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Adapting at the poker table

Predictable poker is beatable poker. If your opponents pick up on your patterns, and we all have them, they can dodge your bullets or crush you with one push. Among several observations from my latest trip to Vegas, categorizing your opponents, even in the most general sense can prove useful. Adapting to player and table dynamics is an under-appreciated skill.

The most predictable of all player types is the NIT (or Rock). The unassuming fella (or dame) at the table who folds as if his chip stack were the last of his life savings is one of the best examples of this. Playing amongst a rock pile means that their action is usually bad for you and that they can be pushed off pots with a little bit of extra aggression.

Like a game of rock, paper, scissors, certain styles play well against others. The old adage that “tight is right” still holds true at the softer levels but the loose aggressive (LAG) player is very challenging to face not matter the level. LAG’s tap into your doubt, 3 and 4 betting you into no-man’s land. Yes, you might catch them being over-aggressive but constantly taking on a LAG can give you grey hair as they force you into hard decision after hard decision.

Online, it is very easy to change seats or even tables. It just takes a click. Live play is much different. Sometimes, there are no other free seats available. However, if you are playing to win, leveraging through a better seat position is smart.

If this doesn’t appeal to you (or your ego gets the better of you), you will likely accept your current seat, even if a maniac is directly on your left raising you over and over again. Ideally, you have the NIT’s on your left and you can steal their blinds or at least delineate their holdings form their super narrow range. But if not, and you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place (yes I went there), you must adapt.

If you can place players within the one of the 4 quadrants (Loose-aggressive, Tight-aggressive, Loose-Passive, Tight-Passive) you can use this to ask yourself an important question as you go: How don’t they want me to play against them?

This simple question can help you put opponents in uncomfortable situations. Let’s look at each player-type individually:


Putting LAG’s (Maniacs) on a hand can be very difficult because they will raise with 34 suited as well as with KK. Passive play is out of the ordinary for them. Therefore, when a LAG plays passively, you should take notice as this may be meaningful. A LAG likes to make you make tough decisions, even for your whole stack. However, like a real bully, LAGs can shut-down if counter-punched as they tend to run on momentum as the table bully. Pick your spot and you can really hurt them but you have to be patient, something they are not.


TAGs (Sharks) don’t do anything too rash or get caught in too many sticky situations. They pay attention to pot odds and often believe that if they make you overpay to draw, they are playing “correctly”. By contrast, they don’t like being priced out as they can’t justify it against their often long-term approach to the game. While they still may bluff you from time to time, what they really want you to do is make a mistake by being too passive or too aggressive. In order to win consistently against TAGS, you have to think at Level 3 (What do they believe I have?). To beat a shark, you must think like one which is why they are so tricky.


Loose-passives (Calling stations) are sometime referred to the ATM of the poker world. They want to see cheap cards and rarely get aggressive. If they do, look out as it is rarely a bluff. These chronic limpers and check-callers are often curious about the next street and their calling reflex is pretty strong. Curiosity killed the cat as they say and they will burn through their 9 lives. They don’t want you to build big pots pre-flop (even though they will likely still call). You cannot bluff them with a lot of success but you can get them to over-pay for turn and river cards, a major leak in their game. They lose a lot of money with busted draws and taking bottom or middle pairs to a showdown. They will also river you from time-to-time. As mentioned, if you have a player pegged as a LAP, any aggression they show should be a warning sign that they are strong. Proceed with caution. A LAP will also get poor value from their strong hands, especially out of position. It’s the most exploitable of the playing styles.


NITs (Rocks) don’t like to get involved unless they are very strong. They play very few hands. Some wait for big pairs and play nothing else. The unobservant player will pay them off often enough that they stick to their approach. If a NIT is in a hand, they are in it for a reason and, because of their passive nature, they rarely bluff. They want you to call their bets when they lead and usually don’t want you to bet when they check to you. Again, if they do, proceed with caution. They also do not defend their blinds often so you can pick up some free pesos in late position. They don’t want you to be too aggressive. They play like they are scared money. Sometimes, their frugality means you raise them off their strong hands if they suspect you’ve hit trips or a flush.

Most players do not play past a Level 1 thinking style (What is my hand?) and may not give your playing style a second thought. So you can be chameleonic and adapt your play depending on who is in the hand. This helps you understand the maneuvers they make and build a bit of a story on them. Anything that appears odd according to how you’ve profiled them warrants your attention. Different playing styles are trying to achieve different things with their betting approach. Thinking about their motives can keep you one step ahead and induce more mistakes at the table, exploiting the weaknesses before you.

If you have any tips or tricks that help you gain an advantage over these four playing styles, share. I promise not to use them against you…

Kelly Doell, PhD is a mental performance consultant. Learn more about how his work can help your performance at www.KellyDoell.com


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