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Honor Thy Villains: Questioning Aggression in Poker Strategy

Honor Thy Villains: Questioning Aggression in Poker Strategy 0001
  • Eileen Sutton questions assumptions behind modern poker strategy & explores some alternatives.

"Poker is ballet. Not war."
— Felix, Vegas pro

We're rebels and loners. Or so we think. In reality, low-stakes cash grinders are often tribal copycats — and we love trends. The trend we love today is aggression.

Hip, violent poker metaphors give us permission — crush, dominate, destroy, own. Words condition us early on to be felt-storming banshees — cool, tough, Edward Norton-ish. There's a reason The Art of War is a grinder's wet dream. Tons of us are down with the war thing.

Hand for hand we see ourselves heroic. Fake soldiers taught to stalk muscle and sway. This is aggression's tactical side. The side sold on many training sites without much nuance since online play has codified range wars and made three-, four-, five-betting and beyond usual and customary.

Battle Lines

Aggression today is more than what it's always been — a tool we need to win. It's become a racy, bellicose word whose assumptions aren't much explored. And the word has prostituted itself into shaman-speak. Whisper it and see. Cultish grinders who yearn to play more aggressively will clean your refrigerator and wash your toes and visit your website. Often.

Is there really only one way to win? Lots of hyper-LAGs print money. Nits print money, too. Though as a class, they're scorned. (In NYC it's the nastiest insult of all, often hissed.) In game flow, aggression as "style" also means bigger swings. Which is great for Godzilla grinders who have fat bankrolls and the mental fortitude to withstand the variance. Tighter grinders may prefer less fluctuation — less stack bounce. In a perfect world there'd be no judgment. But the world's not perfect and tightness is shamed cause a certain macho for the moment is all the rage.

Hearts, Souls

The flip side of tactical aggression is quieter, grounded in a collective, more compassionate ideology. In 2006, Aaron Brown wrote The Poker Face of Wall Street, a stunning and seminal progressive text. Not for nothing, Brown leans toward love, something closer to the Japanese notion of "respectful battle."

"You don't struggle against an opponent in poker; you play with a table of people," Brown wrote. "You don't win by dominating opponents. You win by finding a profitable strategic niche that is in no one's interest to destroy."

"To be successful, your goal cannot be to inflict maximum losses on everyone… any more than price gouging is smart business." — Aaron Brown

Brown countered poker theorist David Sklansky's "Fundamental Theorem of Poker" by saying: "The mistake comes in reading... that long-term success comes either from making your opponents lose or by you gaining on every hand. What you want to do is gain overall.... It might be objected that poker is a zero-sum game — in order for you to win, the other players have to lose. But that's true of a [retail] sale as well, if you focus narrowly on the single transaction. From a larger view, the transaction can — indeed should — be profitable for both parties.

"To be successful, your goal cannot be to inflict maximum losses on everyone... any more than price gouging is smart business," Brown concluded. "A lot of poker is derived from a two-player, single-hand zero-sum model. I think most of the interesting parts of poker merge only at a higher level — the entire table over a session."

Not inflicting maximum loss. Brown's beating heart might invite scorn since poker's top-gun aggressors are 21st-century gladiators. Grinders eating villains. Crowds roaring with delight. Power.

Fetus, Me

At the start of my New York cash life, what did I know about the messy habits of unstudied rec players? I longed to be a baller thug like the big kids with their Grand Canyon ranges, bloated opens and manic bluffs — a dazzle of goofy lines and zero strategy.

My ignorance aside, low-stakes fellas, suited to combat, stormed their way into their poker smarts. They learned chess or backgammon or poker in school and drank and drugged and stayed up all night and got good. Their aggression shaped my nascent sense of a tricky game. They bartered in fear and domination. It looked cool.

Got Milk?

The license to aggress arrives in a boy's breast milk. Girls get different milk. Different permission that translates less into the EV of combo draws and more into the EV of Barbie dolls and a crap ton of mascara.

Aggression trends aside, women get somewhat different rules. Planet Earth invites a man's vigor. Yet mascara-less women grinders are called frigid bitchy c*nts while men get to be beasts and ballers. Scary "aggressive" women "shouldn't get away with their raises," while men invoke competitive privilege as a normal social baseline. Haven't seen a focus group. Maybe girls, too, are all over the "kill-or-be-killed" conquering thing, though I'd argue it's gender-neutral and standard issue for anyone entering the game.

Engage Wisely

Beyond traditional card muscle, in certain corners it would seem super-sized, ego-infused bullying is baked into postmodern aggression. Winning is no longer enough. We might also humiliate, so egos are shredded and Villains cry and don't dare three-bet us from the blinds.

A few years back, a pro posted in a forum: "Aggression is used for one purpose: to break the will of your opponent. You hammer and hammer to the point where you take their soul. All the math and strategy in the world isn't going to help when [they] literally lose [their] mind." Kinda summed it up.

"Games change, opponents change, we change, like three pendulums, swinging in a chaotic dance of tight and loose, passive and aggressive." — Tommy Angelo

Not surprisingly, Buddhist poker mastermind Tommy Angelo rejected chest-pounding as a commandment and offered balance. "You need to play all the notes in the scale," he advised me. "If you're facing younger, more-forceful players — don't engage on their terms. Don't play their game on their court. If they are doing a certain thing, look at some 'other thing' as a profit source."

Angelo then steered me to Tip 39 in his ground-breaking Elements of Poker. I loved his ideas as a counter-balance to aggression and blind allegiance: "Games change, opponents change, we change, like three pendulums, swinging in a chaotic dance of tight and loose, passive and aggressive. The Professional calls upon extreme tightness and extreme looseness, extreme passiveness and extreme aggressiveness, and everything in between, at every moment. His full range of options is always in play."

Farm Animals

With 44 years in the game, my cousin Mick Katzman was grinding high stakes NLHE in a wealthy SoCal suburb. Bald and bearded, Mick respected Amarillo Slim's famous restraint — more sheering, less skinning.

"One night we were short-handed," Mick recalled. "I'd been quietly taking notes on this one guy for months. The young toughs today think it's clever to mercilessly fleece so-called suckers and leave them bloodied and crying in their SUVs. True, I had a deep book and took this player for thousands. But I embarrassed him and he never came back. So who won that night... who?" he asked plaintively. "I'll never do it again."

As he spoke, I thought of Terry Dobson and Victor Miller, quoted in Aikido in Everyday Life: "Destroyed people make bad enemies."

Unhip Compassion

Larry Phillips beat the kindness curve 19 years ago when he published the remarkable Zen and the Art of Poker. "If you show respect for the other players in the game, they are likely to see you as a player who is playing at the next level, not one who is merely (and greedily, blindly) mired in his own self-interest. They are more likely to respect your play and avoid taking mean-spirited and underhanded (and unpredictable) measures."

"Destroyed people make bad enemies."

Yet and still he honored assertion. "This does not mean they will lay off when playing against you or play less hard, it simply means fairness, consideration, and straightforward play. It means stability and harmony. These things are all to your advantage."

And I loved Phillips's anti-testosterone thing: "Dismiss the idea that poker is a case of two gunslingers going at it head to head, one of whom is about to lose his manhood."

Dybbuks and Angels

I first learned to play seven years ago, my warhead molded by notions of supremacy. Aaron and Tommy and Mick are in the minority yet are having their way with me. Poker's soul is ruthless. Yet I discover a weird sort of warrior love. I soften.

"Dismiss the idea that poker is a case of two gunslingers going at it head to head, one of whom is about to lose his manhood." — Larry Phillips

In a loving outburst one night my pal Nick, drunk past the breakwater, slurred every word: "You think you're a nice person, Eileen, but you're not," he bellowed. "You are, in fact, evil, capable of absolute destruction. You will confuse these men and they'll have no idea what hit 'em and that's why that poker thing of yours is glorious."

Chinese military strategist Zhuge Liang once wrote, "Sages follow the rules of heaven; the wise obey the laws of earth; the intelligent follow precedent. Harm comes to the arrogant; calamity visits the proud."

Oh hell. I surely didn't want to be tortured by calamity. But I blushed anyway, oddly flattered by Nick's woozy decree. His violent invocation. Melodies of conquest.

Life is contradiction. Despite my best Japanese intentions, inner demons rose.

Poker girl and devoted fiction writer, Eileen Sutton also wrote The Total Poker Manual. Connect with her on Twitter @pokerforgirls, or at

Lead image courtesy of Martin.

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