Are You Aggressive Enough?

Being Too Passive Costs You Money

A large number of low limit players are fairly well versed in basic poker theory due to a wealth of “how to” books now available. These books provide the groundwork for a good poker game by teaching the basics of starting hand selection, understanding pot odds, and counting outs. They mainly remove the biggest leak of them all – playing too many starting hands. However, most of these books don’t spend enough time teaching a player how and when to be aggressive. The “tight-weak” approach they teach works, but it loses you a lot of extra bets in the long run. In this article, I’ll discuss three aggressive plays that should increase your win-rate.

#1 – Raising to Increase Pot Equity

Anyone who has watched poker on TV is familiar with the percentages they typically display next to each player’s pocket cards. These percentages are each player’s chances of winning the hand based on the cards that are currently on the table. The percentage is known as “pot equity”. Raising to increase pot equity is fairly intuitive and a lot of people will already understand it, but it’s an important concept nonetheless. Let’s look at an example.

You hold Ah Jd on the button and call preflop with 3 other players. The flop is Jc 7s 4h. Everyone checks to the cutoff, who bets. Many players here will call with top pair, thinking they’re in good shape. However, the correct play is to raise. The most likely hand for the cutoff to be betting is top pair, say QJ or KJ. Against QJo and two other random hands, you have about a 61% chance* to win the hand. However, if one of those other two hands is 56o, they have an open-ended straight draw. You only have about a 45% chance to win in that case. If you call the flop bet, the straight draw is getting correct pot odds (6:1) to call and chase his straight. However, if you raise, they are no longer getting the correct odds and should fold. So let’s say you raise the initial bet and the other two players fold to the cutoff, who calls. Now, if the cutoff was indeed betting with top pair, your chances of winning the hand have increased from 61% to 87%. That raise increased your chances of winning by 50%. The numbers make it clear that in most situations like this, where you have top pair and a great kicker, you should raise instead of call.

#2 – Raising for Value

Hopefully everyone understands that in order to call a bet on a draw, you need correct pot odds. However, many people don’t know that in the right situation, it’s correct to raise while on a draw. Say you hold AJs and flop the nut flush draw. You have a 35% chance to make your flush by the river. Most of the time, you will win the hand if you make it. Let’s assume that 5 players saw the flop, such that you have correct pot odds to draw. Someone bets and two people call before you. You should raise in this situation, not call, for two reasons. First, you may end up in last position, which may give you a free river card if you don’t turn the flush. Second, you are putting in 25% of the bets, but you have a 35% chance of winning the hand. To simplify the math, imagine you are playing a game with one other person. You both put in equal bets, but YOU win 70% of the time rather than 50%. Clearly you want to bet as much as possibly every time, since you will make a huge profit over time. It’s the same situation when raising the flush draw. Your chances of winning are greater than the share of bets you’re putting into the pot, so you want the pot to be as large as possible. Note that this also applies to straight draws. Every time you miss a value raise and hit a flush, you lose 2 or more bets that would have gone into the pot. And as I mentioned earlier, the late position raise may also buy you a free river card. It’s an extremely profitable play when you can make it.

#3 – Check-Raising for the Free Card

This is a play that you rarely are in position to use, but when you can, it can really help you out. A lot of people are familiar with raising in late position to try to buy a free card, but it’s actually possible to check-raise in early position to buy a free card if you have the right conditions.

The optimal conditions for this play are when you are the small blind and only you and the big blind see the flop. Say you complete with a reasonable hand like ATo or A9o, the big blind checks, and the flop misses you. It’s also pretty likely the flop missed the big blind as well. However, when you check, the vast majority of players sense weakness and will bet to try to steal the pot. If you then check-raise them, you become the aggressor. Obviously if they reraise you, you’re likely in trouble and should fold, but the vast majority of the time, they will simply call. If the turn misses you, check again. If they have nothing, they’ll be afraid of being check-raised a second time and will give you a free river card (however, if they bet, you should almost always fold). So instead of 1.5 big bets, you only have to pay 1 big bet to see the river. The mechanics are fairly identical to the normal free card play, but you are able to maintain aggression from early position rather than late.

One last word of caution about this play. It’s only a good idea when you actually do have reasonable outs that you could hit, like having overcards or a good draw. If there’s a good chance the other person could have a good draw or could have a pair higher than your hole cards, there’s no reason to spend the bets. Overall, it can help save you money when you are in an extremely weak position.

So how do you know if you’re being aggressive enough? It’s pretty easy with Poker Tracker. If you click on the “General” tab, then click on “More Detail” and scroll down, Poker Tracker assigns you “aggression factors” on every street, and also an overall aggression factor. The factor is the ratio of the number of times you bet and raise divided by your calls. In other words, AF = (Bets + Raises)/Calls. A good rule of thumb is that you want your overall aggression factor to be at least 2. Also, you should generally be most aggressive on the flop, less on the turn, and least on the river. If you don’t have Poker Tracker, at least make sure that you know when it’s correct to raise to drive out people and when to raise for value.

Good luck!

* Pot equities were calculated using PokerStove