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Defending Against Aggressive Players

I recently received an e-mail from a player that I thought was particularly poignant. Let me post a snippet of it here:

“I have trouble coping with some of the very aggressive betting in the ring games, and would appreciate any advice on how to deal with it. It seems that in the games I play in, every 2 or 3 hands someone puts in a big raise pre-flop – anything from 5x up to 20 or even 30 x the big blind. There are frequently 3 or 4 players of this type at the tables I play on.

OK, some of the time they’ve got a premium hand, but a lot of the time they don’t, and it’s almost impossible to know what they might be holding unless you’re prepared to call them (and then again on each subsequent betting round). Even a raise of 5 times the big blind is usually enough for me to fold all but the very best starting hands, and I’ve lost count of the number of hands I would have won if I’d stayed in against the idiots who raise with A6 offsuit and win with ace high!”

This is a great issue to bring up, and certainly can be a frustrating experience if you’re a naturally tight player. While it still is true that you want these types of players at your table, it doesn’t always feel that way when they suck out on you left and right or raise you out of the best hand. I’d like to recommend two main defensive strategies against overly aggressive players in no-limit ring games and tournaments, and they begin with one important piece of advice: continue to be selective with your starting hands.

When you see maniacs taking down big pots with trash hands, you might be tempted to sink to their level. Hands like suited connectors and small pocket pairs play great in this situation if you’re getting the proper pot odds to call, but you often won’t be getting the right odds if the rest of the tables tightens up against the lone aggressive player. When you start calling with garbage, you’ll inherently connect very little on the flop. The maniac will most likely continue to hammer you on the flop in which case you’ll probably fold and cost yourself money with a weak hand. A better choice is to:

1) Fight back before the flop. Overly aggressive players thrive on taking control of the hand. Hence, they don’t like to be re-raised and lose control of the hand. You know that he can’t have Aces or Kings as often as he portrays, so most of the time you’ll catch him with a mediocre hand at best. If you have position on the raiser and pick up a better-than-average hand, consider throwing in a big re-raise. Most of the time, you’ll pick up the pot right there. I was at a no-limit table last night against this type of player, and I’d raise him 4x his bet every time with any pocket pairs higher than 9-9 or with any two face cards. I never had to see a flop.

This type of player doesn’t want a fight – he wants to stay in control and quietly take down lots of pots. Aggressive players usually excel by sensing weakness and capitalizing on it. If you’re going to take on a seemingly wild player, don’t play weakly into his hands; dictate the terms, play your own game, and make him pay before the flop when you have a strong hand. These players will often outplay you on the flop with their sheer aggression, so try to define your hand pre-flop if you have a tendency to fold to pressure.

2) Trap aggressive players with your strong hands. Slowplaying your big hands against loose players can be a great tool to extract great profit. Let’s say that you’re on the button with pocket Aces and the resident maniac makes his standard raise from early position of 5x the big blind. If there aren’t any other callers, I might just call in this situation. Since this type of player usually continues his aggression on the flop, I’ll just call him again or if I’m out of position I might check-raise him. If you’re confident that you still have the best hand, just keep value betting or calling and build up a nice pot that will soon be yours.

Of course, you always risk being outdrawn here, but you should keep a close eye on the board for possible trouble. If you see an obvious straight or flush draw, you can throw in a raise. However, if the board is seemingly benign, I’ll often save the raise until the river. This allows me to take advantage of his blind aggression and extract more money from 3 additional betting rounds rather than chase him away before the flop. Usually you should reserve this play for your premium pocket pairs, or if you hit a monster on the flop. Let him continue to make mistakes and show him what will happen if he continues to bully you around.

Even with your premium hands, bad beats are going to happen – especially against players willing to play anything. That’s simply a part of poker that you’ll have to be able to manage psychologically. It happens to all of us, but what distinguishes winning poker players from losing ones is the ability to pick oneself up, play the best possible game, and mount a comeback. Keep in mind that you don’t have to win it all back the same night. If you’re really going on tilt and you can recognize that you aren’t playing your best game, be strong enough to leave the table and come back tomorrow or the next day. The game will still be there waiting for you – especially online.

As I’ve tried to describe here, the worst thing you can do against overly aggressive opponents is play passively. As the player said in his message, you have to be prepared to call their bets on every subsequent betting round. If you know that you’ll be facing another big bet on the flop, don’t make a weak call before the flop. Instead, throw in a big raise to take control of the hand. Unless he is holding premium cards, you’ll at the very least take him out of his game. At the same time, consider slowplaying your Aces or Kings (less often with Kings because of the risk of him holding a weak Ace) and then raising him on the turn or river to get more value out of your hand. Of course, if there are multiple maniacs willing to call big raises with anything pre-flop, you’re better off shoving in your chips and thinning the field. If you win a small pot, that’s okay… YOU WON THE POT, DIDN’T YOU?!

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