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 21.
Stage 21. I should look for large pots that people seem to have given up on and shove my money in.
The learning curve for this stage is steep, but the payoff is well worth it. Even though large pots are the ones most worth fighting for, players give up on them all the time. Sometimes they called twice with a draw and missed. Sometimes they tried to pick up the pot with a turn barrel and got called. Sometimes they called twice with a medium strength pair with the intention of folding to a big river bet. These are just some of the more common scenarios where a player will build a large pot with you, but be unwilling to stay with it until the end.
Any time Stage 21 players find themselves in a large pot, they use their hand reading tools to gauge an opponent’s commitment to the pot. An unthreatening river card can weaken enough drawing and medium strength hands to make an all-in bluff profitable. An unexpected check can be reason by itself to fire a big river bet. Stage 21 players know the signs of opponents who may have given up on the pot, and that makes them very dangerous.
Stage 22. I can value bet on the river much lighter against bad players and expect to get called by worse hands.
Early on in their development, players learn intuitively that ranges frequently become polarized on the river. The hands that have weathered three rounds of betting are often either strong made hands or busted draws. Betting a medium strength pair on the river, therefore, makes little sense, because the busted draws won’t call, and strong made hands will.
But this logic doesn’t hold against many weak players. Their ranges aren’t as polarized on the river, because they linger too long in hands with marginal hands. On a Q-8-6-J-4 board, for instance, a weak player can still hold a hand like A-K or 8-7 or A-6 even after heavy flop and turn betting. Therefore, against such a player, it can make sense to bet a hand like A-J for value on the river. A “typical” player would almost never call with a worse hand, but bad players will.
Stage 22 players have a keenly developed sense of the hand ranges they can expect their opponents to hold. By counting the number of unexpected weak hands in these ranges, they can find good river value bets that other players miss.
Stage 23. I need to focus on line balancing. Reading hands lets me find unbalanced lines in my own play and in my opponents’ play.
Line balancing is the critical skill for a TAG player who wants to progress into tougher games. People play no-limit in a systematic way, nearly always calling with this sort of hand in this situation and nearly always raising with that one. This simple systematic approach creates hundreds of unbalanced lines – situations where the player will almost never have a weak hand or, oppositely, a strong one. Unbalanced lines betray too much information that a strong opponent can use exploitatively.
Stage 23 players focus on line balancing, both in their play and in their opponents’. They look for situations where their opponents have unbalanced lines and exploit them. Just as important, they look inward, analyzing the patterns in their own play. Say a Stage 23 player notices that he often calls twice with medium pairs only to fold to a river bet. He would almost never play a legitimately strong hand that way. His opponents could use this tendency against him, firing river bluffs and expecting to get plenty of folds. So he adjusts – he balances the call flop-call turn line – by calling twice with hands he also plans to call with on the river. By balancing this line, he thwarts river bluffs and denies criticial information to his opponent.
Stage 24. Through obvservation I can determine roughly what level my opponent plays at and out-level them by one level.
Stage 24 players can evaluate opponents quickly. They watch for plays their opponents make – and look out for ones they don’t make. This information allows them to gain insight into their opponents’ strategies and permits them to predict how opponents will react to a new situation. With this knowledge, they can stay one step ahead of their opponents.
For example, a Stage 24 player could watch an opponent play for a while and then come up with a rough guess for the stage number this opponent has mastered. He might notice, for instance, that a player knows to raise more hands in position, but doesn’t know how to combat a light 3-bet with this weak late position hand range. This would place the player somewhere between a Stage 13 and a Stage 15 player. He could therefore fairly expect the player to have mastered Stage 10 skills, but not Stage 20 skills.
Stage 25. I can make seemingly drastic adjustments to my game to exploit opponents playing an unbalanced strategy.
Most players adopt a general strategy or “style” and mostly stick to it. They will make modest adjustments given the situation, but they don’t stray too far out of their comfort zone. Stage 25 players wil make huge adjustments when the situation calls for it. These are adjustments that lesser players might never even think of. Or they might consider them, but rarely have the confidence to pull the trigger.
Stage 25 players still have much to learn, but they have absorbed the fundamentals of the main important poker skills. From there it’s refinement. Finding more unbalanced lines in their own play and balancing them. Knowing what players to expose unbalanced lines to and what players to play defensively against. Seeking out more and more subtle ways to exploit opponents. And so on. By the time you get to this level, you can truly call yourself an expert player, and you will no doubt have the winnings to prove it.
[This article appeared in the December 1, 2010 issue (Vol. 23, No. 24) of Card Player.]