One feature that all successful poker players share is aggression. In order to succeed in the game, one needs to display a certain level of aggression; thereby seizing the initiative, which in turn applies pressure to your opponents. In the long run, the reality is that all poker players will get the same distribution of cards dealt to them. You need to have that killer instinct. Those that play their cards with the most aggression will likely come out on top.
By being aggressive, by betting and raising instead of checking and calling, you put your opponents to a choice. It gives you two ways to win the hand. You can win the hand because you have the best hand, or you can win the hand because your opponent thinks you have a better hand due to your aggression. If you are raising with the best hand, you are getting more money in the pot. By betting you are also taking control of the hand. You are in a position to decide whether you want to pot control, take a free card on a draw, or determine how much pressure you want to continue to apply by your bet size. Most players will check to the pre-flop raiser, by deferring to you they give you the initiative to have the greatest influence on how the hand will play out.
An important distinction regarding aggression is that it isn’t reckless. It is a controlled aggression with a purpose. It isn’t about going all in every hand. It isn’t about making wild and unpredictable bluffs. It is about regular calculated aggression to pressure your opponents into making mistakes. In most hands of No Limit Hold’em no one will hold a particularly strong hand. Therefore the person who shows the most aggression with their marginal hand is likely win you a lot of pots where nobody has much.
Poker players can make various mistakes when a player is being aggressive. Your opponents will typically take offense to an aggressive player who is pushing them around. They might try to trap you. They might try to slow play hands they would ordinarily bet, hoping that you will continue to bluff off your chips. Some will relish check raising your flop or turn continuation bets. Some will become passive and stubborn, never believing you, calling you down with any piece of the board (we call them calling stations). One of the greatest advantages of regular calculated aggression is when your opponents get fed up of being pushed around and decide to fight back with a mediocre hand, overplaying it when you have a strong hand yourself. Ultimately, if your opponents are changing how they play their game to react to you, that should work out positively for you. Once you pick up on their particular style of reaction, their play can become quite predictable.
In tournaments, you will see the strongest players betting or raising regularly, especially with position. As the tournament progresses, the bet or raise can be for as little as 2 to 2.5 times the blind or pot. They aren’t risking that much in any particular hand, in their effort to keep the pressure one. They are counting on picking up more chips through their aggression than the cost of losing a few hands when they run into opponents with strong hands. It’s important to understand why and when to be aggressive, not just blindly raise whenever you have a piece of the flop. Even an aggressive player can become too predictable and make costly mistakes from constantly betting when they should be mixing up their game.
Typically, betting or raising is done for one of four reasons:
1. Betting/Raising for value, believing you have the best hand and charging for draws.
2. Betting/Raising to isolate a weaker player or with position so you can outplay them later.
3. Betting/Raising to get a free card on a later street when your opponent checks to you.
4. Bluffing, trying to push your opponents off marginal hands.
With each reason, you have a clear understanding of why you are making your bet or raise. It creates a plan for the hand while you maintain control. If you have the best hand, you want to charge your opponents who are on draws. You want to be getting money in early in the hand when they still have hope, as opposed to on the river when it is unlikely they will call with a hand that won’t beat you. If you are raising to isolate a weaker player, you hope to use your position and possible scare cards that come out on the board to outplay your opponent. If you are raising with a flush draw on the flop, you hope they then check to you on the turn fearing your continued aggression, thus giving a free card to try to catch your flush. If you are raising as a bluff, you hope to represent a stronger hand that will fold out your opponents when everyone is holding some marginal hand. In each of these scenarios, your opponent should play more straight forward against you when you play aggressively. They are unlikely to bluff you, and they don’t want to play weak hands. They will likely fold all their weak holdings and only continue if they have a strong hand.
Additionally, your regular aggression creates a lot of deception, especially if some of your failed hands get shown down. Your aggression and unsuccessful bluffs will get you more action on your premium hands than you deserve. You become a more unpredictable opponent, thus keeping them guessing as to when you actually have a hand or not.
Playing a lot of hands and playing them aggressively requires you to play close attention to your opponents and their reactions. But any time you have a choice between acting or reacting in poker, you would prefer to be proactive. In poker, the meek don’t inherit the earth. They will fold or call, allowing you to plot their destiny. Take control of your game and watch your results grow.