Learning to Smell and Playing the Player Types

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.
–Shunryu Suzuki
I know I shouldn’t be complaining, but in the 4 years I’ve been in Southern California, this past week was by far the coldest I can remember. After growing up in Connecticut and spending some time in Sweden, I refuse to turn on the heat in my apartment, so it makes for some cold poker playing in front of the laptop. I also get to dress like the best coach ever, Bill Belichek, with my hooded sweatshirt, and somehow it makes me feel like a better poker player.

Before I get into various ramblings, a couple quick things:
1. Last post I talked about my “poker environment”, and recommended the use of GameTime+ as a bridge between PartyPoker and PokerTracker. Thanks to recommendations from Halverson 3K and Helixx, I’ve switched over to PlayerViewNet. It’s faster and prettier than GameTime+, and I highly recommend it.
2. Stripper by Night and Iggy beat me to the punch on this one, but I’ve been a reader of Aaron Gleeman’s hugely popular baseball blog for a while now. Check out his excellent writeup of his performance in a recent PokerStars tourney. Not suprisingly, AG took down the big prize after a great comeback.
3. Rafe “Tiltboy” Furst just sent me email about a repository he’s created for changing the look and feel of the Full Tilt Poker Client. Check out his site if you’re a Full Tilt player:
“The Tiltboys have created an unofficial web site where anyone can download and upload graphical and sound modifications to the Full Tilt Poker software client:
A lot of people have modified their client installation by making new background screens, messing with the avatars and card decks, etc, but there’s no central place where people can share these. Until now that is.
Feel free to post mods for other poker sites if you like. There’s a separate folder for that.

Ok, on to the rambling…
FilmGeek’s Home Game
But who cares about the weather? I had the pleasure of being invited to a home game at FilmGeek‘s place in North Hollywood las night. Here’s the lineup:
Me &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Lance
$20 buy-in, no-limit game with .25-.50 blinds. I haven’t played live in a while, and seeing that the stakes were low, my goal was to see as many flops as I could and triple up. Of course, my cards were terrible, and my patience was shot– playing 3 shorthanded tables online has gotten me used to seeing around 250 hands per hour, and here we were seeing something like 50 hands per hour. Online poker definitely throws of the rhythm and patience required for a live game, but maybe I’m just making excuses…
Anyway, FHWRDH, StudioGlyphic and FilmGeek were playing a tight, solid game, and I was able to bluff a lot of pots early on with loose aggressive play. Lance (FWHWRDH’s coworker) was giving me some action, and eventually the other 3 bloggers started to loosen up a bit after seeing me show down so many garbage hands. My plan was working to perfection– with my loose table image, I was ready to get paid off when I finally hit my big hand.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The bloggers were smart enough to lay down their hands when I did flop big, and after Lance had doubled me up early, he punished me by turning broadway after I flopped top two pair (AQ). Rebuy! A while later, I was crushed on a 3-way all in after flopping the nut straight… Lance hit his nut straight on the turn and instantly called my all in, and StudioGlyphic came along for the ride with two pair. Rebuy!
I didn’t get much to work with after that, but there was one memorable hand. After raising it up on the big blind with JTs, I was surprised to find tight FilmGeek calling after limping in from late position. The flop was K T 8, and I smelled danger, so I checked to see what the young Jedi knight would do. He doubles the pot, and now I’m really confused. I go into the tank, and have the sneaking suspicious that my second pair is good, but nothing about this hand made sense. Why the limp? Why such a big bet? Rather than rebuying for a 3rd time, I reluctantly mucked and watched in horror as FilmGeek rolled over…
THE HAMMER! Yep, the kid had outplayed me with the Mighty 72o, stone cold bluffing his way to a nice little pot. Ye gads.
I went home the big loser at -50, and Lance had tripled up (thanks to my help) to take home $60 as the big winner. The table was hugely negative EV, but I came home with a new appreciation for the players on PartyPoker. Poker bloggers good, Party players bad. Next time I’m going to insist on a fishing trip to Hollywood Park, Commerce, or the Hustler, rather than face more rebuys.
What makes an Expert
I’ve been logging a ton of hands online, and the cards have been running good lately. After close to two years of play, I’ve seen somewhere around 100,000 hands online, and probably around 20,000 in live play. I’ve written a lot in the past about learning the patterns inherent in poker– after seeing so many hands, your brain establishes a particular pattern and rhythm to each hand, and you recognize the flow of the game.
By nature, our brains try to fit the world into patterns, and we attempt to put order to any event, even if that event is based on some random process. I remember reading some study about superstition in mice– the scientists had a button that dispensed food to the mouse, and randomized the food dispenser so that sometimes the button dispensed food, and sometimes it didn’t. After a while, the mouse decided that an intricate sequence of actions (running on the wheel, going to the corner of the cage, and doing the Travolta dance in Saturday night fever) “activated” the button, and always performed this routine before pressing the button. The mouse, in true superstitious fashion, believed that his routine “caused” the button to work, and continued to go through with it for every press of the button.
The shuffling of cards is (supposedly) a random process. However, betting patterns are not. Thus, what we learn is the sequence of actions that tell us when our actions are correct (when our hand is the best hand), and we press that raise button every time our brain recognizes a “winning” pattern of betting from our opponents. After 120,000 hands, these patterns are starting to sink in.
My point here is that I’ve begun to play a lot more by “feel” than I ever have before. I remember my first few months in the casino, I was always calling “time” to calculate pot odds, figure out what the raise from my opponent meant, and so on. The “thinking time” at the tables (virtual or real) these days for me is minimal– there aren’t many patterns that I haven’t seen. In some ways, this is a good thing, as it allows me to focus more on the little things that are happening at the table, and use those to extract some extra bets from my opponents. But I definitely miss the days when every session was a lesson in poker, and it took all of my neurons just to figure out what was going on in an individual hand.
I’m definitely far from an expert poker player, but at this point I at least understand the gap between the expert player and a good player without a lot of experience. My dad, one of the smartest people I’ve met (I’m biased, but trust me on this one), explained this gap in his area of expertise (data analysis):
“What I learned in expert system development (which I already knew) , is
that experts have quite a few “subjective” rules of thumb, and in fact often
“break” their rules. In my own areas of expertise, I knew this
was true. My answer, when people asked me why I was worth more to the
company than (say) an inexperienced but bright employee, I would reply that I
could smell the problems in the data. And that was about right–I couldn’t
explain it beforehand, and sometimes not even later, but I could feel when
something didn’t seem as expected.”

I’ve got a long way to go, but at least I’m starting to smell when things aren’t right.
Playing the Players
One way to categorize the “feel” that a good player develops as he continues playing is with the term “rules of thumb.” The patterns that we see after thousands of hands are extrapolated into some loose rule, which we understand but may not be able to explain in detail. In the middle limit games, I have many rules of thumb for playing against different types of players, and when I end up heads-up against a certain type of player, these rules are “activated” and usually guide my decisions. These rules of thumb apply primarily to heads-up situations; each additional opponent adds significant complexity to the situation, and when another player is in the pot, the rules go out the window. I thought I would try to explain some of these rules. Again, these are just my loose rules, and may not work for you at all, but they have proved to be very helpful for me. Of course, table conditions are always changing, and there is no formula for playing poker. Feedback is encouraged.
Loose Players
1. Loose Passive:
Since loose-passive players rarely reveal the strength of their hand, it’s difficult to know if our hand is best. Since loose players will play a wide range of hands preflop, we can usually assume our hand is better before the flop, and we should punish their loose limps with preflop raises (isolating the loose player if possible). If the flop doesn’t help our hand, we face a difficult situation, since we can’t narrow the range of hands our loose opponent may hold.

  • The Fish: Fishy opponents will call with nothing, so the general rule of thumb is to pound away with raises and hope our hand holds up. Often we’ll get drawn out on, but with tight preflop play, the odds that our hand is superior are high. I will usually grit my teeth and bet my hand the entire way when heads-up with a fish, even with unimproved Ace high. In the unlikely event we are raised, we know we are beaten and can fold with a clear conscience.
  • Calling Station (Neutral Passive & Slightly Loose Passive): The calling station is slightly tighter than the fish, so pounding away with reckless abandon is not usually a profitable course of action. However, I’ll bet with any pair until there are at least 2 overcards on the board, at which point I’ll slow down. In the rare event that the calling station raises, we should fold immediately—- a raise from a calling station indicates a monster hand in most situations. Since a calling station usually plays decent cards, we can narrow their range of hands somewhat-—if a card in the play zone (between 9 and Ace) hits the board, we have to be careful, since the Calling Station likes to Limp with any two cards that total 19 or higher.

2. Loose Aggressive:
Loose-aggressive players are by far the most difficult opponents to play against. Since they will bet and raise with a large range of hands, raises don’t give us much information about the strength of their hand. In addition, loose-aggressive players will often call with monster hands, and like to make “tricky” plays. Thus, it’s difficult to using the betting actions of a loose-aggressive opponent to put them on a hand. I’ll usually call this type of player down with marginal hands (such as top pair, weak kicker or second pair, top kicker), and only re-raise when I’m quite sure that my hand is pretty far ahead.

  • Skilled Loose Aggressive: The skilled loose aggressive type is a dangerous player, but throws away many bets by frequently overplaying his hand. This type of player often goes to the showdown with the worst hand too much, so I tend to call this type of player down more often with only a marginal holding. He will frequently draw out on us when he hits an overcard on fourth or fifth street, but it’s a mistake to always muck our second pair if an overcard hits on the turn or river, since the skilled loose-aggressive will often bet with nothing.

Tight Players
Since tight players usually only play solid starting hands, it’s much easier to narrow down the range of hands they may be holding than it is for loose players. General advice when facing a tight player’s raise is to muck any hand (except the premium hands) and wait for a better opportunity. Also, I am extremely careful when any face card hits the board when heads-up against a tight player, since it’s unlikely he’s holding anything but two face cards or a decent-size pair. The tight player’s only weakness is that he is susceptible to bluffs when there are no cards in the playzone (9 through Ace) on the board.

  • The Rock (Tight Passive): The rock only plays good cards, and rarely raises after the flop unless he’s got a monster. This type of player is easy to play against– if he does raise preflop, get out unless you’ve got a premium hand. If you do end up calling his raise, you have to be careful of an overpair or an Ace if a bullet hits the board. Otherwise you can bet your hand (cautiously). If a rock limps preflop, we should tighten up considerably, since the hands he will limp with are usually very strong. If a card in the play zone hits and we have second pair, I’ll usually throw out an exploratory bet to see where I am. If the rock calls, I usually go into check-call mode, fearing that he’s hit his hand.
  • Tight Aggressive: The most feared player type, the tight aggressive players should be avoided at all costs. The only time we want to tangle with this type of opponent is with a premium hand, and even then it’s scary. Facing a tight aggressive player’s raise with pocket jacks is a difficult situation to be in, and since he’s going to bet the entire way, we’re not sure where we stand. By default I’ll put a tight aggressive raiser on Ace-King or Ace-Queen, and usually grit my teeth and call him down if I have a pair and and Ace, King, or Queen hasn’t hit the board. Calling the tight Aggressive player with hands that may be dominated like AJ or KQ is a huge leak, and we’ll often be putting a lot of bets in when we’re dominated. This is the player type we want to be like, and we should avoid heads up situations with him.

Thanks for reading and good cards.

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