How to Beat the Poker Bully: Think Math, Not Ego
"You won't win this battle."
"You won't win this battle."
My coach was right. My nemesis was the Managing Director. I was nothing but a minion.
But I was as comfortable dealing with bullies as Cate Hall is at dealing with racist, sexist, whateverist tweets. It was the only thing my father taught me.
“Look, Lee. The next time a kid calls you names, stick the head in’em”
A little too Roman Gladiator for my taste, but it worked. I'd step out of the scrap the worse for wear but I wouldn't see them again. Off they would trundle searching for a punching bag that didn't punch back.
There will only ever be one winner? We’ll see about that.
The Poker Table Captain
When I began playing poker I was always the Table Captain. Introducing the game to people enabled this. I had the only chip set in the valley.
I held the first-ever £100 Freezeout in my kitchen. Wayne ‘Bill’ Jenkins won the £1,000 winner-takes all prize.
As I played in bigger and better games it became obvious that being a Table Captain without the skills to back it up can leave you with a sizeable dent in your bankroll.
I needed a different approach. And so it was to the coach that I turned and my lessons on how to beat the Managing Director.
Make Him Feel Like The Boss
I didn't stick the head into my MD but I still fought tooth and nail. I was challenging; always questioning, and refusing to get down on one knee.
My coach taught me that my boss would perceive my actions as a lack of respect. Respect and status were his prime concern. The coach advised me to massage these needs and let him be the boss.
This might work in the playground but it makes no logical sense on the poker table. Then I began to allow the player to be the boss. I would compliment them and try to become bezzie mates.
Instead of warring with them, and introducing a high-variance line into my play, the bully started to feel respected and in turn he or she started to respect me. Focus would then shift from my spot on the table to somewhere else.
Everyone, or Just Me?
If you're being bullied at the poker table, the first question to ask is 'why?'
There is a world of difference between someone bullying you because they have position versus someone who thinks you’re a fish.
Look around the table and ask, ‘Is the bully picking on everyone, or just me?’
I help people quit alcohol and when people relapse I get them to dive deep into the associated triggers. I recommend that they record all of these triggers so they can analyze the data and find patterns.
We can adopt the same approach with the bully.
Bullies Don't Like Resistance
If you feel bullied, start recording the action on your smartphone. Over time, take a look at the data.
If it’s purely a positional play, then ask for a seat change. If there is a theme, such as three-betting you light and then c-betting 100% of flops because you are folding, then adjust your play accordingly.
And take a moment to consider your body posture. How confident do you look? Does it seem like you know what you are doing? Do you look like a fish?
Bullies don’t like resistance. They will steer clear if you look like you could put up a good fight.
Discover how you are enabling the bully. Then end the enabling.
What Makes a Poker Bully a Poker Bully?
All bullies at the poker table have the same thing in common - aggression. Bullies will bet, raise and re-raise with impunity until someone forces a change.
A bully will open with a wider range of hands and is likely to barrel more frequently. As a recreational player I have reacted to this understanding in two different ways.
1. I quit. I get fed up of seeing them get to the river with 72o and stacking my AK on an A7Q42 board in a three-bet pot, so I gave up.
2. I go to war. I start calling with trash and increase my aggression. Narcissism 101.
The smarter approach is to fold your trash and widen your value calling range. Lay some traps and introduce a four-bet strategy. Be bold and keep the pots small.
Shower your opponent with the shame of always getting to the river with pants around their ankles.
The Danger of the Ace-High Call
Here is a bad habit to avoid. I would end up on the river playing for stacks making calls with Ace high.
It felt good but it was idiocy. Poker, like a dog, is for life. Play the percentages over the long term.
Stay out of spots like this - the variance will eat you up like key lime pie.
What Type of Poker Bully Are They?
There are two types of poker bullies.
- 1) a great poker player who knows the exact moment to start applying maximum pressure.
- 2) a hyper-aggressive fish who thinks he's the dog's bollocks because in 1997 he won a big pot with 63o.
Your first job is to figure out which camp they light fires in. If their marshmallows are roasting over the first one, then find a different game or stay out of their way.
If they're in the second camp, broaden your calling range and be prepared to get to showdown more frequently while trying to keep the pots as small as you can.
Use The Bully
If the bully is a fish then he's likely driven by ego and a desire for action.
Use this to your advantage by talking to him frequently. When you're forced to fold at showdown, ask the bully to show.
More often than not the premium hands end up in the muck and the bluffs and mediocre holdings will be turned over in front of your face.
Be Smarter Than The Bully
I had a leak that was larger than the largest leak in the world. I would get to the river in one of these ridiculous raising wars with the bully and would always call irrespective of the play.
I was all-in from the moment the hand started.
It was a long time before I learned that folding when I don't have the best hand is a two-finger salute to the bully. But you don’t have to show them the two fingers.
Keep them to yourself. Be the better man. But don’t be afraid to fold. Break poker down into what it is - one hand at a time.
If you fold with the worst hand then you have beaten your opponent.
Learn From The Stoics
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
I doubt Marcus Aurelius played poker but if he did he would have had a nice win rate.
Bullies used to drag my emotions out of my heart like a ventouse on a fat baby. My ego couldn’t take it.
I needed to be the Alpha male. I wanted all the food. I wanted to bang all of the women. I wanted to be the Daddy. I wanted all the money.
The Fight With the Boss; The Final Round
I never did listen to my coach when it came to the battle with the MD.
I took another route. I got out of his way. I refused to play his game. I left.
My coach was right; there was only ever going to be one winner.
But what if my coach was Dominik Nitsche and the game was poker and not business?
Poker Bully is a Misnomer
Dominik Nitsche is a 3-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet winner, a World Poker Tour (WPT) Champion and an ambassador for 888Poker. And he is still a pup.
I asked the young pup Nitsche how he deals with the rabid dogs on the elite poker circuit and this is what he had to say.
Nitsche believes that thinking in terms like 'Table Captain' or 'Bully' is incorrect.
“Every good player realizes that poker is played one hand at a time,” says Nitsche. “The goal is always to make the best decision possible.”
Traditional poker 'bullies' amp up their aggression and bet and raise at a higher frequency. Nitsche says this way of playing is neither right or wrong.
The term Bully is a misnomer. All that matters is playing each hand optimally.
Poker is Not About Ego
Poker pushes your psychological boundaries. Above I wrote about the schoolyard bullies and how my Dad taught me to fight aggression with aggression.
Thinking like my Father is ego-based. In winning poker, ego is the enemy. As Nitsche explains:
"Think about it this way. Is the guy open raising 73s from mid-position making a profitable play?
"It might be if the people behind him are playing too tight. Is he making the right play three-betting you with 92s on the button?
"Unlikely, but that's when you need to start thinking about adjusting your strategy. Poker is not about ego."
But if poker is not ego, what is it?
Poker is Math
"Poker is about making the correct mathematical decision," says Nitsche. "If someone plays too loose and aggressive they become exploitable.
"Your strategy should now change to exploit their weaknesses. The same theory stands if they play too tight."
Think about the persona of a bully: a grandiose, larger-than-life personality. Exploitable isn't the term that one would use when you see them in action but Nitsche makes it seem so obvious.
A bully is one of the most exploitable players in the game.
Play each hand mathematically correct and, if that creates the persona of a bully, then that's a by-product of changing our strategy depending on the actions of the other players at the table.
If we are at a table of competent players and we happen to be running hot, then we may appear to be a bully.
Given what we have learned from Nitsche, though, we can then assume that the other players may feel we are playing too loose.
Adapt, and we can use that knowledge to our advantage. But how do we exploit the Bully?
Find The Spot, Aim & Fire
Every poker player has a weakness. Professionals like Nitsche eke out their edges by finding them. It's David vs. Goliath 101.
It’s not about finding the right stone. It’s about finding the right place to aim.
"In my opinion, people who are extremely aggressive are easy to play against," says Nitsche. "You don't even need to change your game that much.
"Make sure you open a solid selection of starting hands and the rest should take care of itself. That's a good way to counter a frequent three-bettor."
Nitsche continues with this advice:
"I wouldn't tighten up your opening range just because one player at the table appears to be three-betting you a lot. Continue with strong suited connectors, stronger off suit Broadway hands and pairs.
"If your opponent keeps on going crazy then you can consider four-bet jamming if stacks are 50bb or less and you have a suited ace or pocket pair.
"Another great way to deal with them is to set a trap pre-flop by just calling their three-bet with aces. If they are three-betting a lot of hands they will be folding to a lot of four-bets, and we have to be mindful.
"You can also four-bet as a bluff but I find that either folding or calling is usually the better option, unless like previously stated stacks are 50bb or less where you can consider jamming.
"If you are deep, four-bet folding doesn't hurt at badly as you think it will."
There you have it. Really easy to play against.
If you can drop the ego, resist turning the game into a testosterone-filled tussle and play the poker fundamentals sprinkled with some savvy, then there's no need to be concerned about a player who appears to be running over the table.
Poker bullies aren’t even as prevalent as you think they are. As Nitsche explains:
"Nowadays people have learned to deal better with aggression so unfortunately you won't find a complete maniac or bully that often anymore.
"If you do they usually won't be around for very long. In full ring poker you simply can't run a table over. Unless everyone is playing way too tight of course!"
Know When to Kick the Chair
Did you notice the use of the word 'unfortunately' in that last statement? Players of the calibre of Nitsche love playing against bullies. Think about that.
Don't be a bully. Instead, remember to play each hand optimally with a focus on the right mathematical play.
If you do face a bully, which will be rare, then don't sweat when it comes to folding hands that are near the bottom of your opening range.
It's not about ego. It's about the right play. Your job is to be patient, hand them some rope and know when to kick the chair.
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