A while back I developed a model for player development that I call Stages Of A TAG. I think most players go through a series of stages or realizations about no-limit hold’em as they improve their games from rank beginners to decent tight-aggressive (TAG) players and beyond.
I think these stages are worth thinking about because they can help you do a couple of things:
- Realize approximately where you stand in your development, and therefore what concepts you have still to master.
- Understand how to identify roughly how your opponents are thinking, what tactics they are well-defended against, and what tactics they might be vulnerable to.
As I read hands and try to get into the heads of my opponents, I refer to an internal conception of these stages, and I think it helps me in my quest stay one step ahead of my opponents.
In this series of articles I will present my 25 stages, beginning in this article with the first five.
Stage 1. Hrmm, this K5s looks kinda good.
Rank beginners tend to focus on doing one thing: trying to make good hands. They want to make straights, flushes, and full houses. It seems only natural that they would focus on that. Good hands win pots.
This focus leads beginners to choose a preflop strategy that emphasizes suited and connected hands. They may not think too clearly about their hand selection, but anyone who plays for even a few minutes will notice that players play some hands and fold others. On the surface, given the focus on making hands, K-5 suited then looks perhaps like a good hand to play, while 9-4 offsuit may be a fold. A hand like 9-8 offsuit can make a straight, so it’s worth a gamble. This naive strategy ignores position, ignores risk-reward considerations, and ultimately builds the foundation for a fatally flawed strategy. Players at this stage will hemorrhage money until they progress.
Stage 2. I will never play anything but these 18 hands under any circumstances.
The first improvement most players make after they read a few magazine articles and perhaps a book or two is they learn to play tight. K-5 suited really isn’t that great a hand because it’s hard to make a flush, and the king and five by themselves don’t have a lot of value. The hands with the most value are the big pocket pairs and the big card hands like A-K and A-Q.
The natural impulse after learning the benefits of playing tight is to become rigid about it. There are good hands like Q-Q and bad hands like T-8 suited. Players at this stage learn to fold, fold, fold, until they get one of their good hands.
This change goes a long way to plug the money leak from Stage 1. But many players at this stage think they are much more advanced than they really are. Just playing tight will not win you money. There is much more to the game.
Stage 3. I need to fold postflop if I don’t hit a hand. And I need to fold to pressure if I don’t have a great hand.
After learning to play tight preflop, players easily take to the idea that they should also be tight postflop. Fit-or-fold is the name for this way of playing. If I fit the flop, I’ll keep playing. If not, my hand is worthless and I’ll fold. A-K is just a drawing hand, after all, and if it doesn’t catch an ace or king on the flop it’s basically worthless.
This is an integral stage in the development of a player, but again most players at this stage think they are more advanced than they are. No one ever won a pot by folding. Learning to release hopeless hands is a critical skill, but players at this stage often think many hands are hopeless when they really aren’t. And, more generally, players at this stage are still thinking only about the strength of their own hands. They aren’t thinking about what their opponents may have. This limitation makes it hard to win consistently.
Stage 4. Maybe I can loosen up a little bit in position. I can play more hands because I know how to fold them postflop.
Players at this stage make the critical leap that they can sometimes win pots without an ironclad monster hand. In particular, they learn that they can use position to force opponents to fold, to see cheap cards, and to otherwise tilt the action in their favor. Because of this, they realize that they can play hands like T-8 suited sometimes, provided there hasn’t been a lot of preflop raising and they will be in position.
This realization is on point. But I often hear players justify their looser play by saying, “I know how to fold if I miss the flop.” This attitude is a throwback to the fit-or-fold mindset of the Stage 3 player. A main reason why hands like T-8 suited are profitable on the button is because you can steal pots with them even when they miss. If you focus solely on making a hand, you’ll find that even a suited and connected hand like T-8 suited doesn’t make a monster hand often enough to turn a large profit just playing to hit the flop.
Stage 5. I need to bet my good hands hard so I can get value for them.
Before this stage, players tend to be focused on what not to do. Don’t play bad hands. Don’t play out of position. Don’t pay someone off with a second-best hand. When they have a good hand, they will bet it, but they won’t try to maximize its value.
I routinely see newer players make anemic bets of 20 percent of the pot or smaller with big hands like sets and flushes. At Stage 5, players realize that big hands deserve big pots. You don’t make sets very often, so when you do, try to win a big one. Build a pot early with a nice-sized flop bet and then keep betting to try to get the stacks in the middle.
At this stage, players can be considered solid “nits”. They are playing tight preflop, slightly looser in position, and mainly putting in serious money postflop only with strong hands. Nits can make decent money in small stakes live games, but to conquer the tougher games they need to evolve further. Next issue I’ll talk about the stages where players add some basic aggression.
[This article appeared in the October 6, 2010 issue (Vol. 23, No. 20) of Card Player.]