Smart aggression

There’s a new breed of player in town and you’ve got two choices – join the party or know how to defend yourself

Only Phil Hellmuth had fewer chips and I thought, ‘If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me’

The revolution is here but it has not been televised. Instead the poker revolution has been taking place daily on the laptops and home computers of a breed of young aggressive poker players across the world.

It’s been said that it’s possible to gain 20 years’ live experience in just six months online because of the sheer volume of hands seen and played. WSOPE Main Event winner Annette Obrestad (Annette_15) plays around 20 tournaments a day and that means she, and many others like her, have been able to experiment with different styles of play – fine- tuning their games and working out optimal strategies for various types of tournament.

While players schooled in the live game tend to sit back a little more to protect their stacks, internet players have realised that a more profitable approach (especially online with fast blind levels) is to be ultra-aggressive throughout. But it’s not unbridled aggression – it’s mathematically sound and consists of constant pressure through persistent raises and re-raises, which exploits weaker opponents.

Both approaches are good in their own way, but the aggressive player will probably get more top-end and bottom-end results by either accumulating a mammoth stack or crashing out spectacularly, while solid players will probably get more middling results and every so often get a top-end finish.

Early days

Five years ago when internet play was just starting to take hold, the majority of successful players played tight-aggressive. It seemed to be the optimal way, with plenty of fish around who would donk off their chips to the more cautious player. They would be aggressive, but the levels of aggression today have changed – as has the concept of what a hand is. It used to be overpairs, sets, made straights and flushes; now, a strong draw or stone-cold bluff on a dangerous board is often enough to push all-in, gambling on opponents either folding, or winning a coin-flip if called.

Now that this style of play has been taken into the live environment anything could happen, and tournament play is set to continue changing radically over the next couple of years.

Pick your battlefields

Playing the way I play, with focused aggression, really suits big buy-in tournaments with deep stacks, because a lot of players will even fold Aces and Kings if you bet three times on the flop. They will give you respect for a set or some other big hand. With the amount of chips you start with in these tournaments they think, ‘It’s okay, I’ll wait for a better spot to catch him, he’s a lunatic!’ But in the meantime you’re taking pot after pot and building up a monster stack, which you can use later on.

For instance, I was playing at the WSOP when this guy raised three hands in a row. Each time he had previously shown his hand it had been big – quad Aces, pocket Kings or Ace-King. There was no reason to think he was doing anything wrong, but he was raising too much and I didn’t like it. The blinds were 50/100 and he raised from middle position. I had 3-4 suited on the button so I re-raised. I thought I might win it there and then but he called.

The flop came K-J-J with two of the same suit. He checked. I bet half the pot and he instantly folded his Queens face up. Okay, it was a terrible flop for him, but it just goes to show that a lot of players in big tournaments are worried about calling on the flop because they know they’ll face another bet on the turn. In smaller tournaments I’d probably get check- called all the way but keep betting!

Know your opponents

The most important thing is to keep an eye on the players at your table. You need to concentrate properly during each hand. Most people say they do, but if you ask them what just happened they wouldn’t be able to tell you bet sizes or the exact hole cards that people were playing and showing.

You need to know that each time a hand goes to showdown you get a lot of information. Pay attention to it and try to deduce from the way a player has played that hand how they might play other hands. If they raise, then bet the flop and turn, but check the river in position with Kings on a relatively safe board, you have to take as much information from that one hand as possible. Make as many deductions as you can. Did he bet the pot each time or was he making small bets to keep an opponent in?

If, in a future hand, that same player in a similar position bets larger on the flop, checks the turn and then bets massively on the river, what do you think they have? It’s almost certainly not another big pair. The patterns are completely different and, unless they’re crafty and an accomplished player, you’ll probably find the larger bet is a semi-bluff and maybe they caught a flush or straight on the river.

There are also a lot of players who like to think they’re aggressive because they will call your bet on the flop as a float play so they can bluff the turn. But if you fire at those opponents twice they’ll often fold. Once they realise that they’re going to have to bluff off half their stack against someone they think might call them with 2-2, you’ll see their balls shrink and disappear.

Controlled aggression

Be careful though – the biggest mistake you can make is to think that playing this way just involves constant aggression. There are loads of aggressive players who can keep firing but it’s not just about your ability to do that – it’s all about picking the right opponents to put pressure on. That involves knowing as much about their style of play as possible and how likely you think it is that they’ll call you down.

At the WSOPE I made that mistake against British player Dominic Kay before we’d even reached the WSOPE final table. It took me two times of running bluffs into him for me to learn that he wouldn’t lay down certain hands. At the final table the situation changed. I knew that a few people wanted to move up the money ladder, whereas I wanted to win the thing.

To be honest, unless I reached the top three, the money didn’t really matter to me because of the amount of money I play for in cash games online. Because of that I knew I could pick on him and a few other people at the table.


The next level is noticing and taking into account not just how each person plays, but picking up on who at the table is adapting their game to take advantage of the information revealed at showdowns. This is where things get complicated and why you get what looks like insane raising wars.

A lot of psychology comes into the game at this point and a lot of squeeze and re-squeeze plays occur. Think of a table with several aggressive big stacks. The first guy raises and he could be raising with any two cards. The next thinks, ‘I know you’ve got nothing so I’m re- raising.’ The next guy then reasons, ‘Well, I know that he’s raising because he knows that opening raiser has nothing, so I’ll re-raise them both,’ and applies the squeeze play.

The action is now back on the first guy, who then thinks, ‘These players are both capable of squeeze plays, and as I was the first one to raise I can now represent Aces.’ Before you know it, they’ve all given themselves pot odds and they’re all calling. This is what happens when you get aggressive players that aren’t capable of being smart and intuitive with it – they’ve just started playing really badly.

If this is happening at a table you need to change the way you’re playing. John Conroy (the boss of who cashed under the name punkfloyd in the WCOOP main event) played in the EPT Warsaw and said it felt like it was 99 percent full of crazy Scandinavian internet players. Every hand was raise, raise, raise. There were so many examples of squeeze and re-squeeze plays.

He told me about one hand which happened when there were only around 25 players left. The two aggressive chip leaders got it all-in against one another for something like a tenth of the chips in play with A-5 and K-J because they kept re-raising each other and eventually were both given the odds to call. In that situation John just waited for hands, so that when the blinds got bigger everyone respected his raises and got out of his way while they took turns re-re-raising each other!


Just because you can fire off big bets when you have a big stack doesn’t mean you should do the same when you’re short-stacked. In tournaments I always play aggressively and try to gain chips. Inevitably you have a bad beat and you get short-stacked. When that used to happen I’d give up, throw the chips in and hope for the best. That’s the worst thing you can do. It doesn’t matter how few chips you have left. Stay calm and focused.

I ran a bluff on Day 2 and my stack dropped down to 20,000, which was the starting stack from the beginning of Day 1. It wasn’t good. During the next 90 minutes I got a lot of hands where I’d normally throw my chips in – A-Q suited, 9-9, 10-10 – but there’d always been a raise ahead of me so I stayed patient looking for a better spot.

I ended the day with just 13,500 chips, which was around five big blinds for Day 3. Only Phil Hellmuth had fewer chips and I thought, ‘If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me,’ but I knew I had to steal as soon as it was folded to me. I threw it in with an Ace, spiked an Ace on the river and rebuilt my stack.

It was a game of patience for a while, but once I was back to an average stack at the table I sensed tightness and went back to my crazy raising game and never looked back.

High stakes online cash game player John Tabatabai is a trader at and came second at the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event.

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