Finding Your Playing Style
Let’s be clear: ‘style’ is not an excuse to play however you want. Players who are too passive, too crazily aggressive, or too tight will be losing players and such approaches to the game are not going to be considered valid styles of play in this article. However, within the healthy zone of the poker spectrum, exist a few different viable styles. In this article we will be covering tight-solid, solid-aggressive, opportunistic-aggressive, and all-out-attack. Before we get into these options, let’s explore why it is important to find and embrace your style.
Why Care About Your Style?
In poker, a robust mental game is vital for success. In order to achieve a strong mental game, it is important to find the right balance between, on the one hand, playing in a manner in which you are comfortable and, on the other hand, pushing yourself to change your game for the better. Finding your natural winning style and tailoring your game around it is likely to contribute to a calm and settled mind-set and this is crucial for getting into the zone and accessing your A-game on a regular basis.
If a naturally tighter player is forced to run a lot of 0EV (meaning break-even) bluffs in large pots, he is likely to become anxious and uncomfortable from stepping far away from his normal game for no real gain. Similarly, if a hyper-aggressive regular is forced to start folding and checking in spots where he would normally call or bluff, respectively, then he too is likely to become frustrated and lose focus.
The Limits of Style
When it comes to a winning player, all four of the styles of play covered here are going to find clearly profitable bluffs and mandatory folds. The most aggressive style (all-out-attack) is still going to lay down his hand in the face of an unbalanced and strong betting range. Similarly, the tight-solid player is still going to find the opportunity to make a nitty player fold on a scary run-out. It is when our choices become close that our style might have a say in which action we take.
A tight-solid player might miss a few slightly profitable bluffs that the all-out-attack player would find, but in turn, the latter might miss a few good exploitative folds that the tight-solid player finds with ease. In a long session, the opportunistic-aggressive player might find 7/10 good bluffs while the all-out-attack player finds 9/10. In return, the all-out-attack player makes 2 or 3 slightly losing bluffs that the less aggressive player avoids.
Your style is all about what you do in close situations, which mistakes you are likely to commit, and which strong plays you find that other styles might miss. With that clarified, let’s get into the stylistic possibilities. Try to think about which of the following four players represents your game the most closely. This will be your natural style and you should attempt to build your game around. Try to adopt the style you are most at ease with, not the one that appears the most exciting.
The Tight-Solid player favours control and likes to reduce variance whenever that does not lead to a significant loss of EV. He might fold Q9s to a 3-bet from an unknown big-blind after he opens the BU, instead of calling, even though this choice is undoubtedly very close to break-even for the experienced player.
The Tight-Solid player might decide not to barrel the turn more often than not with only a gut-shot but will do it sometimes to balance his range. He will be more likely to excel by spotting situations in which his opponents are underbluffing and will find impressive exploitative folds where less skilled opponents or looser styles of player might pay-off.
This player gets to play a less volatile game, but in return has to pay the price of being easier to play against. Tight-Solids err on the side of keeping investment to a minimum in close spots until they gather reads, but then they have the skills to open up their game and take advantage of opponents who fold too often.
Skills: Finding good folds, avoiding dubious bluffs, minimizing unnecessary variance.
Weaknesses: Feeling less comfortable in big pots, missing out on good bluffs, causing opponents less discomfort.
This sort of regular is also skilled in avoiding bad investments, looking to fold whenever the evidence suggests that it’s prudent. He may miss some of the very skilled folds that the Tight-Solid finds but will make up for this by applying more pressure in favourable situations. The Solid Aggressive still has a slight preference for avoiding variance but is less troubled by it than the Tight-Solid.
Solid-Aggressive players do not bluff more than would be balanced but they usually meet their required bluffing frequencies in most spots to make life difficult for their opponents. That said, these players do not go out of their way to find every drop of fold equity in every situation and still maintain an overall solid game. You will rarely find a solid-aggressive bluffing with zero equity on the turn or making strange inventive bet-sizes for extra EV. Their game is aggressive but organised.
Skills: Haiving a strong balance of a sound base game and well-timed aggression.
Weaknesses: Missing some very good folds and bluffs. Not exploiting opponents quite enough.
The author’s natural style! Opportunistic-Aggressive players have almost as solid a base game as the solid-aggressive. They might make a few more spewy mistakes over a long session but will make up for this with more inventive bet-sizing, funky profitable lines that take imagination to find, and by missing fewer profitable bluffs and call-downs.
Some good evidence that you are an opportunistic aggressive player is that you sometimes find yourself bluffing with no equity at all because you believe the situation warrants it. Perhaps you sometimes bluff for one third pot and other times for over-bets. Your sizing is fluid, your eyes are open like a hungry coyote on the prowl. Sometimes your aggression is misplaced, and you regret it, but overall, you gain more than you lose through your keen eye for fold equity.
Skills: Finding inventive lines other players might miss. Still having a solid base-game, but one that is fluid and very likely to open up given any sort of read.
Weaknesses: Sometimes taking things too far and missing some good folds or pot-controlling checks.
When an all-out-attack player is running hot, the feeling is very much that of being trampled by a herd of frenzied elephants. There is nothing you can do, and it really hurts.
All-Out-Attack players constantly push the boundaries in order to make their opponents uncomfortable. While their base game is beginning to leave the realms of solid by using too much aggression, this can be very unsettling for the unsuspecting regular or tight player.
All-Out-Attack players begin by 3-betting you lighter than game-theory would recommend, bluffing more often and making looser call-downs. The result is that you feel like there is no fold equity against them, become passive, and start waiting for cards to fight back. At this point the all-out-attack player adapts and stops bluffing so much when you’re happy to play and picks up many small pots; gradually bleeding you dry.
All-Out-Attack players will use lots of creative bet-sizes, will raise as a bluff in spots where most opponents only ever have value, and will be absolutely fearless. Variance does not bother these players one bit and they thrive from stirring up lots of action while having the skill-set to adjust as soon as an opponent has had enough and decides to take a stand.
The difference between a winning all-out-attack player and a maniacal weaker player is that the latter chooses awful spots to bluff and never manages to slow down. The former only exhibits extreme aggression for as long as his opponents are willing to tolerate it; after that, he will change gears to devastating effect.
Skills: Eliciting mistakes from opponents by making them very uncomfortable. Winning many pots that more passive players would fail to win.
Weaknesses: Taking aggression too far at times, missing some good folds, increasing variance dramatically.
Have a think about which style best suits your personality in-game. This is the style you should adopt and practice. Finally, one more time for good measure – style is not an excuse to make terrible plays like limping KK in the CO or min-betting three streets with the nuts – that is just losing poker!