How to Use Judo at a Poker Table

2 Tactics For Facing Hyper-Aggressive Maniacs & Bullies

“Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Learning to deal with—and profit from—overly aggressive players is an important skill to master. Don’t be afraid of a table bully; they can’t physically harm you. Instead, they can actually be a steady source of chips to add to your stack. The key to beating any opponent is to recognize what they do wrong— and then exploit those mistakes. Aggressive bullies and maniacs play too many hands and do so far too aggressively. To beat them, you should: 1) open up your calling range; and 2) reduce your own aggression. The following post explains in more detail the why’s and how’s of these two tactics.


Paying Attention Is The First Step

I was losing money without knowing it at a 6max table the other day online. The game was on Bovada and the stakes were $100NL. About twenty minutes into the session, I realized I was down about $25. I hadn’t really played any significant hands or taken any bad beats— but the money was still gone. It took me longer than it should have to realize what was happening, partly because I had too many tables open at once, and partly because I was just clicking buttons on auto-pilot— which is another leak in my game that I’m working to plug…. but I digress.

Anyway, when I did wake up and notice the loss of money, I began to observe where all the money at the table was going: to a hyper-aggressive loose table bully with a bunch of money in front of him. This guy was running over the table with raw, naked aggression. Raises, re-raises, shoves— you name it, this guy was doing it. His VPIP was close to 50%, and his aggression factor was essentially identical. He was playing half his hands, and raising or re-raising every single one of them. The bulk of my lost $25 had clearly gone to this guy, primarily because I wasn’t paying attention; e.g., whenever I raised in late position with a second tier hand and got re-raised, I just dutifully folded and moved on. Or if he opened for a raise in front of me, I just folded most hands. In other words, my auto-pilot brain was handling this player like it would any normal player. But he wasn’t a normal player. I had five other 6max tables open and running, and Bovada doesn’t support HUDs, so I hadn’t noticed that there was a maniac a this table who kept raising– and therefore making me fold.

So I sat up, closed about half of the other tables, and started to pay attention to this table. It quickly became apparent that the villain was a one-trick pony. He only knew how to jam the raise button. The fold button was either not on his computer screen, or he was incapable of pushing it. Calling was similarly not in his repertoire.

Strangely, while I may have been blind to his play, the other players at the table weren’t. They were acutely aware of how the villain was acting, but weren’t doing anything to counter the bad guy’s tactics.  In fact they were cowering in fear. These other players were literally folding near continuously, all whilst chatting about this crazy maniac. As I watched, one player even left the table, remarking in the chat box on the way out that, “I’m going to go find a normal game instead of this idiot’s table.”

Huh? Why on earth would you want to leave? I thought.  This bully presented a perfect situation. He had a single skill, and a correspondingly huge weakness in his game. And I was very happy about it. Even better, I seemed to be the only one who recognized the opportunity. In fact, the other players were basically proclaiming their own reactionary leaks in the chat box for all the world to read. They were cowed by the villain’s aggression, and seemingly unwilling to fight back with anything but super strong hands. I think I literally rubbed my hands together and felt myself begin to salivate. This is a target-rich environment…

Poker is Like Judo

As you begin to transition your no-limit game from level-1 what-are-my-cards play, to level-2 what-does-the-other-guy-have poker, one of the fundamental keys to success is embracing the idea that this is a game played against other people. It is not won by waiting for good cards to come and then somehow miraculously cashing in. To make consistent money at poker, you have to learn to “play the players.”

Fine. We’ve all heard this, but what does it really mean?

In the simplest of terms, playing the player means identifying the tendencies, traits, mistakes, and weaknesses your opponents make. More to the point, it means exploiting these weaknesses. It’s like judo, where you don’t so much fight against your opponent with force-on-force, but instead you try to use their own momentum and mistakes against them. Your opponent is pushing against you? You don’t push back; instead, you pull.

Poker is the same. You should not try to out-bully a bully at a poker table. Instead you should figure out how to use his own aggression against himself. You literally have to adapt your game to suit the weaknesses of the other players at your table.

On the schoolyard playground, when a bully picks on you, the best approach is to come right back over the top at the aggressor and hit him hard in the nose. You fight fire with fire, and this often fixes the problem immediately. Ah, but this approach does not work very well in poker. In fact, winning at poker isn’t about “fixing” a problem with your opponent’s style of play, instead it’s all about exploiting those traits. You literally want the opponent to have a problem, a weakness, a leak. If you can spot the leak, you can exploit it.

Let poker bullies be bullies. And use their aggression against them, turning their behavior into the functional equivalent of momentum that you can exploit with the appropriate poker-judo move.

The Two Tactics to Use on Poker Bullies

A poker bully is by definition too aggressive. They’re also equally too loose. Whether we call them bullies, maniacs or LAgtards,  they share these two traits: they play too many hands, and they bet and raise too much with those hands. Their ranges are much weaker than the size of their bets imply. Said another way, we may call them big bad bullies, but paradoxically they’re weak– or at least their hand ranges are weak. This is their fundamental–and exploitable–leak.

When an opponent routinely makes a mistake over and over, there’s always a way to take advantage of it. Here are the two fundamental things you can do to take advantage of the too-loose/too-aggressive mistakes a maniac makes:

  1. Open Up Your Range. Because a bully is playing more hands than he should, it’s obvious that most of these are less-than stellar holdings. This means you can somewhat relax your own calling standards a bit and still make a profit against this guy. The trick is to a) try to get heads-up with him; and b) not open your range too much.
  2. Be More Passive. The second key to defeating a poker bully is to let him hang himself with his bets. Since his major mistake is betting too liberally, you should give him every opportunity to defeat himself by repeating that mistake. You should check and call more than you normally do, especially with medium strength and above hands. Let him take the betting lead. Let him build the pot when you have a value hand. Be more passive against the maniac, particularly on the earlier streets. If he does check to you, check back with all but your stronger holdings, as these guys often like to check-raise. If you do have a strong hand and want to raise, try to forestall those re-raises until the river. Imagine you flop a set against a bully and he’s hammering away at you. You don’t want him to stop; you want him to build the pot for you. Let him be the bully on the flop and turn. Let him think he can push you off a hand. Save your re-raises and bigger bets for the river, where he could actually find himself pot-committed with some kind of second-best made hand.

Cashing In

So back to my crazy Bovada table: I ended up closing all my other tables and sticking around this lone table for a relatively long time, initially because of the bully, who quickly gave me back my leaked $25, plus at least that much in additional money, but also because of the weak-tight behavior of the other players. Their collective mistake was they folded to re-raises far too often, as evidenced by their reactions to the bully’s behavior. In a sense, I became the new big bad bully at the table–at least against these weak players–and pushed them off pots that I normally couldn’t have against stronger opponents. The correct form of judo against these guys wasn’t actually judo at all. It was more akin to karate– strikes and kicks and punches and raw, naked aggression that forced them over and over out of pots I had no business winning otherwise. It’s all about playing the player, remember?

The Bottom Line

It’s often tempting to “out bully” a poker bully by being even more aggressive than he or she is. That’s the exact wrong approach. You can’t win at poker by copying and/or exaggerating the same mistake an opponent is making. Instead, you have to use poker judo to counter their momentum and amplify their mistakes. Against maniacs who play too many hands and/or play too aggressively, just call a bit wider, get involved in more hands with them, and back off on your own aggression, letting them hang themselves. Don’t fight their mistakes; exploit them instead.

Learn. Master. Crush.

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2 thoughts on “How to Use Judo at a Poker Table

  1. Sounds you been reading my journal! When I first started playing poker in 1996, I was a stone-cold sucker. It took years to shift my game. So glad you outlined using the martial arts concept to shift your game. I know it has helped mine too.

    It was so hard for me to open up my range and be more passive, especially when I was playing from my fear, rather than my confidence. Once I did, it was a big change.

    Thank you for sharing.
    Donna Blevins
    Poker Mindset Coach

    • Hi Donna. You hit the nail on the head: it is all about shifting from a state of fear to that of having confidence and trusting yourself and your reads. Cheers!