The Evolving Poker Player

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There have been periods of my poker career where I was a full time pro. There were also periods where I was a part-time player and periods where I didn’t play poker at all. The times when I wasn’t playing poker at all tended to be when I thought that there was something wrong with my game. So I elevated learning more than playing and this is important if you want to correct any flaw or flaws that you have as quickly as possible.

My own fundamental weakness was that I was not a trained poker player or one that was coached until recently. The worst way to learn poker is to do it in an isolated way without personalised outside professional help. Many players that were previously making money that are no longer making money will argue that the games have become tougher. If they are referring to the average opponent being quite knowledgeable now then they are correct. However there is always value at the lower levels simply because the average player doesn’t have all that much time to dedicate to learning the game.

The time that the average player has available is used primarily to play although there has been a far greater learning period than a few years ago and players these days have access to far superior coaching material. If you think that the poker games are tougher then you need to examine your own game. In the overwhelming majority of cases then previously successful players tend to be sound poker players and many of them have good ABC games. However once you move into an environment where there isn’t really much to choose between your style and everyone else’s then the profit potential dies.

A common buzz word in poker at the moment is “standard”. A line is “standard” or a particular tactic is “standard”. In my opinion then “standard” is just another name for something that is well known and widely used. Standard in this context means a well-trodden path. So just how effective can lines be if they are “standard”? Well that all depends on how high you play but the very best poker players in the world analyse their games differently to the rest. Understanding the game dynamic is the first step but adjusting to play non-standard lines that work is the next.

At the higher levels of play then you need to be at the very forefront of the changes in game dynamics otherwise you are either playing the same as everyone else or being exploited by the very elite players that deviated from conventional play first. Let us have a look at standard plays. It is folded around to you on the button with the Qs-Js. If you raise here then the raise is standard for the situation and especially if you raise to around 3bb-3.5bb. If your opponent calls from the big blind and the flop comes 10c-8d-4h and they check then your c-bet is standard.

You have the overcard outs plus the inside straight draw for a decent level of pot equity. Only having one opponent and a relatively dry board means that the c-bet is “standard”! If your opponent check-raises you then if you shove all in then you have deviated very widely from standard play. All this is beside the point though because the topic of today’s post was in how effective “standard” lines are. This is a major factor in my opinion for why previously successful players stop making money. They play at levels where their opponents adjust to “current theory” constantly and their own adjustments either only match up to that or fall short.

Carl Sampson is an online poker pro who plays at 888poker

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Know the Basics

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It may seem very trivial to many people but simply knowing the rules of the game is an area that many poker players don’t even bother with at sites like 888 for example. The rules of poker differ somewhat and they certainly differ from game to game with huge differences in how various forms of poker are conducted.

For example I have run across many players who struggle when moving across from say no limit hold’em to Omaha based on the fact that in Omaha then you have to use two cards in your hand and three from the board.

The game rules in Omaha confuse many a novice player and this can be easily highlighted for example with the following hand. Let us say that in four card Omaha you get dealt the Kc-Jd-10h-8s and the final board is 9s-9d-8c-4h-8h. In hold’em then you would have a full house of nines over eights because you can play one card from your hand.

However in Omaha then the rules state that you must play two cards and so you only have one eight from your hand plus one other card! For you to be able to make a full house here then you need to have a four in your hand or a nine or possibly a pair of fours.

Another example could be if the final board is 9-9-4-4-9, taking your previous hand then you still do not have a full house. Remember that you must use only three cards from the middle and so the three nines must combine with two cards from your starting hand. Seeing as you do not hold a pair then you cannot have a full house.

You would be amazed at just how many players I have seen commit huge errors in this area and even experienced players who should know better often misread their hand in Omaha. Just like in any form of poker then not knowing the rules of the game can really hurt you where it hurts the most…….in your pocket.

Carl Sampson is a professional poker player that plays online at 888poker

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Taking Your Game to the Next Level

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I have often read poker books in the past that have talked about the number of reasons that you have to place money into the pot by either betting or raising. The reasons that I have seen quoted have numbered from half a dozen to as many as twelve depending on who the author is. However the reasons that I have seen haven’t been reasons at all but consequences of taking certain actions.

 

The fact remains that when you bet or raise in poker then you are either doing so for value or to bluff……..there are no other reasons.

 
Sophisticated players often merge the two reasons but there are only two. This is because you either have the best hand in any given situation or you don’t. Also your opponent either has a hand that can withstand action or it can’t and the same applies to you. One of the things that you will notice when you play poker is that there are an awful lot of “either/or” type scenarios. If you feel that your hand is not only the best hand but if you bet then your opponent can call then you are betting for value.

 
If you feel that your opponent is unlikely to be able to call then you are no longer betting for value but just aimlessly betting. Likewise if you feel that you don’t have the best hand, if you bet or raise then you are bluffing. However if you also feel that there is very little chance that your opponent can fold then you are not actually bluffing or at the very least then you are either bluffing badly or with no forethought at all. What actually confuses many novice players is that you can actually have the best hand but you still need to bluff.

 
This can be seen with the following example. You have Ad-Jc on a 10h-6s-2c board and your opponent has the Ac-9c. Clearly although you have the best hand, the important factor here is that both you and your opponent have weak hands. Your hand of ace jack high is only marginally better than your opponent’s hand of ace ten high. While your hand will win the pot at showdown, the fact of the matter is that both you and your opponent are weak. So if you bet then you are not betting for value for the simple reason that a worse hand will not call.

 
So if you are not betting for value then you are bluffing even though your hand is better than your opponent’s hand. Your bet is actually signalling to your opponent that you have a hand that is stronger than what you actually hold. Because this is not the case then you are telling a lie to your opponent and that means bluffing. If you can remember that in poker then you are only ever placing money into the pot for two reasons and they are to either bet or raise for value or to bet or raise to bluff.

 
If you cannot bet or raise for value or to bluff then this leaves you with only one possible option and that is to check. When you look at poker in this way then suddenly the entire game becomes logical and many of the problems that you have been encountering suddenly make a lot more sense. One of the biggest leaks in the games of novice and even intermediate level poker players is that they place money into the pot for either the wrong reasons or for no reason whatsoever which is many times worse.

 

Carl Sampson is an online poker pro and poker ambassador for 888poker

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How Poker Strategy Evolves

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Over time then strategies evolve in poker and one strategy that has certainly evolved is pot control. Firstly I have never liked the term “pot control” because it implies that you can actually control something that cannot actually be controlled. I prefer to use the term “pot size manipulation” which is a more accurate description of betting or checking to influence the pot size at the end of the hand.

 
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with pot control but it does fall flat on its face in several key ways. Firstly astute opponents will attempt to take advantage of that by escalating the very pot that you are looking to control. For example if you raise before the flop and are called by the big blind who then sees you bet the flop and then check the turn after they call the flop c-bet, then it is pretty obvious to your opponent that you don’t hold a strong hand.

 
You are either checking the turn with a very weak hand with little pot equity and giving up or you are going into pot control with a moderate hand. Now your opponent knows that you could fold to a big bet and can bet big on the river in an attempt to force you to fold. Another line that an astute player could take is check-raising the river if you decide to bet for thin value. This is going to put you into a difficult spot and many players would fold to a river check-raise if they cannot figure out in time that their opponent cannot possibly hold a strong hand.

 
So pot control can be exploited and actually is exploited by better players. Another way that pot control tactics can be exploited is when you are out of position with a moderate hand against a tight player. Let us say that it is open raised from the cut-off by a reg and you call from the big blind with the Jd-10d. The flop comes 10c-6h-3s and you check and call your opponents c-bet. Your opponents range is wide and so your check-call extracts value from all of his weak c-betting range.

 
However if your opponent is both tight and giving up unless they improve then check-calling the flop and checking the turn is not a good line to take if your opponent will not place any more money into the pot unless they improve to beat top pair. Like for example if they held the Ah-2h and the turn card was an ace. Here you would be forced to call another barrel but your opponent is extracting value from you when they connect and not having to concede value if they don’t.

 
This is the value of having position and the flaw in exercising pot control when out of position to players that don’t have high aggression factors. You simply cannot use a strategy that allows your opponent to only place money into the pot on their terms and their terms only. So in the previous example you could consider check-raising the flop. This may appall pot control merchants but the check-raise will end a lot of pots with immediate effect.

 

 

 

Carl Sampson is an online poker pro and poker ambassador for 888poker

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Knowing Why You Bet

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Some years ago when I first started reading poker books (too many to remember) then I would often see passages that discussed the reasons as to why we bet or raised in poker. Depending on which book you read then these reasons could be anywhere from between half a dozen and a dozen in number. This led to confusion and confusion is something that we need to avoid in our quest to improve our poker games to a level that gets us an edge against the masses.

 
One of the best passages that I have ever read on this subject was in the excellent Easy Game by Andrew Seidman. In that book Seidman breaks it down into just two key reasons as to why we bet or raise and those reasons are for either value or to bluff. Someone once said that “simplicity was the true genius” and in terms of wading through a potentially complex field like poker then simplicity is needed. If you look at a poker hand in a very simplistic way then certain obvious factors suddenly become much deeper in meaning and importance.

 
For example (accepting the rare occasions where we are tied with our opponent) in any given situation then we either have the best hand or we don’t. This is almost like a “heads and tails” situation. If we do conclude that we have the best hand then if we bet or raise then we are doing so for value most of the time unless having the “best” hand still means that our hand is weak as in if we hold A-Q on a 10-7-3 rainbow flop and our opponent holds A-J. In this instance then we are betting and raising as a bluff even though we hold the best hand.

 
Once you understand these basic but vital poker concepts then you will realise that they form the bedrock of all poker decisions. Just as Seidman says in Easy Game “suddenly poker will make a lot more sense”. As you gain experience then you will see situations where value betting and bluffing merge and this allows you to not only be creative with your decision making but it also allows you to bet and raise for the right reasons. I honestly think that chapter one in Easy Game will be revolutionary for millions of poker players worldwide who have struggled with their game.

 
I wished that I had access to this book years ago because I was betting for the wrong reasons. At the time then “betting for information” or probe betting as it was also known was a common so called “reason” for betting. It is only when you look back with more experience and knowledge that you can see the error and flaw in this way of thinking about poker. It simply leads to you betting for the wrong reasons on so many occasions.

 

Carl Sampson is an online poker pro and poker ambassador for 888poker

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Are you really a poker player?

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It is a fallacy that all players can be good poker players but yet millions of people all over the world flock into poker for the entertainment value, excitement value and also profit potential. However poker exposes your very personality and this is what makes the game tough to beat at any level. Let us say that you were thinking of playing the $0.01-$0.02 micro levels and you deemed to be a sound player. Now most people would argue that a solid poker player would be guaranteed to beat these levels but yet I would wager that many high-stakes players wouldn’t beat $2 games.

 
If you find that you simply cannot respect the money at this low level then you have no chance of beating the level. This clearly shows that technical knowledge by itself isn’t enough at any level of play. In fact having technical knowledge is only part of the puzzle and it is almost useless if you never exercise that knowledge. In that aspect then the knowledge serves no more purpose than useless trivia. So if you are not a natural poker player and by that I mean that you have certain weaknesses that are not helping you play good poker then you have to come at the problem from a different angle.

 
One such angle is to make your game systematic. This word horrifies many people but the process of making your game systematic removes many negative factors from your game. Firstly it removes emotion from your game because your decisions are almost being taken out of your hands. Secondly it stops you from doing rash and impulsive things and if you can stop doing that then your poker is always being played on the same level. You may not be playing your “A” game and you may always be playing your “C” game but you are never stooping to play your “E” and “F” game……EVER!

 
If your views and opinions are not guaranteed to make money because you have no experience then using a system that is almost “automated” in nature is a big step forward and it is one that I think is an essential step for millions of players. In my experience then the vast majority of people who come into poker have flaws that are not conducive to playing the game well. Everybody has an “A” game where when they are on it makes them a very strong player. However there is a difference between someone being strong and being temporarily strong.

 
An analogy can be made with football, a lower league team can raise their game on any given day and beat a much better team in a one off cup tie. However this doesn’t alter the fact that there is a gulf between the teams even though the lesser team won on the day. Poker is like this because of the luck aspect within the game then players tend to naturally play better poker when they are winning and so are then automatically on their “A” game.

 
However if you play in an automatic pilot style way then you have actually redefined your “A” game into something else. Suddenly your “A” game has new boundaries and this is when you can really be on your game all the time. To play a very good automated style means having a lot of poker theory behind you and playing at stake levels where this style works because your opponents are making fundamental mistakes! So the facts are plain as day, you are in all likelihood not a natural poker player but the good news is…….neither are your opponents.

 

Carl Sampson is an online poker pro and poker ambassador for 888poker

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Do you need to know Maths?

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I get asked a lot of things in my capacity as a poker player and one that I was asked the other day is how much maths is needed in the game……actually the answer is surprisingly little. But there is an awful lot of odds/probabilities/psychology/game theory and logic involved. If you look at a piece of software like PokerStove for example then it is clear that equity calculations can be done for you. If you ever hear top class players speak about the game then it becomes clear that their level of understanding is far and away better than yours.

 
This can leave people a little intimidated about playing higher levels. However poker is a language and that language has evolved just like any other but once you speak that language then what these people are actually saying and talking about makes sense. I am not strong at maths but I am strong in game theory and psychology which is clearly not the same thing. So from my own standpoint then I too do not base my game too much on maths but I do base it heavily on statistics/data/logic and a thorough understanding of my opponents.

 
If you play low enough then good solid card dependent strategies can and will take you a long way. If your post flop game is solid then you can be a winning player doing relatively simple things. However with obvious betting lines in certain situations then your opponents at higher levels will jump all over that. Say for example you raise pre-flop and it gets called by a single opponent who then calls two barrels on the flop and turn. This line of raise-call-bet-call-bet-call is common.

 
So if you check the river then a weaker player may check it back happy that you checked so that they don’t have to put any more money in the pot. But stronger players will call two streets for different reasons and one reason is to see what you do on further streets. So when you check the river then this looks exactly what it is and is someone either checking for pot control or giving up on a bluff. So if your opponent has nothing then a big bet gets you off all of your fresh air hands and puts you under severe pressure to make a tough call with mediocre hands.

 
This is what better players do to your betting lines at higher levels. They notice more what you have done in the past and adjust. This means that set strategies do not work as well once you hit higher levels. In fact if you wanted to play a lot of tables these days then I wouldn’t recommend playing any higher than NL100 and probably lower. So the upshot of this article is that there is not as much mathematics in poker as what you think but a tremendous amount of other data compensates for that.

 

Carl Sampson is an online poker pro and poker ambassador for 888poker

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Calling 3/bets out of position

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The title of this blog post is calling 3/bets out of position and I could reduce the entire post to three simple words…….don’t do it! However to simply say that you shouldn’t call 3/bets from out of position would be too simplistic without first understanding why. Let us look at the average sorts of hands that you would have against a 3/bet. Firstly we need to know what sort of range our opponents would actually 3/bet us with. If we are playing say NL100 full ring then our opponents range when they 3/bet will usually be pretty narrow.

 
So if we are at the top of our opening range then we should be able to comfortably 4/bet against what is a hand that could easily call us or even 5/bet shove. Many players will commit with hand s like KK/QQ/AKs when we have AA. However if we are at the very top of our range and have something like AA/KK then we could call out of position. This concedes position but it also keeps the weakest parts of their 3/betting range in the pot.

 

The problem though with this strategy is that our opponent has position and can only put any more money into the pot on boards that outdraw our probable premium pair.
I still like 4/betting or folding against 3/bets and if we get 3/bet by an opponent with a really tight 3/betting range then folding needs to be the mainstay of our strategy. Players with tight 3/betting ranges are good opponents because not only do they allow us to steal more blinds and buy the button, they also allow us to 4/bet with the apex of our range very profitably. So even if we suspect an opponent is 3/betting widely, we could still entice them to participate if we size our 4/bet correctly if they feel that they have fold equity.

 
Strategy in 3/bet pots is very important because the stack to pot ratio is small. This means that you have placed a far larger amount of money into the middle relative to the amount that you have left. For example if you limp and there is no raise with you having a 100bb stack then you have risked 1bb with 99bb left behind. If you raised to 3.5bb and there is no re-raise then you have risked 3.5bb with 96.5bb left behind.

 
However in a 3/bet pot then you may have risked 11bb with only 89bb left to bet. So we can see that because there is a much greater amount of money going into the pot in 3/bet pots that our strategy has to be solid. It will be very difficult to make money in today’s modern online poker environment if you play poorly in 3/bet pots. This is why folding or 4/betting is the correct way to play most of the time in 3/bet pots but even that is too simplistic. Let us say that you fold 90% of the time and 4/bet 10% of the time when you get 3/bet.

 
This type of ratio simply allows your opponent to exploit you. If you make it 3bb and they 3/bet to 9bb then you concede 3bb nine times out of ten for a total of 27bb. However the one remaining pot only has 10.5bb of profit in it if you 4/bet and they fold. Your total EV will be less because another player may wake up with a big hand or the 3/bettor himself.

 

Many players are struggling to beat online poker these days for two simple reasons. These are that the games have become more aggressive and these people lack a decent strategy in 3/bet pots. If your opponent has position on you in a 3/bet pot then I would advocate never cold calling the raise. However if you have position, a playable hand and the stacks are at least 100bb deep or more then calling a 3/bet is fairly solid. It simply cannot be stressed enough though how important it is to handle 3/bet pots well. If you call even in position then you have probably placed more than 10% of your stack in the middle.

 
If you open to 3.5bb and fold a large part of your range to a 3/bet then these 3.5bb losses will cripple your earn rate. Also if you 4/bet badly then the risk with a 4/bet is such that you may spew money in this instance as well. The bottom line is that you need to have a good strategy to play 3/bet pots. Until you get some coaching in this area then I wouldn’t entertain playing in NL cash games at the $50 level or higher. You may find that profits are hard to come by because you are winning very tiny pots like with blind steals and c/bets but not winning bigger pots when it has been 3/bet where you have lost a larger amount of money.

 

 

Carl Sampson is an online poker pro and poker ambassador for 888poker

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How to build an earn rate

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In most cases it is the little things that when combined together form your earn rate in poker. This is why players at say the NL50 level are doing as well as many of the players at mid-stakes levels…….why is that? Quite simply it is because they are doing the little things very well in large quantities. So just what sorts of mistakes do break even and losing poker players make? Well actually they make lots of them but the key thing here is that each one is very easily corrected.

 
For example too many hands that are being played out of position is one such mistake. Another is playing in a way that is too conventional. In years gone by then a sound grasp of conventional theory was enough to take you an awful long way. These days then the arrival of the internet may have brought untold millions of people into poker that previously wouldn’t have played it but it has also sharpened those very same players up as well with an almost unlimited number of educational resources to feed off. You do not have to play very high these days to find players that know poker quite well.

 
Only the other day I was watching a $0.01-$0.02 game where one player was calling one of the other players a “fish”. Clearly this was a player that rightly or wrongly perceived himself to be better than his opponents. There is only one logical explanation for this and it is because of education. This player obviously knew more about poker than many people give micro players credit for. So even at the micros then you need to show respect to your opponents and your earn rate is still built in increments rather than players making big mistakes in big pots against you with non-nut hands.

 
I also think that one of the main issues with playing online poker and moving up through the levels is one of your existing game not being strong enough when you move up. Clearly when you play at levels like NL50 then you will need to play a different game to the one that you were playing at the NL2 levels or $2 games. Also when you play NL200 then you will need to play differently again to when you played at NL50 and so on.

 
It is these differences that make players stumble because you are in effect not only having to learn a new game but you are also having to play far tougher opponents. A level like NL200 may be only two levels above NL50 but it is four times the stake level and that is the key component here. In my opinion NL200 is four times as difficult to get a good earn rate at than NL50 and anything that is four times as big or four times as fast or four times anything is considerably greater. If you were driving at 30mph then you would feel like you were hardly moving.

 
However a simple x4 multiplication means that you are now driving at 120mph and any motorist will tell you how great a difference that is. If you jumped from a 5ft wall then you may think that is fairly high until you try jumping from a wall 20ft high. The small wall may leave you with a twisted ankle at worst while the 20ft wall could kill and would probably leave you with some sort of injury.

 

This is not a bad way to look at level increases and moving up a level in poker needs to be done with caution. In my opinion then you are better off learning to beat a higher level game than the micros while still playing the micros. This leaves you without the problem of having to learn a totally different way of playing poker. This is why I advise people to learn how to beat say players at the NL25 and NL50 levels even if by doing so you are not beating the $2 and $4 games for as much as you possibly could be doing. So the best way to build an earn rate is to prepare for playing higher levels of play.

 
An earn rate can be comprised of lots of different things like rakeback, sign up bonuses, rewards, playing a short stack strategy or simply by playing a strategy that is different to what your opponents expect. Whatever you do then one thing is certain and this is that as you begin to move up through the levels then your opponents will not only know the same theory that you know but they will also be expecting you to play conventionally as well. This will happen far sooner than you ever thought possible and even micro level players know the game fairly well.

 

 

Carl Sampson is an 888poker pro and poker ambassador

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Is Your Thinking Fuzzy?

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One of the key areas that leads to many players having problems with their poker game is when they take advice from higher level players and then try to use that advice at lower levels. Let us look at an example here to highlight what I mean. A higher level player may play a hand like this at NL600. It is folded around to a very aggressive player on the button with a stack of $761 who makes it $18 to go. The pro in the big blind calls with the Kc-10c and we see the flop with $39 in the middle.

 
The flop comes down Ac-Ad-5s and the pro with an $813 stack checks. The pre-flop aggressor bets $26 and now the pro understands the weakness of their range. The chances of villain holding an ace are massively reduced and if they are aggressive then they will be firing with a lot of hands that have missed. The pro is actively looking to exploit a weak range by trying to get their opponent to place the maximum amount of money into the pot and then fold. So they could check-call the flop and go to the turn and then possibly look to check-raise the turn.

 
However their opponent will be perceptive enough at this level to suspect that their opponent will have a polarised range when they do this. It often works in your favour for your opponent to suspect that you may be polarised because it can entice them to bluff raise. So our hero goes for a flop check-raise line and when they bet $26 he makes it $72 to go. Their opponent takes the bait and 3/bets to $240 and our hero shoves all-in. If the villain really did have an ace and suspected that his opponent was bluffing then why would they 3/bet the flop?

 
However in say the NL25 stake levels then this line is going to get you into a world of hurt. It is fine to call the pre-flop raise because your hand fares well against the range of an aggressive button player that could be raising with around 45% of their range. In fact our hand is doing well with around 54% equity against that range. Also once the flop comes then our equity hardly moves at all against their entire range and is still around the 52% mark.

 
Our opponent will also suspect that our range is wide but when we check-raise the flop will simply fold their air and even medium pocket pairs. One play that they will not make is to 3/bet with air and so this makes our flop check-raise profitable (as long as we get the bet sizing right) but not the shove. These are the types of differences that middle stakes strategy have with regards to comparing it with low stakes strategy. It is also why taking advice from top players that are playing and discussing higher middle stakes games can be a mistake.

 
Forcing your opponent to have a hand when the big money goes in is successful in middle stakes games because your opponent’s aggression levels are so much higher. So they have wider ranges when the pot expands because they expect aggression. However as soon as our opponent 3/bets the flop at say NL50 then they are doing so for value unlike at say NL600 where bluffs represent a large part of their range.One of the key phases of transition with regards to playing and making money in online poker is to understand when your opponent is betting or raising for value or as a bluff or in some cases combining the two. For example if the aggressive button had say the Kd-Qd then they are not essentially bluffing when they open raise on the button. Although they do not have a hand that can take massive amounts of heat, they are still going to get called by many weaker hands in the blinds.

 

Carl Sampson is an online poker pro and 888poker ambassador

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