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 16.
Stage 16. Double barrelling can be quite effective, and sometimes I should resort to firing three barrels.
Stage 7 players learned to make continuation bets and sometimes also follow those bets up with turn barrels. After raising preflop, a flop continuation bet will frequently win the pot. And even if you get called, sometimes a stiff turn bet will succeed.
But before Stage 16, players typically give up if their turn barrel gets called. They figure that a player needs a fairly good hand to call a turn bet, and they don’t want to try to bluff out a good hand. While this reasoning is often sound, sometimes a third big bluff on the river is the best play.
This is particularly true against players who limit their hand range by calling on the turn. As a simple example, say a player would almost always raise the flop or turn with two pair or better, but just call with one pair. A turn call would then indicate a good, but not great, hand. It could be something like K-Q on a K J 8 7 board. A large bet on the river could be enough to convince this player finally to give up on top pair.
Stage 17. I can take aggressive donk bettors who bet many flops off their hands with well-timed raises and floats.
In Stage 11, players learn to attack small pots that no one seems to want. Some players take this principle too far, however, and begin to attack small pot after small pot with many flop bets. At Stage 17, players can identify this pattern of overaggression and counter it by playing back at opportune times. Stage 17 players can resteal from aggressive donk bettors either by raising the flop or by calling on the flop with the intention of taking the pot away on a later street.
In order to identify good times to play back, a Stage 17 player must be familiar with the likely hand ranges his opponent can hold and how well those hands connect with the board.
Stage 18. I should seek out bad players and try to isolate them to play as many pots as possible with them.
By Stage 18, a player has the basic tools to succeed at no-limit. He plays tight out of position. He opens up a bit in position, and opens up a lot when given the chance to steal the blinds. He defends himself against aggressive opponents by ramping up preflop aggresion. He plays carefully when opponents show strength, but he attacks weakness after the flop. Finally, he can identify bad players against whom he should loosen up.
In Stage 18, a player learns that he can sometimes play much looser and more aggressively than normal when a weak player has entered the pot. It is wrong to open the pot with a hand like 8 7 from two off the button. The hand is simply too weak for the position. But it can be correct to raise a limper with the same hand in the same position. In an unopened pot, playing 8 7 would be an attempted blind steal that will fail too often to be profitable. Raising a limper, however, is not a blind steal at all. Instead, it’s an attempt to play a pot with someone who will, over time, give their money away. The downside to playing the weak hand is the same in both scenarios – players behind will wake up with strong hands and muscle you out of the pot. But the upside is potentially much greater against a limper. Instead of winning the blinds, you can now win much more from a bad player. This difference can make playing bad hands worth the risk.
At Stage 18, a player learns to evaluate opponents and customize a preflop strategy to maximize profit.
Stage 19. Preflop hand values usually depend far more on the situation than on the intrinsic value of the cards.
Naive players might rank preflop starting hands in a list from strongest to weakest, with A-A being the strongest and 7-2 perhaps the weakest. A Stage 19 player realizes that, apart from the extremely strong hands like A-A and A-K, preflop hands have only modest intrinsic value. Instead, their value is primarily situational. This is a generalization of the principle players learn in Stage 18. That is, in some situations (blind stealing from two off the button), 8 7 is not worth playing. In other situations (isolating a lousy player), it is.
Hands have strengths and weaknesses. A small pair like 3-3 can flop a set and win a huge hand and sometimes can win in a cheap showdown against one or two opponents. But without a set it’s a hand that doesn’t offer many semibluffing opportunities, and it’s usually too weak to withstand any betting pressure. A hand like A-3 is sometimes is likewise often too weak to withstand betting pressure, and it can also win cheap showdowns. But it offers card blocking value as it makes it harder for an opponent to hold an ace in a hand like A-A or A-K. Suited connectors create lots of semibluffing opportunities, but they stink in situations where bluffing opportunities are likely to be scarce.
A Stage 19 player evalutes the strengths and weaknesses of hands, and he also evaluates the situation and the sort of strengths that are called for. Does the situation require semibluffing chances? Does it value card blocking? Is making top pair likely to be valuable? He then matches up hands to situations and decides how to proceed.
Stage 20. The size of the pot determines how aggressive I need to play and how committed I am to the pot.
All poker decisions boil down to risk versus reward. The risk is what you could lose proceeding in a hand, and the reward is the pot you can win. The Stage 20 player realizes that all evaluation of situational values depend on the pot size. In general, the bigger the pot the more aggressive and committed one needs to be. But, as always, the devil is in the details, and a Stage 20 player has learned to incorporate yet another important variable into his decision-making.
By Stage 20, a no-limit player is a tough competitor in most games. But there are still five more Stages of a TAG, and I will present those final five in the next issue.
[This article appeared in the November 17, 2010 issue (Vol. 23, No. 23) of Card Player.]