The most important skill in poker is to win money from bad players. It may sound easy but, as Ross Jarvis reveals, there are plenty of tricks that can help…
All you ever hear these days is how poker is getting harder, with players always complaining about everyone being solid and how there’s no value anymore. Well, I’m going to let you in on a fiendish, fantastic secret…it’s not true! Bad players are everywhere! They are in live tournaments, online sit-and-gos and in six-max cash games too! The influx of really terrible players into the game has not gone away. It’s true that the average player has become significantly better over the years but right now we are not concerned with average players or good players – our only focus is on those lovely, juicy fish.
The easiest, most effective way to make money from poker is to sit at a table with bad players and take all their chips. It was the same back in the 1970s when Doyle Brunson was terrorising Texas home games and it’s the same now when Durrrr travels halfway across the globe to get position on a Macau whale. It sounds terribly easy but you’d be surprised at the number of good poker players that make horrendous mistakes against fish because they do not adjust their games. There’s no need to be a masterful hand reader or be capable of six-bet bluffing when you play fish. The way to win is by getting into their heads and exploiting their many, many mistakes. Here are the top ways to enjoy a fish supper whenever you want.
Choose your fish
If you go to a fishmongers you’ll see that creatures of the sea come in all different shapes, sizes and colours. The same is true of poker – not all fish are made the same. The only quality that groups them together is that they are bad at poker, but this can be demonstrated in many ways. Some fish will be calling stations that never fold to a bet, even with just bottom pair or Ace-high. Other fish are over-aggressive and look to bluff at every opportunity, even when their story makes zero sense. Of course, fish could go the exact opposite route and play too passively, never making bluffs nor getting value from their big hands.
Whatever the leak is, our job is to exploit it. Before we can do that, however, it’s vital to note down as much information as you can about the weak players. If you see them take a strange line such as check-calling all streets with Ace-high then jot it down, don’t just ignore it. Fish will almost always fail to adjust their game plan and usual tactics, even if it is obvious that other players are reading them easily. If you can quickly spot the major leak in a fish’s game then stacking them over and over again will be a piece of cake.
Value bet with no mercy
As noted, fish can vary quite dramatically in their playing styles. However, there are general strategies that will work the majority of the time. The most effective one is value betting hard and often. Far too many weak players call all the time, whether it is preflop when they are looking to hit big or postflop because they have a misguided notion that players are attempting to always bluff them. The easy counter for us is just to value bet them into oblivion.
This starts with preflop. When a fish limps and you have a hand that is ahead of their range you must raise. The process of building the pot begins before the flop so if you have K-9 suited on the button do not be tempted into limping along – raise! This hand, while not being great, is going to crush a fish’s limping range and put you in pole position to win the hand either there and then or on later streets.
Value betting becomes even more important postflop because the pot size will be bigger and the bets more inflated. Do not ever get tricky when you have a big hand. Let’s say you raise 6-6 preflop, get one fishy caller and flop gin on a 6-K-T flop. Resist temptation to ever check it behind for deception or to go for a check-raise, just bet! Fish cannot be calling stations if we fail to give them a bet to call. The same is true when you have much weaker hands that are still likely to be good. You must be looking for at least two streets of value with a hand like Q-T on a Q-7-8-K-5 board. The likelihood that a weak player will call you down with middle pair or a Queen with a worse kicker far outweighs the possibility that you will be beat at showdown. Simply put, any time you feel like you have the best hand over 50% of the time, make a value bet.
Don’t take this to the extreme though. Even a fish can fold or get lucky to make a better hand. A common example is when overcards to your pair come on the board. You could raise 9-9 preflop, continuation bet a 4-3-8 flop, bet again on a Queen turn but if the river is an Ace then the best play will usually be to try and check it down instead of going for really thin value. Every player has their own tendencies and limits as to how light they will call down postflop. A fish’s limits are traditionally much looser, but everyone has their breaking point. There are certain spots where there just isn’t any value and you can only be called by a better hand, even versus a station.
Crack their big hands
Fish call much more than they three-bet, so if you see one put in a juicy re-raise the vast majority of the time they are going to have it. You might think this is a bad thing but it’s actually great news. It’s really difficult to play against a balanced three-betting range (that all winning players should have) but actually really easy to play against a range that only includes Q-Q, K-K, A-A and A-K. You have two options. The first is to just fold. If stacks are shallow (for example, the fish only has 35 big blinds) then here’s no point continuing in the hand as your implied odds to get lucky aren’t there. You should also muck hands that are often going to be dominated like K-Q, A-T and A-J even if the stacks are deep. There would be nothing worse than flopping top pair and calling a few bets only to see you are out-kicked.
The second option, which is much more fun, is to try and crack that monster by calling and hitting a lucky flop. The sort of hands you want to call with are pairs (to try and hit a set), suited Ace-rags and suited connectors that can flop flush draws, straight draws or two pair. You should play pretty straightforwardly from the flop onwards. If you miss don’t try and get clever by floating or bluff-raising; it doesn’t work against this type of player. But if you hit big then play it strong and fast as there is no chance a fish is ever going to fold an overpair on the flop. They probably still wouldn’t on later streets but the last thing you want when flopping the nut flush is a fourth of your suit to drop on the turn and kill all your action. Get all the chips in as soon as possible, sit back and wait for the abuse in the chat box to come. You’ve earned it.
Small bluffs only
It’s not a good idea to try huge bluffs against fish. They call down too much for it to be a profitable tactic. Instead lots of small, low risk bluffs can be very successful. The most common example is when you isolation raise a limping fish preflop with a hand like 8♣-7♣ on the button. The flop is A♣-T♠-2♥ and it is checked to you. Continuation bet here every single time. The fish’s range will be very wide and miss this board so much of the time – plus, even fish can recognise that a preflop raiser is more likely to have an Ace than usual. Where your tactics differ playing against a fish than a thinking player is that once you get called you should often shut down, even when you turn extra equity. Let’s keep the same hand example and now a 3c comes on the turn giving you a backdoor flush draw. If you were playing a decent opponent this would be a perfect spot to double-barrel now you have some extra equity in the hand. The villain would have no option but to fold all underpairs, many Tens and even some weak Aces – even if they called the turn you know that they often won’t be able to call a third barrel on the river. You can also hit your flush, of course, and win a big pot in some instances. However, versus a fish you should check behind in this spot all the time and attempt to get lucky on the river. If they call the flop they are never folding the turn because in their eyes the board has not changed at all. Without any fold equity betting our semi-bluff is just bad poker. With fold equity (against good players) it is good, aggressive poker. Be careful not to fall into the trap of bluffing against opponents that call too much. It may sound simple, but if you aren’t adjusting your game to your opponents it is easy to bluff off stack after stack and wonder where all that money went.
Spotting common patterns
Fish take unusual lines in hands that a good player would never take. If you can spot these – and ascertain whether they signal a bluff or a monster hand – then you will crush them all day long.
A very common example is when a fish check-calls the flop and turn before donk betting the river for full pot or more. This is a monster hand always, especially if the river card brought in any form of draw. You should be very careful calling these bets, even if your hand is relatively strong.
Another tell is when you raise preflop, a fish calls and then donks into you for full pot. Often this will be a bluff or an information bet with a marginal middle pair type hand. If you have a strong hand you should very rarely raise in this spot – only do it if the board has a ton of draws and your hand is vulnerable. Instead allow them to hang themselves on later streets. Despite the bluff making zero sense (or them shutting down whatever they are doing with marginal hands) time and time again fish will just unload all three barrels. It’s sometimes pretty funny to see what they turn over at showdown.
A final example exclusive to fish takes place preflop. In a 100 big blind cash game (or tournament) a preflop raising war will usually go like this; Player A opens to 3BBs, Player B three-bets to 9BBs, Player A four-bets to 23BBs, Player B five-bet shoves. It’s a standard formula for the reason that it keeps player’s ranges balanced. Once you get to the fifth bet there’s just no room to make any other raise size than a shove, unless you want to be horribly exploitable. Luckily, fish don’t mind being exploitable and routinely make mini five-bets with A-A and K-K. It’s almost never any other hand! This poor play makes folding J-J, A-K and even Q-Q preflop remarkably easy to do.
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