The concept of a tight-aggressive poker strategy is simple: play very few hands, but play them aggressively.
TAG poker worked like magic 10 years ago, when fishy players with loose pre-flop tendencies were a dime a dozen. Heck, even Mike McDermott recommended it to the professor in Rounders (1998).
Unfortunately, poker is no longer quite that simple. The competition is tougher. Your opponents are not going to blindly pay you off if they only see you risk chips with strong hands.
Tight-aggressive poker is nearly dead, but for many less experienced players a LAG poker strategy (loose-aggressive) isn’t much of an option either, because playing a wide range of hands is challenging.
The solution is to add a modern touch to TAG poker by focusing on balancing our range, as well as playing more passively in situations that call for it.
In this article, we’ll review a session Doug Polk recorded for The Poker Lab at 100NL on PokerStars. During this session, Doug demonstrates how to balance our generally aggressive post-flop strategy with a bit of passivity.
This is part 4 of Dissecting the Lab, an article series where I review content and share highlights from the Upswing Poker Lab. Each article is independent, but you can check out part 3 here.
Aggression vs Passivity at the Poker Table
It’s usually best to take an aggressive approach to poker because being the aggressor helps turn close spots into favorable ones (especially when we’re in position).
Constantly forcing our opponents to react to our actions, our bet-sizing, our thin value-bets and our over-bet bluffs, makes significant game play errors on their part more likely.
As the adage goes, a caller has only one way to win the pot—by having the best hand; the aggressor has two—having the best hand or forcing the opponent to fold.
Of course, we have to be careful not to go overboard. The days of running over opponents with blind aggression are mostly over.
Players’ calling ranges have improved substantially in recent years, even at the lower stakes, as a result of poker strategy sites and high-level twitch streams.
Players are trapping more, defending wider, and calling down lighter. Therefore, it is imperative to find scenarios in which we take our proverbial foot off the gas, allowing the game to ‘come to us’ rather than try to force the action.
Let’s have a look at a couple such scenarios from Doug’s cash game grind that illustrate this idea.
TAG Poker Against a Nit
The video opens as this hand begins:
100NL on PokerStars, $81 Effective Stacks
Doug is in the big blind with:
folds to btn, BTN raises to $2, sb folds, Doug calls
Doug checks, BTN checks
In this first spot, Doug defends his big blind with ATo against a button open and both players check the Q43 flop.
The turn is the ten of hearts giving Doug a strong second pair hand, which leads him to instinctively measure out a probe bet.
However, before hitting the bet button, he notices his opponent’s HUD numbers…
Doug’s HUD indicates this particular opponent has entered the pot pre-flop just 9% of the time in 22 hands played (meaning he is likely a tight passive poker player).
With this information, Doug decides to check the turn instead, with intentions of flatting a bet if the button stabs at the pot. If the button checks back the turn, Doug will value-bet the river (assuming it’s a safe card).
Note that, although 22 hands is a small sample, it’s enough to make certain judgements about an opponent’s play; and those judgements are more reliable when the opponent’s tendencies are on the extreme ends of the spectrum (either very tight or very loose).
(Remember, it’s important not to overreact to the numbers, or make an unorthodox play based on ‘reads’ with poor evidence.)
When it comes to the closer spots—such as deciding whether to play a hand as a Category 1 or Category 2—it’s perfectly acceptable to take a more conservative approach. As Doug Polk puts it:
Against tighter players you want to shift everything down a notch. Be a little more conservative on the value, because they’re just going to have a lot stronger hands overall.
After all, no one likes “value-owning” themselves against a nit.
Don’t Always Play Aggressively on Ace-High Flops
Another situation that often calls for a measure of passivity, which tight-aggressive players frequently overplay, is on an Axx flop as the pre-flop button raiser.
100NL on PokerStars, $153 Effective Stacks
Doug is on the button with
Qd 6hfolds to btn, Doug raises to $2.25, both blinds call
SB checks, BB checks, Doug…
Doug opens Q6o on the button and gets called by both the small and big blind.
The flop comes Ace-high and both blinds check over to Doug. He explains that, despite this being a dry board that’s tough to hit, checking back is better than firing a c-bet.
Doug’s button opening range contains a plethora of hands with a 5, 3 or two spades, all of which are now great Category 3 semi-bluffing hands.
Additionally, Doug has a number of hands like JsTd in his range, which have better backdoor potential than Q6o. Consequently, a bet with the weak backdoor potential of his actual hand would be over-bluffing.
Doug put it like this:
When you think about category 3 hands you don’t want to be like, ‘Draw. Okay, category 3’. You want to think about how many category 3 hands you have. If you have a lot of category 3 hands in a particular range, it’s totally fine to take your weakest ones and check them.
In other words, don’t semi-bluff with every draw, every time. Examine your range in a given spot individually to make sure you aren’t over- or under-bluffing.
Monotone Board? Tight Passive Poker is Not the Answer
Finally, in contrast with the above examples, Doug showcases a spot that many players incorrectly play passively, which leaves them open to being exploited in a very specific way.
100NL on PokerStars, $100 Effective Stacks
Doug is in the CO with
folds to co, Doug raises to $2.25, folds to bb, BB calls
BB checks, Doug bets $3.18, BB calls
BB checks, Doug bets $6, BB calls
After opening pre-flop with pocket jacks, Doug c-bets his overpair and flush-draw on the flop.
Doug then explains that you should generally be betting the 4-flush turn, too, instead of trying to delay the bet until the river.
Let’s discuss why betting middle 1-card flushes on the turn like this can be a good decision:
- Our balanced turn range protects us from check/raises
You may be wondering “why would we bet these hands that really don’t want to face a check/raise?”
Well, that’s a lot easier said than done for our opponent in the big blind. We would have played many of our hands that contain the Ah or Kh the same way up until this point, which makes it pretty tough for the big blind to check/raise us without holding the goods himself.
When we do get check/raised with these middle flushes, our options will be to either call the turn with plans to fold the river, or just fold straight away to the turn check/raise.
- We avoid a potentially challenging river spot
If we check back the turn and bet the river, our opponent might suspect that we do not have the top of our range, and therefore could put us in a tough spot by check-raising as a bluff.
- Our strongest hands get to extract more value
One possible solution to the river imbalance would be to play all your strong flushes as checks on the turn, thus keeping your river range as strong as possible.
However, this could be much worse line in the long run, since by checking with everything, including your Ah and Kh hands, you will likely extract less value.
- We get value from non-flush hands with equity
Finally, by betting the turn you also get value from 2-pair hands, which are more likely to call the turn due to their ability to make a full-house on the river.
So, during your next session don’t just commit to playing TAG poker. Instead, remember to analyze every situation independently, and ask yourself, ‘does this spot require aggression or passivity?’
Until next time—best of luck!
(Note: Want to learn the methods behind Doug Polk & Ryan Fee’s success? The Poker Lab is exactly what they would teach their younger selves, if they could send info back in time. Click here or below to learn more)
Read more from this article series:
- Ryan Fee plays some low stakes fast-fold poker in part 1 of Dissecting the Lab
- Part 2 features 3 Concepts Every Aspiring Pro Needs to Know, including overbetting!
- In part 3, Doug Polk demonstrates How to Make Winning Adjustments in Low Stakes Games.
- Go back to the top of part 4 on tight-aggressive poker strategy.