Playing Defense

Poker Strategy

We love to watch the extremely aggressive players who raise. These are the players who are lionized. We look to learn how to maximize our winnings by imitating their betting skills.

Sometimes, even the biggest hands fail to go your way. Knowing when to fold — and who to fold to — can help keep your stack intact. (Image: Rivers Pittsburgh)

Little, however, is thought of defense or the great defensive players who are able to figure out when they are likely beaten and make stack-saving folds. Yes, we praise people for good folds, but few of us focus much on how to avoid losing by folding more.

Even so, folding is one of the most important skills we need to master if we are going to be profitable poker players. The difference between a great session and a losing one is often the ability to avoid stack-crippling calls.

Below are five opportunities for making those winning folds.

When the rock bets or raises

Don’t feed the nit. When a tight player bets or raises, you should respect them and fold. It’s as simple as that.

Rocks wait for super high-value hands before they enter a pot. So when they bet, they almost surely have a hand that’s ahead of yours.

True, the rock could be making his once-in-an-evening bluff — this is poker, after all. But the odds are surely against it. Stay out of his way and fold. Don’t feed the nit.

When you look extremely strong and your perceptive opponent raises

Consider your own image. Have you folded many hands in a row? Been out of the action for a full orbit or more? Would a good player size you up as an extremely tight opponent? If so, you’ve got to think about folding if you don’t have much of a hand when you show aggression and your opponent shows aggression toward you.

Imagine the following scenario. Relying on your tight image in an attempt to steal a pot without much of a hand, you’ve just 3-bet an early position raiser who also has a rocky image. Your attentive opponent in the cutoff calls you, as does the initial raiser.

He checks the flop and you C-bet. The villain in the cutoff calls and early position player folds. You bet the turn to try and take down the hand and the villain comes over the top.


You’ve been caught. Forget your pride and your desire to try and win the hand. The villain must be giving you credit for a really strong hand and yet, he’s raising. True, your good opponent might be making a brilliant bluff with air, but everything about your action up to that point, especially when combined with your image, points in the other direction.

Good players lose a lot of money trying to continue their deception in the face of true strength.

When a LAG fires back at someone who fired back

Loose aggressive players bet and raise with huge ranges as they try to buy position, get good players out of the hand, or just increase the size of the pot that they’re looking to steal later in the hand. Accordingly, you shouldn’t tend to give them credit for having the strong hand they are representing. But, they typically don’t come over the top of players who show aggression unless they have a legitimate hand. They tend to save their bullets for those situations when they’re leading the action and controlling the betting.

When they face return fire, unless they legitimately have a hand, they tend to back off and wait for a better opportunity to intimidate opponents into folding.

With this in mind, if you see a LAG uncharacteristically re-raise a raiser or initiate the betting on the turn or river after responding to obvious strength on the prior betting round, you should tend to stay out of their way and fold.

When the odds don’t justify a call

There are few things that feel better than coming from behind to take down a big pot. Calling a bet with a flush draw and then having the suited card hit provides the rush that drives people toward gambling in the first place. It’s hard for many to resist.

Poker provides the thinking player with all sorts of ways to justify making the call that allows such an experience to take place. If we aren’t careful, and skilled at defense, we can almost always rationalize a call.

Only getting 3 to 1 pot odds on a flush draw that’s worse than 4 to 1 to come in? No problem. Just assume you’ll take your opponent’s stack if you hit, and justify the call with the implied odds.

Is his stack too small to justify a call, even assuming implied odds? No problem. Assume he’s bluffing and make the call anyway.

The truly successful player must resist the urge to undermine the math with myth.

When you feel pot committed

A lot of money is wasted on futile calls on the river.

Those calls are rationalized with the phrase “I’m pot committed.” This is shorthand for calling when you think you’re beaten, but can’t resist the large pot odds you’re getting for the call.

This tendency is often a carryover from the game of Limit poker where the size of the pot typically dwarfs the size of the bet on the river.

In $10/20 Limit Hold’em, for example, with a bunch of aggressive raising early on, a player might face a $20 bet on the river and a $300 pot. He’d be getting better than 15 to 1 on his call. So unless he was absolutely certain he was beaten, he’d be getting such a good price on his call that he’d have to make it.

This is seldom the case in a No-Limit game. Typically, in No-Limit, the final bet is a much bigger percentage of the pot. For example, if you have $100 left in your stack, the pot is $300, and your opponent shoves, you’re only getting 4 to 1 odds on your money, not the 15 to 1 odds of the Limit example. If you’re pretty sure you’re losing, you should make the fold and save the $100.

Good players understand well the importance of appropriate aggression in poker. But to be truly successful, the good player must also understand the importance of defense.

Written by

Ashley Adams

Venerable grinder, 7-stud enthusiast, host of “House of Cards Radio” and author of Winning Poker in 30 Minutes a Day (D&B Publishing, 2020).

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