Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Sometimes poker players are criticized for playing a style that appears too tight or "nitty," especially when it comes to big televised games. I thought I'd write a few words in defense of playing what can seem to be a tight or passive style, because in fact there are situations when it can be quite favorable to play as such.

I'm speaking a little from experience, as not long ago I appeared on a televised poker show here in Germany, and afterwards I got the feedback that I was too tight -- too "old school," some said -- in the way I played. However, there are some games and circumstances where it can be obvious that it is better to adopt a tight style than in other games.

For example, say you are in a cash game in which there are two people at the table who, you know, will pay you off every time you have a good hand. Even if they recognize you are a tight player, you can see they aren't thoughtful enough to use that knowledge to avoid calling your raises when you have a strong hand or the nuts.


Michael Keiner

Such players are often very aggressive, playing a lot of hands and often sticking around to the river. In such situations it is usually better to play tight and stick with quality starting hands, because you know you have a great chance of getting money from players like this. In fact, if you yourself play loosely in such a game, you're likely going to give up some of your edge.

A lot of young people say that the only real style in poker is loose-aggressive, especially in pot-limit Omaha or no-limit hold'em. But nowadays you have to be flexible, and be able to adopt a style that is most profitable for you, given your opponents. If everyone is loose-aggressive at your table and the game is chaotic, it is obviously going to benefit you if you can tighten up and take advantage of the increased chance of getting paid off with strong hands.

Of course, there are times when a tight style is not going to be recommended, especially in games where there isn't a lot of action. But in high-action games you can find yourself in the unique situation where it is actually better to react than to be the instigator, looking for spots where you can get paid.

Such can be true in certain hand-specific situations as well. Take the situation in pot-limit Omaha in which you flop top set against two opponents, and the board is such that flush and/or straight draws are possible.


"You think I'm a rock? I had bottom pair!"

You have the best hand on the flop, and some will say it is good to try to get your chips in the middle right then and there. But often it is actually better to play passively in such a spot, checking or perhaps just calling a bet, then waiting to see if the turn is a blank and then trying to get the chips in.

If the turn is bad for you -- say it completes a draw -- you can also play cautiously and control the pot or even fold if an opponent is making a pot-sized bet. Meanwhile if the turn is a blank, you've disguised your hand well because it isn't obvious you have top set, and that's when you can get the money in with much better equity and thus more likelihood of winning.

Some players have a hard time understanding that situations do arise in which a passive play is preferable. But in certain situations and certain games, such as deep-stacked games in which there are lots of aggressive players, passive or tight play is correct. In fact there are a lot of spots in the big PLO games when it is better to play passively on the flop and to get aggressive on the turn.

Remember also that people are watching you, too, and if you play a tight style you'll find it much easier to be successful with a bluff. For example, when I am playing tight in a PLO game and bluff that I have a nut flush (when I only have the ace), they almost never call me! They give me that "nit" image and decide there's no way I could bet without having the nuts. But that's exactly what I've done!

My advice is to be flexible with your style. Be able to adjust your play according to the circumstances and how your opponents are playing. And realize that sometimes tight really is right!

Michael Keiner is a member of Team PokerStars Pro.

Michael Keiner
@PokerStars in PokerStars news