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 11.
Stage 11. I should look for small pots that nobody in particular seems to want and attack them.
Up through Stage 10, most bluffing has fallen into one of two categories. Either you are making semibluffs with good drawing hands, or you are following up a preflop raise with flop and turn barrels. But bluffing situations also arise when you don’t have a hand and you haven’t yet shown any aggression. Spotting and taking advantage of these situations in Stage 11 will pad your winrate.
For example, say two players limp, the small blind completes, and you check with trash in the big blind. The flop comes T 4 4 . This is a flop few players are likely to be interested in, and it may merit attacking. You could toss out a small bet and see if it wins immediately. Even if you get called, all is not necessarily lost. A call is more likely to be a flush draw, a ten, or an unimproved pocket pair (or ace-high) than a four. You could try betting again if the turn comes something like the K , a card that damages the value of most of the possible calling hands besides trips.
Small pots ripe for stealing arise frequently. A Stage 11 player regularly takes shots at these pots and shows a steady profit as a result.
Stage 12. I need to adjust my postflop play somewhat to my opponents. That means getting it in with hands like top pair against bad or loose players.
In Stage 3, players learned that top pair can be a very dangerous hand to stack off with. When most competent players drive the betting, culminating in an all-in, they will typically have more than top pair. So early on players learn to relinquish top pair when the pressure becomes too strong.
But important exceptions exist to this rule, and at Stage 12, players begin to get it in with just top pair in lucrative situations. One important exception is when a particularly bad or loose player is in the game.
Say a bad player with $300 in a $2-$5 game limps in, and you raise preflop to $25 with A Q . The bad player calls, and the flop comes Q 9 2 . Some players will call flop, turn, and river bets with a hand like Q 7 . Against this type of player, you should bet three times even if you don’t improve. Other players will make wild flop raises with hands like Q 7 or J 8 or 6 4 . Against these players, if they raise your flop bet, you should simply move all-in with your top pair.
Stage 13. I can make money by stealing more preflop. I can steal more loosely from the button, and I can 3-bet light from the button and blinds.
Many players have trouble beating tight games. They feel like they never get action on their good hands, and the game begins to feel like a constant fight to stay ahead of the blinds. A Stage 13 player realizes that the first step to beating tight games is to steal the blinds whenever possible. If everyone folds to a Stage 13 player on the button or in the small blind, often he can raise 50 percent or more of his hands and expect to win the blinds often enough to show an automatic profit.
In addition to stealing blinds relentlessly whenever players are unwilling to protect them, a Stage 13 player challenges others who try to steal by reraising possible blind steals with a wide range of hands. For instance, if an aggressive stealer opens for $7 on the button in a $1-$2 game, he might sometimes protect his big blind with a reraise to $23 with a hand like T 7 .
Stage 14. I can also get carried away and start opening too many hands from all positions.
Stage 13 is a critical one for many players. Once they see that they can win the blinds from the button with hands like 8 7 and Q 6 , they begin to change the way they think about hand values. If 8 7 can win on the button, why not also from two or three off the button? The problem with this thinking, of course, is that with so many players yet to act, too often someone will wake up with a strong hand. Learning to steal with position from tight players doesn’t mean you should get carried away and loosen up from all positions. If you don’t have position and a legitimate chance to steal the blinds, play tight like you learned to do in Stage 2.
Stage 15. I can combat light 3-bettors with light 4-bets and light 4-bettors with light 5-bet shoves.
In Stage 13, players learn that they can combat aggressive blind stealers by 3-betting sometimes with modest, speculative hands. In Stage 15, players learn that they can attack opponents making these light 3-bets by making light 4-bets. And, likewise, they can attack a possible light 4-bet by moving all-in with a 5-bet.
For instance, in a $1-$2 game with $200 stacks, an aggressive player who raises 50 percent of buttons makes it $6 to go with K 8 . The big blind, also an agressive player, makes it $22 to go with A 3 . This is a light 3-bet made with the hope of winning the pot immediately. The button suspects a light 3-bet, however, so he 4-bets to $52, again hoping to win immediately. Finally, the big blind, again suspecting a possible bluff, shoves all-in for $200.
You can play for hundreds of hours at a live table and never see preflop aggression like this. But in aggressive online 6-max games, this 3-bet/4-bet/5-bet game plays a central role in preflop strategy. A Stage 15 player achieves competency in this game within a game to remain competitive with his peers.
By this time, a player has the skills to win in nearly any no-limit hold’em game in a live cardroom, up to and including $5-$10 games. This is also the stage where players can hope to break-even or show a slight profit in tough online games like $0.25-$0.50. Next issue I’ll discuss the Stages that a TAG must go through to become bigger winners.
[This article appeared in the November 3, 2010 issue (Vol. 23, No. 22) of Card Player.]