In order to keep your opponents guessing at the poker table, it is important to cultivate an aggressive image, whether loose or tight, but now and then you have to throw a wrinkle in your play which goes against expectations. For instance, I consider myself a relatively solid aggressive player though I am not above playing a less-than-premium hand vigorously, or bluffing outright on occasion. If you never bluff, if you never get caught bluffing, you will be perceived as a rock and you will rarely get action when you do get a premium hand. So you have to change it up now and then, and even show everyone that you’re not the rock they think you might be by revealing an occasional bluff or playing any two cards from any position.
Still, you can get yourself into hot water quickly if you adopt a kamikaze approach to betting, raising and bluffing. The trick, I think, is picking your spots to bluff or to play a less-than-premium hand. Small suited connectors in a multi-way pot when others hold big cards might be the dirty little hand that fells the giant, but you don’t want to be playing small suited connectors all the time, and you certainly don’t want to be caught in the crossfire of big hands simply on a prayer. In other words, you have to use these tactics sparingly. Like anything irregular, a little goes a long way. Also, you don’t want to be faced with tough decisions every time you play a hand. I mean, should you play queen-jack suited from under the gun, or jack-10 on the button? And how aggressively?
Certainly, playing premium hands doesn’t take too much forethought or analysis pre-flop, but as mentioned you have to mix it up now and then and play a hand that others might not expect you to play. The starting hand I like in these instances, more than any other, and this is a personal choice based on a mix of factors too complex too discuss in this column, the hand I like to play is 10-8 suited. That’s right. I will play 10-8 suited like a big pocket pair from any position, when I get it.
Yes, I must admit I’ve had quite a bit of success with that hand, including hitting several straight flushes and so on, and sometimes when I show it after a bluff my opponents look at me like I’m a crazy man, which is exactly what I want them to think. Perception is everything in poker. If I want to be perceived as a loose player, all I need is a few small instances of looseness to inseminate that impression. I may only play 10-8 suited once or twice all night, but I’ll show it on a successful or unsuccessful bluff, or it will hit the board well and take down a much better starting hand.
Which leads me to the discussion of “favourite” hands. Of course anyone can call a premium hand their favourite (who doesn’t like aces or kings, eh?), but I’m talking about off-hands, junk hands, hands that will make your opponents shake their heads and scramble their game. We often hear players talk about their favourite trash hands – like Daniel Negreanu and his expressed affection for lowly 10-7. But I’ve seen Negreanu dirty big pairs with 10-7, and I’ve seen Negreanu get all the action he wants when he has better holdings, so it works for him.
I’ve discussed playing small-stakes poker at my friend Carmine’s place in Toronto, with a very mixed crew, some of whom are very skilled, some not so much. I find it interesting what comprises the favourite junk hands of the skillful players. Carmine himself loves to play 8-9, suited or not, and I’ve seen him take down big pots with it when he hit the board just right. Ammo swears by 9-6; Vinnie wins the occasional big pot with 8-5, but he will also play jack-9 with success. Pinot Grigio, one of the more reckless players at our game, loves to play king-2 suited, reasoning that if doesn’t hit high he might hit low, and if he hits his flush ... Yes, all kinds of rationalizations enter the picture when you play junk. But I have to admit that by playing these cards now and then these players strike fear in others, simply because it’s very difficult to put them on a hand, and very difficult to figure out when they’re bluffing. Deception and unpredictability are keys to winning poker. That being said, even when you’re being unpredictable tactically, you should make it part of a larger, more controlled strategic plan and stick to it as much as the game will allow.
Emile Frendo of the Honeymoon City is a semi-professional poker player and winner of the 2006 Pirate Poker Open Championship.