A couple of days ago I saw something strange while driving about town doing some errands.
I was sitting at a four-way intersection, waiting out the red light so I could turn left. There was a lot of traffic, and I found myself focusing on the slow-moving semi coming from the opposite direction that was making a big, awkward left turn and taking up most of the intersection.
Suddenly the fellow in the car next to me mashed the gas and sped across the intersection, just missing clipping the back of the truck. I had to look up to see that yes, indeed, the light was still red. He’d crazily decided not to wait any longer and had run the red light.
“Maniac!” I thought, glancing around to see if any police might be in the vicinity. There were none. He’d gotten away with it.
I still had another minute or so to wait, and so began entertaining thoughts of what would happen if everyone decided to start running red lights when the mood struck them. I’m as big a fan as anyone of those post-apocalyptic zombie movies, and so it was probably predictable that I started to imagine scenarios in which society’s laws began breaking down as more and more chose not to follow them anymore.
At what point, I wondered, would I start running red lights, too?
By the time I finally made my left turn — legally — my thoughts had started to turn as well to consider how we sometimes encounter guys like the lawbreaking driver at the poker tables. You know what I mean, those who act with similar reckless abandon with their bets and raises. And how such loose play often will have an influence on others to play the same way.
This phenomenon happens a lot in live poker, especially in the lower-stakes games where I tend to play. One player will start opening pots with larger-than-typical raises, and others will follow suit. Then a couple will show down some weak hands and soon everyone is opening up his or her ranges. Four, five, or six players start seeing flops — maybe more — and it’s like everyone is racing around ignoring the usual “signs” to stop or yield or at least slow down and be safe.
Such will happen online a lot, too, where a table can switch from quiet, cautious, “law abiding” play to what seems like fast-paced, frantic chaos in an instant. Someone suddenly shifts into a higher gear and before you know it the chips are whizzing around the table like it’s a Formula 1 race.
It can be difficult, sometimes, to resist following the path led by others and play similarly loose when the table opens up this way, even if that isn’t your typical style. And in fact, you should always be adapting your own style to what you are observing of your opponents, finding the best approach to handle what it is they are doing at the tables. This readiness to adjust may make it all the more tempting to start playing a looser game when the table is opening up, but if you do you still want to keep making smart decisions.
The classic advice regarding adapting to a table’s style has always been to go against the flow of traffic, so to speak, and play the opposite style of what you perceive the table to be doing. In other words, if the table is full of rocks, you open up and raise more liberally, taking advantage of their tightness, and if the table has gone all haywire with loose play such as I’m describing, you start playing fewer hands and narrow your range so as to ensure you stand to have better holdings than your rivals once you do get involved.
There are situations where such advice makes sense to follow, but it shouldn’t be taken as infallible. In fact, Mike Caro once pointed out that whenever players are doing “too much” of anything — be it playing too tight or too loose — you should be playing more hands in both cases in order to take advantage of their suboptimal play.
“You should play more hands anytime your opponents stray from perfect strategy, whether they play too tight or too loose,” explains Caro. “The difference is that against loose players, you must bet and call more liberally with slightly weaker-than-normal hands, and against too tight players you should bluff more.”
In other words, if they are playing too tight, you loosen up, but if they are playing too loose, you also loosen up — but the way you play thereafter (i.e., aggressively, passively, or some combination of the two) depends on the circumstance and your opponents.
In poker we all have our own “laws” we tend to follow that dictate our preferred styles of play and also affect how we perceive others playing. But we always need to be willing to adjust and occasionally break those laws depending on what’s happening around us.
That said, until the zombies start outnumbering us, don’t go running any red lights just yet.
Photo: “Running the red light,” Erik Wessel-Berg. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.