Aggression is one of poker’s most powerful tools for profit. But with great power comes great responsibility, and as we add more aggression into our game, we’ll often be tempted to use it too often or in the wrong spots. In this episode, host Zac Shaw gets coached by James “SplitSuit” Sweeney on ways to tame the over-aggressive tendencies causing a recent downswing. And Sweeney shares a bit about his own struggles with tempering aggression in his poker career development.

Featuring: Shaw & Sweeney

Over-Adjusting with Aggression

Sweeney points out that poker strategists preach aggression all the time, but there’s a point where it becomes way too much aggression, and we can leak and get spewy.

Imagine “perfect poker” as a line. When we improve at poker, Sweeney says, we often form a sine wave around this line. We might start too tight, then we get too aggressive, then we adjust but find ourselves too passive, and up and down and up and down. The idea is to get less and less far from that line over time, and eventually flatline as much as possible between the right amount of aggression and the right amount of tight play.

Don’t Get Cocky

Shaw relates that one of the major sources of his leaks is an inflated sense of skill over the rest of the table. This comes from applying aggression profitably and seeing it work, and then over-applying it in too many spots, thinking that just because it worked in the past, it will work in the future. It also comes from feeling like you can run over the table, but then having that put in check by players who are more than capable playing back at you, or who might not be at the same skill level, but have noticed your aggression and are now starting to fight it.

Table and player awareness is key to keeping aggression from demolishing your stack, says Sweeney. Knowing that as players adjust, you’ll need to bluff less, but you might be able to value bet thinner, can not only prevent you from failure, it can outmaneuver players who think they have your number.

Changing ranges and frequencies when you notice opponents calling more and fighting back is a winning strategy because they will almost certainly not notice this shift right away. There’s going to be an adjustment period where they start calling down lighter, and that’s when you shift your frequencies.

Running Over the Table Immediately

Sweeney and Shaw discuss a leak they both had to plug. Shaw talks about getting so confident with his aggression, that he would start to put the table on blast immediately upon sitting down, rather than opting for the standard line of playing tight for a few orbits and observing other players and their exploitable weaknesses before applying aggression.

Sweeney also went through a stage of being far too aggressive when first sitting at a table. He stopped this habit by buying in for a half-stack, like 50BB, which limited his ability to play aggressive, deep-stack poker from the get-go, and tightened up his play style. Then, after a few orbits where information was gathered and he got a feel for a table, he would just reload back up to the max buy-in where he’d normally buy in for.

Eventually you will have the mental acuity to not have to give yourself an artificial set of limitations like that — you will approach the game by gathering information first to get a strategic advantage.

Don’t Be Too Creative

Shaw talks about being “too creative” and bending a strategic understanding of the game into wild justifications for plays that in retrospect make no sense. Sweeney concurs that letting the creative brain take over the strategic brain can lead to ruin for one’s game.

VPIP & PFR Leaks

Shaw is currently running (albeit over a small sample size) at a VPIP of 33 and a PFR of 18. At 25NL online in full ring games, Sweeney says playing 1/3 of hands is too loose, and Shaw is overestimating his skill edge. It’s not that he doesn’t have a skill edge, he probably does, but he’s playing too many break-even parts of his range, Sweeney says. Rinsing those out is important because other players are not paying attention to frequencies. Tightening up will not affect the action Shaw gets to a great degree, so no need to throw in the worse parts of his range.

Even if you think you have a skill edge, your opponents will show up with hands, so playing A game and having a range free of junk makes all the difference.

Beware Absolute Hand Value

One leak that Shaw points out is overvaluing his absolute hand value, such as when he turns a monster, or leads on the flop. Thinking in ranges is the antidode to this, because this will raise the red flag when players start acting interested in the hand. Being blinded by absolute value often means leaking by not identifying when a player has us beat. Thinking in ranges means that when they start playing back, we can see that their range may have connected with the board, and we need to at least be cautious, if not abandoning the hand all together.

When you think in ranges, you get away from the emotional part of your brain that says “Hooray, I have a set, let’s dump money in the pot”, Sweeney says. This gets you to slow your decision-making down and be more logical in spots where opponents are making moves that telegraph strength, but we are ignoring due to absolute hand value.

Don’t Bluff the Bluffers

The other leak Shaw identified was “bluffing the bluffers”, or identifying players that are being very aggressive and playing back at them. Sweeney cautions that because Shaw is playing microstakes online he probably doesn’t have much in the way of sample sizes, and because of this, tagging players as aggressive can be a dubious characterization.

Sweeney says that a huge mistake, especially at the micro- and low-stakes, is to assume that players are even capable of bluffing.

At the same time, it’s important to determine if these mistakes are actually leaks, or if they are in fact correct plays that just ran into the nutted part of our often-bluffing opponents’ range.

Aggression Requires A-Game

Shaw talks about how important it is to play A game when you’re playing aggressively. When he played ABC poker, it was much easier to play A game, because playing super-tight is like playing on auto-pilot. When applying more aggression, it becomes super-important to concentrate on all aspects of the game, because getting something wrong could mean the difference between profit and ruin.

Profitable aggression is not so much about “attack, attack, attack” as it is about “pay attention to everything, and strike when a vulnerability presents itself”. Identifying that opportunity requires a lot of concentration and focus. And when you factor in mental states of other players, betting frequencies, etc., there are almost infinite pieces of information to take in. Anything less than A game isn’t going to cut it.

Is There Ever a Time to Dial it Back?

Sweeney says that at one point he started sessions playing an incredibly large amount of hands. Then, after advertising that he was a maniacally loose player, he’d dial it back to a more reasonable frequency. By then letting the table dictate what he did by their reaction to him, he was able to remain in control of the situation without forcing the action, instead letting the action come to him — right into his trap.

Sweeney also adds that you must be aware that other players are adjusting their game in this way, so you must be very mindful of when they are changing frequencies. Therefore, the strategy to tame aggression is not so much “dialing it back” as it is “mixing it up” and keeping your opponents guessing as to how you’re approaching your decision-making. Staying stuck in one style, aggressive or otherwise, is a sure-fire way to dump stacks.

“Be very dynamic and fluid,” is Sweeney’s advice.

Showing 3 comments
  • Barbara

    Such a great post! This is exactly what I have been experiencing. At the casino today, I am really going to focus on not overvaluing absolute strength and on mixing up my style. What is lovely is that I DO have styles now to choose from! I am also going to shorten my session as I have found that this much focus is draining.I hope your voices ring in my brain today!

  • Juan

    Great stuff! This couldn’t have come at a better time for me with where I am currently with my game.


  • William

    I am an older retired player who makes 4-5 trips to Vegas per year. I play 1-2 and 2-5. Usually I win at 1-2 and lose or break even at 2-5, but I have a very small sample size on either one. On my last trip I lost pretty steadily at 1-2, and then had a big win at 2-5 to break even for the trip. Not typical.

    I am over rolled for both stakes. I take about $6k out to Vegas and have never come close to losing it all. I am a pretty tight player, who enjoys a good bluff. At this point in my life I am not trying to make a living at poker, but simply to win.

    I seem to lose the most money when I try to buy a pot against some one who has a very good hand and is just letting me hang myself or against someone who has hung around long enough that my bluff on the river isn’t enough to get a fold because either he or myself don’t have enough stack left. I also find out in retrospect I am trying to bluff someone who is basically never folding.