Back in 2003, Phil Helmuth published Play Poker like the Pros, in which he classified opponents by analogy to common animals. The mouse was absurdly tight, in fact far too tight to ever be a winning player in the modern game. The Jackal was obnoxiously loose – too loose to succeed in a game where anyone knows what they’re doing. The eagle was a very gifted player who was mysteriously described as ‘one of the top 100 players in the world’. Who knows how good the eagles of Helmuth’s day would be today!
The point is that many of the play styles we used to think about as optional have been reduced to absurdity by modern poker theory and have become much rarer than they used to be. I’d like to have some fun in this article and invent some poker animals for the modern era where technically horrible play cannot win simply due to the quality of your sunglasses or your ability to read body language. The animals to come are all different in flavour but do not exhibit horrible fundamental leaks like never playing a hand or limping into lots of pots like Helmuth’s elephant. You can choose between the following play styles in your quest to becoming a successful player in the modern era.
The vulture studies a lot of small and common spots. He fights for the scraps that other people don’t want and eats the discarded corpses of small pots. In the long-term, the vulture outplays people so effortlessly and mundanely in small pots that he barely needs to study the bigger pots that occur more rarely. Vultures learn which situations are handled the worst by the population and bluff more than is technically optimal in many situations where he knows that the field folds too often.
Vultures exhibit bet-sizes and lines that other regs who are trapped in their rigid box fail to even consider. Sure, Villain might be calling the river a lot here, but is he calling the 25% of the time that he needs to in order to stop you from bluffing 3x the pot? No, he’s folding 95% of his range.
Vultures make up for much of the damage that’s done to them by posting big blinds by winning far more than their fair share of small and medium pots and extracting extra value and fold equity where other regulars do not. Therefore, they have a slow and steady income that protects them from running bad in the bigger pots. When they do run well in the big pots, it’s all over for the competition.
The porcupine is much tighter in nature than the vulture and keeps things by the book. Not the old nitty book about folding all the time, but the modern GTO book. Porcupines are conservative when it comes to exploiting people and adopt more of a game theory solid approach until they have gathered a lot of information on their opponent. Their base game is balanced and difficult to beat. If you leave them alone, they will not try to exploit you, but once you have stepped out of line, the response will be exploitative in an informed and effective way.
Porcupines spend most of their study time brushing up on their GTO shell. By learning how often they should bet and raise on different board textures, and with which hands, they construct a prickly fortress that keeps them safe. By spending this much time on solid theory, however, they might miss out on honing their exploitative game and can be slower to pick up on way to beat the population. The porcupine’s game is lower EV than the vultures in many spots, but the vulture is victim to counter-exploitation much more often.
The porcupine style is suitable for math-based players, who prefer machine-like, objective perfection to the subjective practice of profiting from human weaknesses. Because the porcupine can play the same base game against most opponents with some success, he is usually able to put in a lot more volume than more exploitative players who need to be hyper-focussed.
The bear is fearless and nasty. He or she will put you to the test emotionally and technically in the big pots which this player loves to create. Most of the bear’s exploitative bullying is centred around where people become the most uncomfortable and this, as you might imagine, tends to be in larger pots. The bear will look at how ranges change dramatically as the pot gets big and seek out spots in which people dislike stacking off even when it’s theoretically correct to do so. Bears tend to pick on the tighter side of the population, staying away from other bears to reduce their variance.
Personality-wise, the bear does not mind losing a few stacks here and there – it’s all par for the course when you’re trying to play as many big pots as possible. The bear will be one of the rarer players who has a positive ‘won money without showdown’ line on his poker graph. Bears are the modern alternative to the old school LAG. If you don’t mind a bumpy line and like to be the aggressor, this could be the modern style for you.
The owl is a low volume – high focus player. He avoids playing lots of tables because he has incredibly high standards as to how he plays hands. He does not tolerate anything below 95% of his ability level. He will notice every detail at the table and will have extensive bank of notes on his opponents. The owl is the sort of player who knows what your imbalances are long before you do. He will remember a hand from three weeks ago that you have lost in your archive of thousands and thousands of hands. The owl might have a lower hourly than the porcupine but will have a much higher BB/100 (see article on this).
The owl is very unlikely to stagnate as he is always critically evaluating his game and seeking perfection. He sees all pots as equally worthy. Unlike the bear he does not seek big pots out, but he is not adverse to them. Unlike the vulture, he does not specialise in small pots, but he certainly doesn’t neglect them.