This series of articles describes 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.
In total I have identified 25 stages that I think most players go through, roughly in order, as they improve. This article begins with Stage 6.
Stage 6. I can semibluff decent draws postflop with essentially no added risk.
Players that haven’t yet reached Stage 6 I consider to be nits. They take few real chances, shying away from making or calling big bets without holding a near lock of a hand. At this stage, however, players begin to awaken to the fact that they can become more dangerous players if they are willing to make big bets sometimes with non-lock hands.
The easiest hands to make these bets with are good draws. For instance, say it’s a $50 pot preflop. The preflop raiser bets $40 on a T 8 7 flop. You have K Q with $200 remaining. An all-in raise here is a fairly safe play. Because the K Q will nearly always have a number of outs if called, there is a large margin for error. In other words, it’s almost impossible for this hand to be in really bad trouble if called.
Aggressive players use opportunities like this to put pressure on their opponents. It makes their hands harder to read, and in the long term it wins more money.
Stage 7. Continuation betting is much more powerful if you follow it up sometimes with turn barrelling.
A continuation bet is a flop bet following a preflop raise. Many newer players will correctly make continuation bets when they raise preflop and miss the flop, but if they get called they will then nearly automatically give up on the hand. In this stage, however, players learn that there are many opportunities to steal pots even after being called on the flop. Often a flop call indicates a speculative hand such as a draw or a weak pair. In these cases, a solid turn follow-up barrel will frequently win the pot.
Learning when to fire a turn barrel requires thinking about an opponent’s preflop hand range as well as how those hands interact with the board. Therefore, this is the first stage where players begin to rely on hand reading to make better decisions.
Stage 8. I should reraise more hands preflop for value.
New players typically raise preflop with only their strongest hands – big pairs and perhaps A-K and A-Q. This is particularly true for players who have learned enough about the game to play like nits. A player at Stage 8 realizes that his opponents limp in with hands much weaker than the traditional raising hands. When players are limping in with hands like 8-7 offsuit and A-3 offsuit, stronger hands like Q-J suited and 8-8 make for good situational preflop raising hands.
Stage 9. I can now play a few more hands from all position because bluffing makes bad hands profitable sometimes.
Nits learn to play tight, and it’s a style that is well-suited to their no-nonsense postflop play. If you aren’t willing to bluff very often, it’s difficult to make speculative hands turn a profit. These hands don’t make the near-locks that nits are looking for often enough. Making speculative hands profitable requires a good bluffing sense. If you don’t make a big hand, you still get a chance to win the pot by stealing it.
In Stages 6 and 7, players add two important bluffs to their arsenals: semi-bluffs with drawing hands and turn barrels against likely weak flop callers. Once players learn to use these bluffs effectively, they can open up their preflop games a bit. Because they can generate more value from weak hands, they can play speculative hands preflop that are a bit more likely to miss the flop or hit it weakly. Of course, some players take this idea too far and begin to flail wildly in every pot. Don’t do that.
Stage 10. I need to adjust my preflop game to my opponents. That means not folding as much to frequent reraisers and calling more on the button against light openers.
This stage is particularly crucial for online players. Online no-limit games are ultra-aggressive, and players are looking to steal as many blinds and put on as much pressure with preflop reraises as possible. The nit’s reaction to this aggression is to fold most hands and wait for solid values. But this strategy is too cautious.
At Stage 10, players construct hand ranges for their opponents. If someone steals frequently from the button, for instance, a player at this stage will know what hands he is reasonably likely to be up against. Then he can defend his blind with an array of hands that play without disadvantage against this range.
The same principle applies when facing preflop reraises. In the old days, a preflop reraise meant a strong hand. But in the ultra-aggressive online games of today, players reraise light as frequently as they can get away with it. Learning to defend well against this onslaught is critical.
At this stage, players can begin to compete in the tough online microstakes games. They have added basic aggression to their games, winning extra pots and keeping their opponents off balance. They’ve also loosened up a bit preflop because they know they can turn a weak hand into a winner with a clever bet. Finally, they’ve begun to adjust to aggressive opponents who are trying to steal as much as they can get away with. Next issue I’ll talk about more preflop adjustments players make as they become more sophisticated.
[This article appeared in the October 20, 2010 issue (Vol. 23, No. 21) of Card Player.]