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Can You Play Poker Too Tight?
by: Lou Kriegerę

“How can you play too tight?” Those were the exact words a reader put in a letter to me recently. It’s an interesting question; so much so that’s it’s worth a column all by itself.

Playing too tight is not a problem common to most players, especially beginning and low limit players. Their major sin is loose play. In the higher limit games, players do tighten up quite a bit, but they are usually anything but weak-tight; if they’ve managed to survive and thrive in high limit games they may be tight, but they are usually very aggressive too.

Many lower limit players have a hard time comprehending how a player can be tight and aggressive at the same time. They don’t realize that many good players will refuse to play poor and sometimes even marginal hands. But when they choose to get involved they do so with both guns blazing. Players like this usually come in for a raise if they came in at all. If there is a bet and a raise in front of them, they will seldom cold call, preferring to either fold or make it three bets. Players like this are not what I’d ever call too tight.

But weak-tight players are. A weak-tight player will enter the pot only with good hands. When he plays, especially when he raises, his hand is generally no mystery to those opponents who’ve taken the time to get a read on him. At lower limit games it often doesn’t matter; since many players at those limits tend to act obliviously to the holdings of their opponents. But if you pay attention to your opponents, and clock them when you are at the table, you’ll know which of them will always have a hand when they bet or raise.

One characteristic of a player that’s too tight is that he does not ever vary his play. Because of that, he is easy to avoid. Unless you have a very big hand, it is an easy matter to get rid of any lesser quality hands when bet into, or raised, by an overly tight player.

Because overly tight players are easier to read, they will win less money with their good hands. Why? A player like me, who might call a bet or a raise against most players when I have a good hand — but not a great one — will throw it away when an overly tight player bets or raises. By doing this, I am giving that overly tight player a golden opportunity to steal a pot by bluffing me, but I’m not putting too much at risk, since he seldom, if ever, will do it.

Overly tight players also hurt themselves by not taking advantage of small edges and opportunities. Suppose you are holding Ad-9d and the flop is Qd-Jc-6d. You’re in next-to-last position, and there’s a bet and four callers. This is a situation where overly tight players will call, thinking “I’ve got a draw to the nut flush, but I haven’t made it yet. I’ll try to get there as inexpensively as I can.”

For an aggressive player, this is a must raise situation. Why? Even without considering all money you’ll make on subsequent betting rounds if you turn a diamond, there are already four players committed to seeing the turn. Presuming each of them will call your raise, you are getting 4-to-1 on your money, when the odds against making your hand are only 1.86-to-1. Anytime the money you will win if you make your hand exceeds the odds against catching the card you need, you should consider raising. I realize that most of the time you will not make your flush. That’s not important. What is important is that if you were able to repeat this scenario 100 or 1,000 times, over the long haul you’d win more money by raising than you would by calling.

Too-tight player also lose money when they fail to bet the river when they hold very strong hands, but not necessarily the nuts. Suppose you hold Ah-9h and the board shows As-Jd-9c-5h-4s. An overly tight player will not bet this hand on the river. Why? He does not have the nuts. But you don’t need the nuts to bet on the river. You only need to have the best hand if you are called. In this situation there is no possibility of a flush, and no straight to worry about. What could beat our hero. A set could. But the chances of a set are small. If someone made a set on the flop or turn they probably would have raised on the turn. Sure, some dummy could have stuck around with a pair of fours and caught a miracle card on the river, but the chances of that are very scant. Once again, looking at the long run, a player would show a lot more profit betting that hand and getting called by a two smaller pair, or aces, or even someone else with a hand as weak as K-J who is calling “ keep you honest,” while occasionally losing to a miracle set, than he would by checking down top two pair on the river — particularly when there is no possibility of a straight or flush. I’ll even bet top two pair, or top and middle pair, against one opponent even when a straight or flush is possible. Against multiple opponents, I frequently bet top two pair against the possibilities of a back door flush. And if I’m last to act, I’ll frequently bet if there’s a front-door flush possible, since I’ll usually assume that anyone who drew to a flush and made it on the river would bet their hand. Sure, sometimes I lose to someone with a very small flush, but those losses have been more than offset by the additional bets I’ve won when my top two pair have held up.

Can you play too tight? Of course you can. If not, the biggest winners would be those who never played a hand other than a pocket pair of aces. They’d be in action about once every 221 hands. But no one would call when they bet, and their winnings won’t pay their time charges.

There’s a fine line that consistently winning players have to tread. Most players lean too far into the direction of overly loose play. But others — and it’s really just a few — play too tightly. Not many, mind you, but they are out there. And it’s probably easier for them to loosen up a bit than it is for overly loose players to tighten down. If you’ve been playing too tightly, take heed — but take a well-calculated risk every now and then.

Lou Krieger is the co-author of 'Poker for Dummies' and the host of Royal Vegas Poker.