressive player, out of the way, it is time to turn to the less menacing tight-passive style. Someone who plays like this will also only play when they have a good hand (that is, they play tight), however they will seldom bet or raise. Instead, these players are more likely to call or check. This timidity means that tight-passive players can be pushed off the pot fairly easy. The key bit of advice here is to be aggressive when playing against them.
Playing against a tight table
Playing against a single tight-aggressive player can be tricky, but at the very least you can sit tight and fold when they join the fray. It is much harder to play successfully when you have a whole table of tight players.
Possibly the easiest thing to do is to stand up and leave the table. In case you either don't want to do this or can't, then there are a few tips that can help.
As tight players are generally easier to read than loose players as they only bet and raise when they have a strong hand. Take advantage of this and don't be scared about raising pots as this will scare them off if they have a weak hand. On the other hand, if they raise then you should be cautious and fold as this normally signals that they have a very strong hand.
Tight players will tend to avoid betting when the flop is primarily low cards, as they will be waiting for a higher and stronger hand. This is your opportunity to bet them off the pot. You should also take advantage of your position on the table. The later you are on a tight table, the easier it is to read your opponents who bet earlier as their bets are likely to indicate the strength of their hand, unlike on a loose table where the players will bet on weaker hands too.
If you play too many hands, you are playing loose with your stack. As with tight play, your style of betting determines what sort of a loose player you are. People who tend to play too many hands, but also bet strongly are known as loose-aggressive players, while those who play too many and don't back up their play with strong betting are loose-passive players. We explain how to take on – and beat – both styles.
So what makes a loose player? They’re the players who seem like they’re throwing money around and putting pressure on everyone else. This is because they’re playing more hands than would normally be considered a good idea. They know they’re often in a worse position pre-flop so they play aggressively to force others to fold or put themselves in a position to win big when they have a strong hand. They leave their opponents little room to breathe and are always asking if you’re really, really sure you want to carry on with that hand.
Pros of hanging loose
There are two major benefits of playing loose:
- You’ll pick up a lot of small, abandoned pots where everybody folds
- You cultivate an appearance of never having anything good, which comes in handy when you’ve got something awesome
So should we all be loose cannons?
The simple answer is no. The danger with playing this way in lower-limit games is that everyone’s happier to call more so the game is more likely to make it to the showdown and then it’s down to your hand. You’re also in a weak position pre-flop and need to really outplay your opponents, which is harder work than it looks.
To make playing loose really work, you need to be able to read hands and players very well. You need to be targeting the right players for bluffs and be able to take the risks of piling on the pressure.
When to play
If you’re sold on playing loose, here are a couple of things to bear in mind:
- You’ll have a very specific table image. While this can work to your advantage with a good hand, be aware that players will catch on quickly and be more aggressive, hoping to drive you to a showdown
- Position is king. Acting in as late a position as possible is not just an advantage but a must
- Play loose in deep-stack games. You’ve got a better chance at betting players off their hands after the flop in games with a stack of more than 30 times the big blind
Don’t LAG behind
How do you play against a LAG (loose-aggressive gamer)? There are a couple of things to try:
- Wimp out. Just stay out of their way. It’s better to lose a little face than a lot of chips
- Take the call. If the LAG is playing for big money, raising and re-raising you, call to limit the damage
- Out-loose them. If your opponent is playing for little pots, try and force them into playing for bigger stakes. They might not have the guts to take you on
Playing against maniacs
Maniacs are the jokers or wild cards of the pack. These players play very loose indeed but unlike loose-aggressives who bet strongly and (hopefully) sensibly, maniacs ramp up the bets in rather uncontrolled and ill-considered fashion.
Wild-eyed and crazy-haired they might not be, but maniacs can be a whirling dervish of destruction through the placid waters of strategy and technicality that usually make up a poker game.
Who are these madmen?
Like a loose player on a spending spree, maniacs play more hands, bet more, raise more and re-raise even more until the game is played for significantly higher stakes. This kind of crazy play changes the dynamics of the game.
Spot a maniac
Here’s how to spot a maniac player:
- They’ve got more than an average number of chips at a table
- They play more hands than normal
- They raise and re-raise more often than normal
- They bluff far more than normal
How to beat one
There’s a couple of ways to take on a maniac:
- Position is critical. Sit immediately left of the maniac if you can, but never sit on the immediate right. Play tight in an early position and aggressive or tight-aggressive in a late one
- Get the better hand. This might seem obvious, but if you’ve got a great hand you can coax a maniac into pouring cash into the pot by raising and re-raising them
- In a tight game, check and call and/or check-raise more often. Induce bluffs and call down the maniac’s bets
- In a standard game, re-raise more often to isolate the maniac. Call down bets and raises
- In a wild game, don’t try and isolate the maniac. Play suited-connectors, pairs and ace-suited hands more often. Check and call when the odds are in your favour
- Never, ever, ever, ever, ever attempt to bluff a maniac
Happy but broke
Here’s how you keep a maniac happy while you take all their money. By definition, maniacs are usually losing players because they’re playing too much. They’re here to enjoy themselves, whether they win or not, so let them. Don’t be mean or make negative comments as they’ll soon take their piles of cash elsewhere. Let them think they can dominate the table and that you’re easily manipulated, then pounce on a big pot!