Pro concepts: Adjusting to your opponents in MTTs and cash

Ross ‘MrStarch’ Jarvis looks at the importance of adjusting to your opponents in both tournaments and cash games

Before a big final table, players are often asked what their strategy is going to be once they start playing. Some will say they are going to play hyper-aggressively, while others will vow to tighten up and wait for others to be knocked out. However, the smartest players will always say, ‘I’m going to watch how everyone else is playing and adjust my game to take advantage of that.’ The key word there is ‘adjust’.

The ability to adjust your style mid-game is vital if you want to be a top player. It keeps you unpredictable and much tougher to play against. The key ingredient in being able to adjust is that you must be aware of what is happening at your table. Instead of just concentrating on the hands you get dealt and playing them in a standard, functional manner you should always be reacting to different player types, stack sizes and so on.

Noticing the minutiae of the situations you are in is what allows you to make the right adjustments and profit.

Adjusting against tough players

When you’re on a table filled with weaker players you’re unlikely to be put into too many difficult spots. Therefore, as long as you are a skilled player, the first adjustment you should make is obvious – to play more hands and capitalise on their mistakes postflop. This includes set-mining constantly, playing big pairs aggressively and looking to bluff when they show weakness.

The more interesting situations occur when you are on tables filled with tough players. At a UKIPT day two I had to make a huge adjustment to my playing style when I found I was seated next to Jake Cody, Dan Carter and Nick Gibson. On day one I’d had a very soft table and been able to win lots of chips from playing very loose.

However, these players were all more experienced (and likely better) than me so the best adjustment was to tighten up dramatically preflop, yet play very aggressively on the occasion I did have a hand. I stopped calling raises against these players with hands like Q-J and A-T and instead elected to either three-bet (and be prepared to jam all-in) or fold. That way my decisions were kept simple against the players who were likely to put me in tough spots postflop.

In online poker you’re very likely to come up against some hyper-aggressive regulars once you start playing $1/$2 and above these days. Many players fail to make the right adjustments against these guys and simply end up being steamrollered or fail to trap them in the right situations.

A great, easy adjustment to make is to slow-play your big pairs against them preflop. Let’s say you raise A-A from the cutoff, the button calls and then the maniac in the big blind squeezes. Your standard play against most guys here should be to four-bet and hope that you can cooler someone and get it all-in.

However, due to their high aggression levels a maniac is likely to be squeezing with such a wide range in this obvious spot that they will just fold to a raise. I’d advocate calling here with A-A, K-K and Q-Q the majority of the time and then either calling them down postflop or raising on certain wet boards in an attempt to get it all-in.

Similarly, if you call a three-bet with a hand like K-Q or A-J against this player type and flop top pair you shouldn’t be looking for a way to fold. If you happen to be behind to an overpair it’s just unfortunate.

Adjusting against stack sizes

Major adjustments should always be made when the relative stack sizes become unusual. In online cash games you will usually start off with 100BBs, and everyone on the table will have a similar amount. Yet in live poker, and online too once stacks get deeper, it’s not unusual to see relative stacks upwards of 250BBs. Once you get to this point it’s a completely different game and you must adjust your play accordingly.

Playing poker with 100BB doesn’t leave a lot of room to get creative in three-bet pots, but once you get deeper you have more options. It’s arguable that you should never fold a small pair if your opponent three-bets you and has over 200BBs, as your implied odds when hitting are now so great. The same rings true when holding suited connectors or suited A-x, especially if your opponent is likely to have a big overpair and is unable to make tough folds.

When you are up against good players, I’d advise that you never four-bet if stacks are over 200BBs either. While you may wish to get value from A-A a good player is never going to stack off here with Q-Q or A-K (it’s possible K-K would jam given the right dynamics) and it’s more likely that you will just turn your hand face-up.

With this knowledge a tough opponent is now going to be able to put you into all sorts of pain on boards such as 6-7-8-J-Q or T-J-K-4 with or without a hand. Unless you have a completely balanced four-bet range (which is tough to achieve) it’s usually better to use your big pairs as high value bluff catchers and forget the mindset of attempting to bust your opponent once you reach a certain stack depth.

When playing tournaments, adjusting to different stack sizes is a key skill. The hands you can open are dramatically affected by both your stack size and those around you. For example, you may have 100BBs but if the players left to act all have between 10-20BBs you should be wary of opening with hands that are not prepared to call a re-shove.

Conversely, if you are the player with a 20BB stack you must stop playing loose and trying to see fl ops. The most optimal way to play this stack size is to wait until you pick up a decent hand and three-bet shove with it, while you still have lots of fold equity. If you fail to adjust to these varying stack sizes in tournaments there is little hope of winning.

Adjusting to emotions

The beauty of live poker is that people’s emotions are usually written all over their faces. You can often tell if someone is drunk, ecstatic, scared money or on massive monkey tilt. These moods will generally affect how people play too. Adjusting your play to exploit those on tilt can be hugely profitable.

With big hands you want to play very aggressively and value bet as much as you can – players on tilt usually don’t like to fold. Even when the board is getting quite scary, like you have A-T on a T-9-8-2-K board, you should generally still bet the river. It’s also important not to bluff them for this same reason.

A simple adjustment is to play more pots against steaming players. If a player on tilt opens to 3BB I will often three-bet them in position really small (to 7 or 8BBs) just to try and isolate them in the hand. Aside from your monsters, any hand that is likely to flop top or middle pair such as K-9, A-8, Q-J is good to do this with.

You can then play quite exploitatively yourself post-flop, betting when you hit and checking it down when you don’t. Depending on the player, many people on tilt simply want to see showdowns and won’t be trying to win these medium-sized pots with bluffs very often.

Being able to adjust is about using your awareness to recognise the playing conditions and then using common sense to take advantage of those. If someone is making life diffi cult for you in one way (they may be check-raising a ton of flops for example) an easy adjustment is to check back the flop when you’ve missed so they can’t do this.

Stay smart and try to ensure that it is your opponents adjusting to you, and not the other way around.

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