Some circumstances on a poker table are beyond our control. That doesn’t mean we can’t use them to our advantage. These factors, which we’ll call Table Dynamics, shape the character of every table and have tremendous influence on the ways in which we play our hands. With a bad player in the blinds on your left, you can raise to a large amount with a very wide range. Then, when the bad player leaves and a professional shortstacker sits down, it’s different. Suddenly you need to change your strategy.
What factors do we need to consider to understand table dynamics?
Player types. If you have a loose, aggressive player on your left, you need to play tighter because you’re going to get a lot of action. If you have a big fish on your right, you should play looser because you’re going to want to play a lot of pots with him. If you have a shortstacker on your left, you’re usually going to need to tighten up because he’s going to move all-in over your raises frequently. These are just a few examples of how game dynamics might change your overall strategy.*
Stack sizes. If there are a number of shorter stacked players at your table, hands like 33 and 67s go down in value, as they lose implied odds (they go up in value if there are deepstacked players at the table). On the flip side, hands like KJ and AT increase in value with shorter stacks because they lose reverse implied odds, but decrease in value with deeper stacks.
Positions. Having a good regular on your left and a fish on your right is very different than having a good regular on your right and a fish on your left. Then, if we consider tables with five or more other players, we’ll see how variable table dynamics can be. Each table will have a distinct combination of player types, stack sizes, and positions, such that table dynamic conditions are always unique.
So how can I use table dynamics postflop? To explain this, I’d like to pull an example from a common small stakes Limit Hold ’em scenario. Let’s say that UTG raises, and sees five callers in a full ring game. We call in the blinds with 55, and the flop comes down J52. In this scenario, we always check to the raiser, hoping for him to bet and get several calls, allowing us to trap the entire field in for an extra bet. On the other hand, let’s say that UTG and five other players limp, and the button raises. We call with 55 in the blinds, as do all the limpers. The flop is J52 again, except this time, leading into the field is correct. This way, we trap the money in the pot before the preflop raiser puts in a flop raise. This is the essence of table dynamics postflop. The same principle applies to No-Limit. We want to do whatever we can to keep the fish in the pot. I was once involved in a large discussion about whether or not to 3-bet QJs from the blinds after a fish limps and a regular raises. My strong belief is that 3-betting in that spot is the incorrect play, and that calling is far preferable. If there are no fish involved, 3-betting may or may not be good. But as soon as the fish limps, we need to do everything we can to play pots with him. If we 3-bet, we force the limping fish out and isolate ourselves with a regular. This brings us back to the concept of mistakes—the regular isn’t going to make many, but the fish is going to make a lot. So why are we trying to isolate ourselves with the guy who plays pretty well? Understanding table dynamics keeps us from making these mistakes. Let’s consider another example of table dynamics. A regular open-raises on the button, and we decide to call in the blinds with Q♠J♠. The flop is J♥4♥3♣. The obvious play here is to check to the raiser, as we’re extremely likely to pick up a c-bet. Then, we can call or raise, depending on image and other considerations. Now, let’s add a table dynamic wrinkle. A fish limps in MP, the same regular raises on the button, and we call in the blinds with Q♠J♠. The fish calls as well. The flop is J♥4♥3♣ again, yet this time we shouldn’t check to the raiser. Why not? First of all, we have a hand that we can bet for value against the fish—he’s likely to call us with worse hands (draws, worse J’s, smaller pairs). Secondly, in a multiway pot (especially with a fish who is likely to call a bet on the flop), the regular’s c- betting range becomes narrower and stronger. Too often we miss value from the fish, give free cards to both opponents, or pay off by check-calling down against the regular.
You’re probably wondering what to do if you lead and the regular raises. It’s usually a simple answer—fold. When you lead into a player you know is likely to call you (the fish), your hand range looks strong to anyone paying attention. Thus, if the regular raises, he is unlikely to have a weak hand or a bluff. If he has a draw he has to be concerned about a bet/3-bet line, and will probably just call your lead to protect his equity. If he has a set, he’ll want to raise, hoping to induce a bet/3-bet line and to prevent a free card for a potential flush draw. The only potentially difficult spot comes when the regular holds a stronger top-pair or an overpair and decides to call our flop bet. However, we can deal with that on later streets, simply asking ourselves if betting the turn for value is too thin given that possibility.
The flip side of this scenario comes when a regular raises in MP and a fish calls on the button. Once again we have Q♠J♠ on a J♥4♥3♣ board. This time, it is probably better to check and let the action unfold in front of us. If the regular checks, it gives the fish a chance to bluff at the pot. If the regular bets and the fish raises, we can comfortably fold. If the regular bets and the fish calls, we can usually call one street and see what happens on the turn (sometimes we’ll even be able to check-raise this spot, occasionally getting the regular to fold a better hand and getting the fish to call with a worse one!). However, even here an argument could be made for leading the flop if we think the regular is unlikely to c-bet at a high percentage. In that case, we’re simply betting the flop for value. However, it’s not as clear of a bet as if the fish were directly on our left.
The overall point of table dynamics is to understand that the best way to play a hand depends on more than just our cards, their cards, and the board. How different types of players play, where they’re sitting, the sizes of their stacks, and number of them involved in a pot all affect our decisions. To make the best decisions, understanding table dynamics is critical.
*If a loose player is on our left, we may decide to go to war. This would mean continuing to play loosely ourselves but not giving up against his aggression. This means 4-betting, barreling, and hero-calling. Or, if a shortstacker is on our left, we may decide to play loosely (if he’s tight) to steal blinds. Then, we can just fold to his aggression. However, a loose-aggressive short stacker may simply cause us to play more tightly and there isn’t a lot that we can do about it.