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Adjusting to Opponents - Part II

In Part I, we indicated several arguments why adjusting to one's opponents is critical in the shorthanded game--far more than during a full game. In this lesson, we work to take advantage of the mistakes and failures of other players.

Every player has a flaw. In some cases, our foundation strategy will already exploit the flaws of our opposition, necessitating no adjustment on our part. For other opponents, we must alter our tactics fittingly. But what is appropriate? One must compensate for an opponent's disadvantages by deviating away from normal strategy. In other words, they should change their play from what is normally "correct" to capitalize on an opponent's error. There are several ways to take advantage of openings.

For example:

  • Against a very tight non-bluffing player, a winner could safely lay down relatively big hands, such as two pair against a raise on an evident completed flush.
  • Against a maniac, a winner could calldown liberally with weak pairs to catch recurring bluffs.
  • Against a tight big blind, a winner could steal frequently to reap instantaneous profit.

How to Adjust?
There are two basic approaches to combat challenging approaches or to exploit weaknesses. Generally, the best reaction is opposite the exposed vulnerability.

  1. If a player is too passive, use aggression to steal pots early and take free cards late. Taking initiative of the hand allows the freedom and control to bluff or check at will.
  2. If an opponent is too aggressive, use the weapons of passivity to win extra bets. Induce bluffs (and weak semibluffs) and call down with marginal holdings rather than battle in a war of marginal raises. Don't get upset if a long shot hits on the river to cost you the pot. The long-run odds are in your favor.
  3. If an opponent is too loose, tighten up to take advantage of their tendency to showdown. Better starting hands are more likely to win big pots off opponents playing marginal holdings.
  4. If a player is too tight, loosen up to take advantage of bluffing opportunities.

In each case, the key to success is using a player's tendencies against them. But countering a flaw will only be successful if the correct type of adjustment is made. For example, loosening up against a tight player is unprofitable and dangerous on its own. Proper bluffing and semi-bluffing must be employed for the additional hands to be profitable.

A second option that may successfully counter a rival's game plan involves using aggression or passivity to attack or neutralize an opponent. For example, let's assume an opponent is quite loose and aggressive, attacking the blinds almost every single orbit. A strong reply includes frequent re-raises, adding money to the pot with an advantageous hand and/or gaining initiative that may short-circuit a maniac's normal plan. This strategy is often very lucrative when a showdown is nearly inevitable. If an opponent will not fold regardless of the board (maybe in fact raising the flop with any hand), then a holding such as 77 or ATs should be reraised every single time from the big blind since a showdown is virtually preordained. The question will not be whether or not to continue through the river with such a hand. Instead, the debate is whether or not to bet, raise, or reraise on the flop, turn, and river.

Another illustration incorporates the habitual bluffer. Presuppose a scary board is present, and we are facing a player who avidly takes advantage of each bluffing opportunity. With a strong hand, calling would be the customary solution since it is the cheapest way to see a showdown. However, lacking a formidable hand, aggression may solve our dilemma if we can be fairly certain of the bluffer's willingness to fold to a counter-attack. A bluff re-raise can take the whole pot from a would-be thief, but the circumstances must be satisfactory. It all depends on how far the bluffer is prepared to continue without a legitimate hand.

Tight-Aggressive Opponent
Of course, the most difficult opponent style is tight/aggressive. Sometimes, it is very demanding to describe what a tight/aggressive style entails, so it is even more arduous to attempt an explanation of how to defeat such a strategy. Suffice to say, a balanced attack and deft skill at reading hands is necessary. The best counter strategy is usually tight/aggressive as well, but forays on other routes must be made to take advantage of any faults that are discovered.

The "Dance"
An interesting phenomenon may be created by in-game adjustments when observant opponents meet. Let's say Player 1 begins with an aggressive stance bent on stealing small pots and blinds. It is countered by Player 2, who strikes back with re-raises and loosens up their requirements to persist beyond the flop. In doing so, Player 2 presents a new exploitable opportunity. If Player 1 shifts back to a tighter style, they can trap Player 2 with powerful hands, winning big pots after a showdown. Then, Player 2 might adjust again, leading to another adjustment by Player 1 and so on. At the higher limits, two or more solid opponents often fulfill this "dance," attempting to remain one step ahead of their rival.

Fortunately, such strong observation skills are relatively rare, and the expertise required to appropriately tweak after proper examination is scarcer still. But it is important to note that if a shorthanded player desires to grow and climb to higher limits, they must be prepared to tackle in-game corrections of necessity. Even without expertise, a good player's willingness to shift tactics during a session will make them harder to target, but changes in style only appreciably bear fruit if the competition is quite perceptive and immediately make mistakes. In other words, at the lowest limits, a good player can stray from their "correct" strategy to abuse competition's failings, without constant fear of reprisal by an observant, skilled player. At higher limits, it is much more important to remain unpredictable over a long session.

Building a Base Strategy
It should be abundantly clear that no single strategy will always work in shorthanded poker. More importantly, it is critical to use modified tactics to maximize profit against imperfect competition. But what planned style is optimum when entering a game for the first time, ignorant of the precise competition?

A base strategy should successfully compete against the average lineup. Our principal assumption is that shorthanded players will tend to be loose and aggressive. There are many reasons for the loose/aggressive psychology to be dominant, and we will discuss those reasons in the next lesson. But for now, it is only necessary to speculate on the best style to combat a routinely loose/aggressive game. The simple remedy is to begin play with a tight, relatively passive style. It is important to continue to bet and raise with strong hands, in order to win sizeable pots and avoid free cards. Semi-bluffing must also sustain a lesser function to take advantage of opportunities. Conversely, inducing bluffs, trapping with flop/turn calls (rather than immediate raises), and avoiding unprofitable bluffs and semi-bluffs will play a more prominent function than many anticipate.

Conclusion
There are many important lessons to be learned when examining the magnitude of adjustments in shorthanded poker. Each game is different, and so no simple plan may be offered that will provide perpetual success. Players struggle to remain balanced, tending instead towards extremes that leave them vulnerable to attack. Individual confrontation maintains a leading role in every shorthanded game, providing ample opportunity to gain benefit. In other words, a shorthanded player will see every extreme style, every bizarre tactic, and every awkward scenario imaginable.

In order to combat the unpredictability and hazards of the shorthanded contest, it would be unwise to preach only one strategy. Instead, I will try to examine all available alternatives. But I will focus on a plan that will lead to success in the most common games of a loose/aggressive nature. In the next lesson on psychology, we will study why loose/aggressive games are so prevalent, and why a tighter, less aggressive stance will so often succeed (in contrast with widespread beliefs). Until next lesson, good luck!

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