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Selective Aggression: The Key to Winning Poker
Poker Strategy
by Lou Krieger

Poker is a complex, highly textured mosaic of skill, luck, strategy, tactics, and character. What works in one situation fails in others ¾ and following a fixed, immutable strategy will never ensure success, except against weak opponents. Nevertheless, every credible expert stresses selective and aggressive play as a rudiment of winning play.

Many players feel they have to contest each and every pot by betting, calling, and even raising with all but the most hopeless of hands. But the objective of poker is to win money, not pots ¾ and that's what selectivity is all about.

If selectivity weren't so important, the best players would involve themselves in most pots. But they don't. Winning pots is easy. Just play each hand you're dealt and you'll win every pot you possibly could. But you'll probably run out of money too.

Most players like to think of themselves as selective, but they aren't. Not really. But that's to be expected. After all, when you venture out to play poker, you want to play. It's no fun throwing hand after hand into the muck. That, however, is exactly what's required to play winning poker.

The other end of the selectivity spectrum isn't very pretty either, although overly loose and passive players far outnumber the rocks you'll find at the table. But overly tight players lose money too because their playing style prevents them from overcoming the antes and blind bets. Their play, moreover, is so predictable that when they finally do come out betting it's easy to read them for a very strong hand, and very few of their opponents will bother to call. They don't lose as fast as those who are involved in every pot, mind you ¾ but their play is far from optimal.

If not for antes and blinds, tight play would be the right play. But if the pot wasn't seeded with antes or blind bets, most players would wait until they held virtually unbeatable hands to risk their money by betting, calling, or raising, and poker would be boring ¾ so much so that it wouldn't be any fun and eventually no one would play.

Optimal selectivity lies between the polar extremes of the absolute fish, who enters every hand no matter what he's got, or the rock, who almost never comes out swinging unless he has a mortal lock.

Now that you realize more selectivity is probably required for you to become a better player, what about aggression?

Passive players ¾ those who seldom raise ¾ have only one way to win, by showing down the best hand at the conclusion of all the betting rounds. If they have the strongest hand, they'll win the pot. If their opponent has a bigger hand, he or she will win.

While aggressive players can show down the best hand too, they have other options at their disposal. If your opponent bets and you raise, he may fold the best hand. Even if he doesn't fold immediately, he might release his hand on the next betting round, particularly if he catches an innocuous card. After all, you represented a very strong hand by raising on the preceding betting round, and when you come out betting he is very likely to fold.

In addition, aggressive play may cause drawing hands to fold, since the cost of a raise may make it too expensive to continue pursuing a straight or a flush ¾ or drawing to a card that will miraculously turn two pair into a full house.

But unmitigated aggression is just as silly as extremely passive play. Poker players have a term for those who raise almost every hand; they call them maniacs. Maniacs are seldom given credit for strong hands when they raise ¾ after all, a raise generally accompanies a powerhouse hand, and they don't come around all that often. Good players with strong hands like to reraise maniacs, trapping them in the sunshine with usually not much more than a hand full of hope and an outlandish ego. While maniacs can get lucky too, most of the time they're big losers.

There's not enough room here to discuss how to be selective by describing which hands to play and which to fold, nor is there room to explain when raising is a better idea than calling. For now, just remember that your poker game will improve by leaps and bounds if you realize your goal is to win money, not pots, and the way to do this is through selective and aggressive play. It's the best way to get the money.

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