Shifting Trends Pt. 2 – Passivity is the New Aggression

Shifting Trends is an irregularly published series about how baseline poker strategy has changed over the past five or so years. It is written from the perspective of a low-to-mid stakes online Sit-and-Go, Spin-and-Go and multi-table tournament semipro; some of the trends we’ll look at may differ when it comes to live and/or cash game play.

It’s been a few weeks since I published the first instalment of this series, so I’d like to quickly recap. The basic thesis of that article, and this series, is that at any given point in time, there’s an informal consensus among the average poker players in a community about the “right” way to play. This comes about through a combination of published professional opinions (books, etc.), discussions between players, and players observing one another at the table and seeking to emulate the moves that they’ve seen be successful for others.

Humans tend to be very bad at mixed strategies, however – strategies in which the player is actually capable of making several different moves in exactly the same spot, but with differing probabilities. Most human players tend to follow something closer to a pure strategy at any given point in time: When they do mix their play up, it’s based on ideas like “table image,” “changing gears” and “leveling wars” rather than an actual attempt to select randomly between several viable options.

Any pure strategy – even one in which previous hands are taken into account in decision making – is exploitable, so when a community of players starts trending towards making certain moves in certain spots, a player who formulates an effective counter-strategy will tend to do well, even without reads on her specific opponents. Others will eventually seek to emulate that player’s success (or the player will actively pass on the strategy by discussing it), causing a new trend to form.

In later articles, I’ll be looking at small scale stuff such as very small or very large bets in particular situations. For now, though, I want to discuss what I see as the largest and most general trend in online poker these days, which is the reappearance of more passive lines, following many years of steadily-increasing aggression.

The evolution of aggression

Passive play is the natural approach for most newcomers to poker. Instinctively, checking and calling seem like damage-limiting moves which, even if they are less than optimal, don’t feel like they should be as bad as making an incorrect fold or an incorrect bet or raise. Of course, we know that this is not the case and it’s easy to construct a situation where either raising or folding are both better than flat calling. Just from the standpoint of human psychology, however, people have a tendency to choose the least committal option when they’re unsure, and beginners are naturally going to find themselves unsure a lot of the time.

From this arose the first wave of formal strategy in modern poker, so-called tight-aggressive (TAG) play. For the most part, this consisted of betting aggressively with the stronger part of one’s range and surrendering most weak-to-medium ones. This, of course, works well against the typical loose-passive beginner, because you can expect to be paid off when you have a hand, and cannot expect your bluffs to work very often. You also don’t expect them to be paying enough attention to your play to adjust to it, so it’s okay to forego most attempts at deception. In other words, by playing straightforwardly, you gain the maximum value from your good hands and lose the minimum with your bad ones.

The obvious weakness of TAG strategy is that it’s hard to flop even a decently-strong hand in Texas Hold’em, and so if your opponent is playing straightforwardly and surrendering every time he misses, you can bluff him a lot. The continuation bet is an important part of TAG strategy as a partial remedy to this, as it conceals your range until the turn, but it still means that a TAG player who is not the preflop aggressor is going to fold to a bet on the flop most of the time, while raising a TAG’s continuation bet, or calling and then betting the turn should also both produce a lot of folds. These facts led to the rise of loose-aggressive (LAG) play; once the general trend in a pool of players is not to call with marginal holdings, the players who take an aggressive line with the widest range of hands will win a disproportionate share of the pots, enough that they don’t mind losing a few extra chips when the TAGs do find a hand.

The funny thing is, though, that the magic bullet against a loose-aggressive opponent is to play passively with one’s marginal holdings, just as beginners do. If you fold mediocre hands to someone who can be bluffing a lot, you are likely being exploited, but if you raise them, you are effectively turning them into bluffs – you’ll get no further value out of a LAG when you do in fact have the best hand, while losing more chips than necessary when he does in fact have you beat.

TAG play as a general trend peaked in the early boom years, say around 2005-2007, after which LAG play became more generally accepted as the profitable way to play, at least post-flop. Light 3-betting, 4-betting, etc. preflop followed a little bit later, and are now extremely common among profitable online players as well as the better live players. The peak for that style, I would say, was around 2012, which also happened to be when my own results were at their best. Subsequently, however, we’ve begun to see strong players becoming selectively passive; not universally so, as beginners are, but in identifying situations where having a wide check-calling or check-back range is more advantageous than having a wide betting range.

This takes a few forms, including but not limited to:

Hero-calling the river: You see a lot of people making very light calls on the river these days, particularly after the turn has been checked around, or on a draw-heavy board when the turn and river have blanked. These are spots where most loose-aggressive players cannot resist firing a bluff when they have little showdown equity, but may just try to get to showdown with a marginal hand; this makes most players’ ranges polarized between strong value and total bluff hands when betting. That, in turn, means that calls with very weak hands can be profitable. For instance, Ace high is as good for calling with as top pair with a weak kicker on the river, provided an opponent who will only be betting with King-high or worse as a bluff, and only going for value with top pair or better.

Playing passively with draws: Both TAG and LAG styles of play generally have players getting aggressive with their drawing hands, due to the strategic advantages of semi-bluffing – that is, that it gives you two ways of winning the hand, by either successfully bluffing or by hitting your draw. Once that became the norm, however, it became less effective, as players have learned to recognize draw-heavy boards and expect aggression from draws, allowing them to call down multi-barrel bluffs from missed draws, and get away from ones which have hit. Better players are now more careful about choosing spots to semibluff, where they can credibly represent a variety of value hands as well, and where they feel their fold equity is better than their showdown equity. When the chances to force a fold are smaller, and the drawing hand also has some unimproved showdown value (such as an Ace-high flush draw), many modern players will now opt to play their hand more slowly.

Omitting or delaying continuation bets: Although continuation betting with high (or even 100%) frequency does accomplish its purpose of keeping your range open, it makes you predictable in another way. When continuation-betting all the time out of position, you give opponents better implied odds to play speculative hands, as they’re guaranteed to get at least one bet out of you postflop when they hit. In position, meanwhile, you allow your opponent to check to you 100% of the time as well, as if he wants to check-raise he can be guaranteed the chance to do so. As a result, many good players have begun occasionally checking down hands even when they are the preflop aggressor, or simply postponing some continuation bets until the turn. You see this most often in the case of a player who is raising from a position where their range is likely to be very wide to begin with, e.g. from late position or the small blind, or even when 3-betting from the big blind. In these situations, the player can still be sufficiently wide even after dividing their range into betting and checking ranges that the information given up is outweighed by the advantages of not allowing the opponent to plan around a guaranteed flop bet.

Merged calling ranges: This is more or less what I laid out when discussing “Steve’s Dilemma,” regarding how to play Kings preflop, facing a cold 4-bet in a situation where your opponents will not be expecting you to be bluffing. In spots where the player’s range is already extremely narrow, you will now occasionally see strong players flat calling aggressive action from their opponents with their entire range, including nutted hands as well as more marginal holdings. The logic here is the converse for that of the omitted or delayed continuation bet, in that raising one’s strongest hands has obvious value to it, but this may be outweighed by the value of the information given away by further subdividing an already narrow range.

Getting ahead of the curve

The current state of affairs online is that, although you will occasionally see a loose-passive beginner, they are very much in the minority and most losing players are now either overly-straightforward tight-aggressive players, or else those who are attempting to play a loose-aggressive strategy, but executing it way too wildly and not being selective in their use of aggression. Towards the middle of the curve, we see a lot of competently aggressive players with a tendency to be a little on the loose side preflop. In the leading edge of the curve, we see players who are incorporating passivity into their game and are equally capable of calling down a three-barrel bluff as running one themselves.

As I said in the introductory article to this series, the ideal strategic position to be in is to be in that leading edge of the curve, taking advantage of those still in the middle of it, but also maintaining awareness of the fact that others are likewise adapting. Incorporating some of the above strategies into your own play can give you an edge on those middle-of-the-pack players, but you should also be looking to see who else is exploiting them, so that you can try to think one step ahead of them, using the sorts of moves that are likely to form the next wave after this one becomes the mainstream.

For example, donk-betting (leading out when out of position and not the preflop aggressor) has always been called that because it is a bad move against a player who will consistently make a continuation bet if you check to him, but it may not always be bad. It can be effective at times against a player who you expect to have a check-back range even when he raised preflop. Against a player who is capable of making a hero call on the river, you can merge your value range and include hands like middle pair in situations where you are also likely to be bluffing a lot, and so on. It’s also important in general not to range good players too narrowly when they’ve played a hand passively: in 2010 it might have been correct to take, say, a flush draw out of someone’s range because they just called the flop or the turn, but now it may no longer be safe to do so.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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