Aggressive poker is winning poker. In this episode, join coach & co-founder James “SplitSuit” Sweeney and host Zac Shaw as they discuss how they integrated more and more aggression into their games, with profitable results. SplitSuit shares his personal story as an online player grinding his way up the stakes, while Shaw relates his past year studying aggression to build a bigger win rate at Live $1/$2 NL. If you’re looking to win bigger by understanding 3-betting, barreling, bluffing and more, this is a must-listen.
Starting Poker Study
Sweeney and Shaw start by discussing how Shaw started integrating more aggression into his game. Shaw started with Play Poker Like the Pros by Phil Helmuth as his first “serious” poker study material. While this wasn’t integrating aggression per se, it did allow him to play the hands he did play more aggressively, because it gave him the confidence that he had a pre-flop advantage over other players. He was open-raising more based on these hand charts.
Sweeney cautions how these open range charts can be limiting, but admits you have to start somewhere, and learning to open raise is a good start.
Shaw then started noticing what other players were doing to make him uncomfortable, and began investigating what they were doing to make him so uncomfortable.
Sweeney concurred that he used a similar exercise in amping up aggression in his game. He sat down and wrote down every situation he was uncomfortable with, such as facing a bet on the flop holding top pair, or facing a triple-barrel on the river, or an overcard comes on the river and he faced an overbet. After writing them down, he looked at the situations and saw that he could use these moves on other players like him to find many situations he could take advantage of with more aggression. It made him feel more comfortable pulling the trigger on aggressive moves because he had studied them from the inside out.
Dawn of the Semi-Bluff
Shaw learned semi-bluffing from the 2+2 strategy books, and got very used to doing it quite often. Sweeney echoed this sentiment, saying that when he discovered semi-bluffing (in Ed Miller’s book on limit hold’em), he fell in love with executing the play. This was so far back in his poker career when he didn’t really realize the difference between limit and no limit poker.
Shaw relates a similar story of not being able to distinguish a bluff from a semi-bluff, and thinking all bluffs were semi-bluffs. This clearly limited his play because he wasn’t bluffing, and it wasn’t until much later that Doug Hull coached him to realize that there was a time and place for all-out bluffs with air, and that these spots were way different than semi-bluffing spots.
Sweeney points out that there are plenty of spots where you can bluff with anything because your opponent will be folding far too often, but says he’d obviously prefer bluffing with equity versus without.
Understanding that other more aggressive players were opening wider got Shaw into thinking about hand ranges. Earlier in his poker playing life, he didn’t understand ranges and like many players focused on the absolute value of his hole cards and how they connected to the flop. Realizing that aggressive players were playing a wider range of hands got him curious to investigate how players built ranges, and that opened up the world of being able to raise wider for himself, as well as react to other aggressive players.
Shaw’s game became more aggressive as he started assigning player profiles to his opponents. By identifying the aggressive players, he knew to defend more against their constant pressure. And by identifying the nitty and passive players, he knew he could apply more pressure. Raising limpers was his first aggressive move at the live casino. He worked his way up to bombing over limpers by starting to target single limpers in late position, and eventually he was throwing in big bets in late position over strings of limpers.
Sweeney’s first reaction was not to do more aggression pre-flop, but to look for more post-flop opportunities to check-raise, barrel and overbet. His pre-flop focus was more in the 3-betting spectrum, and he chalks it up to playing online versus Shaw’s pre-flop focus in live games.
Shaw talks about the a-ha moment he had with board textures where he started to think in terms of how ranges hit flops. He realized that not every A-high flop needs to be checked back with premium pairs or strong draws. In the past he had been afraid of virtually every A-high flop, even in position. Then he realized that not only do these flops not necessarily hit the range of an out of position limper who calls a raise, but if it does, they are likely to take actions that telegraph that fact. Sweeney agrees and cautions that this applies to certain players more than others, because there are going to be player types with a much more Ax-dense range on the flop.
Shaw talks about the most important change to his game being all the off-table study which led to an intuition at the tables to track only the most relevant information. This was based off figuring out a thought process that checked all the important boxes quickly — what were his opponents ranges, how did they hit the flop, what information does their betting action and sizing give us. After this process became more intuitive, he was free to look for spots to apply more aggression.
Sweeney concurs that the amount of information available is massive. He says it’s really important to build some sort of checklist to track all the information coming at us.
Developing one skill at a time was important for Shaw as well. He spent months working on opening wider in the right spots.
Sweeney’s intuition came from messing with Flopzilla and Equilab and doing tremendous amounts of exploration and experimentation. He did lots of database breakdowns to see where there were opportunities to add more aggression. His technical approach coming from more of an online background dovetailed well with his love of crunching numbers and investigating the math and mechanics of the game.
Sweeney and Shaw talk about Ed Miller’s Streets of Value concept as a great starting point for studying your way up to being more aggressive with barreling. Having a pre-thought about how big this pot will get, and where our hand will go helps set the frame for the whole hand. It may not work against better players, but that level of simplicity is a great place to start.
Nits Rely on Unlikely Scenarios
Sweeney says when you’re playing nitty, you’re relying on picking up good cards pre-flop, connecting with the board, and getting paid off when your opponent connects with the board as well. These are three things that don’t happen that often in and of themselves. Combined, this scenario becomes extremely unlikely.
With more aggression, you can fight for more pots, fight for more pots, and win more pots without showdown.
Getting Too Aggressive
Shaw talks about having to start adjusting aggression to players that started to pick up on the fact he was being more aggressive. Sweeney talks about how this might not happen with nits, but most players will start to give you action and play back. And the better players will fight fire with fire and start making big, aggressive moves back at you.
In the next podcast, Sweeney and Shaw continue the conversation by talking about how they tamed their aggression when it went from an asset to a liability. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say.