Accurately profiling poker players has become more important than ever. In order to make targeted adjustments, I find it helpful to follow a profiling and labeling system based on the typical extreme tendencies that my opponents exhibit at the tables. By learning to identify common traits among other players you will be able to build a repertoire of standard adjustments to make against them. With practice, exploiting your opponents will become second nature.
Now, the first thing you must realize is that…
Everyone Is Trying to Win
As a winning player, it’s difficult to fathom that some of the so-called “bad” plays made by losing players are actually genuine attempts to win money. Even so, think about how ridiculous it would be for anyone to sit down and intentionally give money away to the other players. With that in mind, never lose sight of the fact that everyone is using a strategy that they think will win.
In understanding this, we have an opportunity to realize an advantage over other less organized, thinking players. By learning to recognize the game plan, or modus operandi, of various opponents, we can form a counter strategy to take advantage of their flaws and, in turn, maximize our profit. While it’s true that no two players are identical and every one has multiple leaks, there are a few common player profiles or ways that our opponents are attempting to win at the tables. In categorizing the opposition based on a set of typical playing styles, we can come up with an organized and definitive best way to attack each one.
Profiling Is About Identifying Extreme Tendencies
To find the best way to exploit an opponent’s flaws, it’s best to focus on the most extreme strategic errors, which act as their “calling card.” This is because the most obvious errors are also generally where the most money is to be extracted from the player. They are also the leaks that are very easy to observe and implement a counter strategy against. Put another way, each extreme tendency offers a different route to profit.
Here are 5 examples of exploitable poker leaks:
- Folding too much
- Calling too much
- Being too aggressive
- Being too passive
- Over-valuing hands
Every opponent carries different types of extractable money. Just to clarify, what I mean by “type of money they carry,” refers to what their general weak spot is for extracting profit. For example, someone who is very tight and folds a lot will give up a lot of non-showdown earnings because they fold too often. Conversely, a player who calls too frequently and takes weaker hands to showdown too often will give up a lot of showdown earnings.
My apologies if this is a bit complicated for some readers. All you really need to know at this point is that players who are too tight are exploitable in a different way than players who are too loose. Whatever their tendency is affects our strategy and, in turn, our tactics when we are involved in pots with them.
Giving a Name to Each Player Type (Extreme Tendency)
While you should always tailor your read on each opponent on the merits of their HUD stats and any hands you have observed them play, I find it useful to have default lines based on specific categories which you can lump opponents into. Here is a list of the general types of players you will encounter at the tables:
- Calling Stations
- Fish & Whales (Loose-Passives)
Now let’s briefly go over the “modus operandi” of each player type and give a general breakdown of how to exploit them. I will also give you specific ways to adjust your standard game based on reads made through your HUD and by tendencies you observe. Each player type example will include how they approach the game of poker, what level they think on, what their primary weakness is, what type of money they carry, and how to exploit them.
Exploiting Nits: Ramp up the Aggression
Modus Operandi: Nits tend to think on level 1 or level 2; however, the level 2 nits generally skew their opponents’ ranges toward the top. They are waiting for a very good hand to get their money in and do not like stacking off with much worse than the nuts.
Most of the time, nits are sitting around waiting for monster hands to get involved. In the meantime, they are easy to bluff and steal from. They will almost always think you are sitting there with the nuts. You can think on level two against these players and effectively beat them.
Calling Card: Nits will have both very low VPIP and PFR. Anyone with VPIP and PFR less than 15 should be considered a pre-flop NIT.
Primary weakness: Nits attempt to make money by making hands and are usually fit or fold players. They play few pots and defend their blinds with only strong holdings.
Type of money they carry: Non-Showdown.
How to exploit them: You are not going to make anything off nits by trying to make the best hand against them. Fold to any aggression by them unless you have the near nuts or reasonable implied odds. The way to beat them is by slowly bleeding them via non-showdown earnings.
Pre-flop counter-strategy: Try to sit to the right of them and steal relentlessly.
Post-flop counter-strategy: C-bet 100% if they check-fold more than 50%. Barrel scare cards as true nits are generally only interested in showing down the nuts but tend to shy away from thin value bets. 3-barrel bluffs tend to be profitable against them. If they call you down with something less than top pair, put a note on them and move on. It is possible to be a pre-flop nit and a post-flop calling station.
Exploiting Calling Stations: Less Bluffing, Add Value Hands
M.O.: True calling stations have fishy stats, so they typically will start out labeled as a fish and then graduate to the Calling Station label. They are typically level 0 or 1 and are eternal optimists. They will call until the bitter end with any piece of the board or possibility of winning. They seldom raise without the nuts and just mash the call button relentlessly. The combination of low PFR and post-flop aggression are tell-tale signs of calling stations.
Calling Card: What they do without initiative is their calling card. Stations have very low fold to c-bet, below 40%, and low aggression.
Primary weakness: Taking weak holdings into later streets.
Type of money they carry: Showdown.
How to exploit them: Since calling stations will take a variety of weak holdings to later streets, you should be looking to play a bit tighter than normal when entering pots against them.
Pre-flop counter-strategy: Look to play in position with a range of hands that flops well. If they limp, try to isolate them on the cutoff and button.
Post-flop counter-strategy: You are forced to make a hand against calling stations, but feel free to value bet thinly with almost any piece of the board. Once you make a hand, bet-fold at least two streets with any made hand and three streets with top pair and better. Never slow play against them and a bit larger with your medium to strongest holdings. Bet bet bet, but do not bluff! Due to a lower amount of post-flop fold equity, avoid building big pots with draws. Checking back flops with non-made hands should be standard.
General Strategy Versus LAGs: Avoid Them, If Possible
M.O.: True loose aggressive players are level 3-4. They are generally the best players on the table and are typically miserable to play against. They employ a style similar to the one you should be using.
Calling Card: LAG players always have a high steal (50%+) and aggression percentage (40%+) with a VPIP/PFR in the neighborhood of 28/24. They also typically resteal in the range of 12-15%, although some employ a much lower or much higher percentage.
Primary weakness: Really good loose-aggressive players will not have extreme exploitable tendencies since they will be fairly balanced and good at readjusting to you. However, the one weak spot that can sometimes be tapped is their overly aggressive stealing strategy.
Type of money they carry: Non-showdown earnings pre-flop via your aggressive 3-betting strategy.
How to exploit them: By understanding your perceived range and adjusting your game accordingly. Mostly, you will have to rely on reads and notes on these players to exploit them. It is generally best to stay away from tables with a LAG directly to your left, unless they are not light 3-bettors. Occasionally, some opening range lags are nits in the blinds and can be stolen from similarly to a nit.
Pre-flop counter-strategy: Unless they have an obvious exploitable tendency that you can glean from their HUD, try to avoid getting involved with them too often. However, since they will be trying to isolate weak players (just like you), the best spots to take advantage of them is by mixing in a few well-timed 3-bets or squeezes against them.
Post-flop counter-strategy: Usually, the best policy is to play ABC against a LAG, especially if you think that they think you are a good player. I also recommend erring on the pot control side with a wide range of post-flop holdings. Playing two-street poker as much as possible is about the best advice I can give.
Exploiting TAGs: Targeted Aggression
M.O.: Anyone following a hand chart can achieve TAG stats, but they can be really good players or they can be stations or pure fish. Use notes and experience to get an accurate read on them. True tags are typically level two players and are thinking about what you have, so you need to form credible lines in order to bluff them. They are capable of adjusting.
Calling Card: While there are a wide range of players who could be considered “TAG”, most play a fairly predictable ABC game. Most have VPIP of between 16 and 22, PFR of between 13 and 20, and AGG% of 32-40%. If you want to learn more about how TAGs play, read the major poker forums or most popular mainstream books.
Primary weakness: Generally play too tight pre-flop and are susceptible to post-flop bluffs.
Type of money they carry: Non-showdown and showdown, since they are equally susceptible to both pre-flop and post-flop exploitation.
How to exploit them: Just like nits, they are typically vulnerable to steals, although the good TAGs will adjust and 3-bet you lightly if they think you are getting out of line. And, just like LAGs, you will need to form detailed reads in order to exploit them.
Pre-flop counter-strategy: Play the player. Look for a weakness, either a high fold to steal or a low fold to steal coupled with a high fold to c-bet percentage.
Post-flop counter-strategy: Many TAGs are too fit or fold and don’t realize it. These are typically the exact best players to run multi-street bluffs against. Often, they will call one or two bets to “narrow your range” with the intention of folding to a second or third barrel. Make sure that you play your range and not your exact hands and you are golden. Level three for the win.
General Strategy Versus Fish/Whales: Widen Playing Range Against Them
Fish M.O.: Now we’re talking. You want as many of these on your table as possible. It is preferable to have them to your right, but there is really no bad spot to have them. Make sure you use notes for specific reads beyond them just being bad players. Some fish are stations, some are fit or fold, and some are aggressive in weird spots.
Whale M.O.: Whales are fish on steroids and typically have a VPIP 60+, seldom fold to isos, and are generally going to continue with any piece of the board. I’m talking bottom pair, gut shots, ace highs. They will often take them to the bitter end and tend to never raise unless they have the nuts.
All fish & whales play a simple strategy based on losing money at the poker tables. They do not realize this, of course, but every tactic they employ will have lack direction or coherence.
Keep in mind that there are many different extremes of fish & whales but, for the purposes of this article, I am talking about players with high VPIP and low PFR. They are generally very passive post-flop, looking to only raise when they have a monster. Even then, they sometimes do a good job of getting the least amount of value they can for their big hands.
Calling Card: A high VPIP and low PFR.
Fish primary weakness: Fish tend to call too often in the wrong spots, fold too often in others, and have a general lack of knowledge about the basics of poker.
Whale primary weakness: Almost always weak in every aspect of the game. They mostly are just clicking buttons.
Type of money fish carry: Varies but generally, both pockets are wide open.
Type of money whales carry: It varies from whale to whale, err on the side of showdown value until you get a good read on their tendencies.
How to exploit fish: Play lots of pots with them and exploit whatever extreme tendencies they exhibit. You should be isolating them with a wide range and value betting relentlessly.
How to exploit whales: Similar to fish, play lots of pots with them and exploit whatever extreme tendencies they exhibit. In a vacuum, you can treat them like calling stations until you have a better read.
General Strategy Versus Maniacs: Passive-Aggressive FTW
M.O.: They are generally level 0 or 1 players and live to bet and raise. They are typically ego maniacs and will get into testosterone wars with anyone willing to play. You must open up your pre-flop and post-flop commitment thresholds against these guys or get run over. Unless you are comfortable post-flop, I would advise leaving the table if they are within 2-3 seats to your left. There are different types of maniacs, so I make a written note about what type of maniac they are.
Calling Card: High VPIP, high PFR, and high aggression.
Primary weakness: They are overly aggressive on all streets.
Type of money they carry: Showdown.
How to exploit them: Exploit them by small-balling as much as you can pre-flop to see as many flops as possible. Do not tighten up too much! You will not encounter these players all too often. When you do, it is a gift from above so you want to give yourself as much opportunity to take advantage of it as possible. Often, they are spewy and will often build up a big stack quickly and then crash and burn, giving it all away just as quickly to a lucky soul.
Pre-flop counter-strategy: First, expand your 3-bet value range against them and get it in lighter than you normally would. AT on a JT2 board is the nuts against these guys. No point in bluffing here, just wait for a decent hand and get it in. Secondly, when they are in position behind you, go for limp-shoves (for you CAP stackers) with a much wider range.. expand the range depending on how crazy they appear to be, but a standard strategy would be 55+, AT+, KQ.
Post-flop counter-strategy: Play passively with medium to strong hands and let ’em hang themselves. For the most part, play your draws aggressively on the turn, even maniacs will fold to strength on the turn with weak holdings.
Labeling players makes adjustments during your sessions so much easier. And, since you will see the same types of players over and over, learning how to adjust against them will benefit you tremendously over time. In fact, you should always be actively taking notes and labeling opponents at all times when you play.
Humans are creatures of habit and stubborn when it comes to changing their approach to anything in life. This is especially true in poker. Broadly speaking, most everyone thinks that their way of doing it is the best way possible. Therefore, once you stick a particular label on an opponent, it’s likely to remain relevant indefinitely. Just remember to adjust a label if the need arises and new information comes to light that changes the read.
If your poker site or HUD allows for color-coding, I recommend using the following system for easy player recognition during sessions:
- Nits- Blue or Mouse symbol
- Calling Stations- Yellow or Phone symbol
- Lags- Red or Eagle
- Tags- Light Blue or ABC blocks symbol
- Fish & Whales (Loose-Passives)- Green or the Fish/Whale symbols
- Maniacs- Purple or Tornado symbol
Remember, once you have a read on someone, always assign a color coding note to them, if the poker site’s software allows it.
Auto-rating is a feature available in some tracking software programs, such as Hold’em Manager 2. When enabled, the software will automatically assign [popup_anything id=”1165″] to opponents based on predetermined stat values. For example, you could assign the picture of a rock to extremely tight players by assigning the stat values of VPIP less than 10 and PFR less than 8.
If your tracking software has an auto-rate feature, here is a quick guide to setting it up for easy identification of the various player types. These rules will not be perfect but will give you a really good idea of general tendencies at a glance.
- Nits: Fold to steal >70, Fold to c-bet >60
- Calling Stations: Fold to c-bet <40
- Lags: VPIP between 25 & 35, PFR between 20 and 32, AGG % >35
- Tags: VPIP between 15 & 25, PFR between 10 & 20, AGG% >30
- Fish & Whales (Loose-Passives): VPIP >40 for Fish, VPIP >60 for Whales, PFR <20 for both
- Maniacs: VPIP >50, PFR >40
Once assigned, the auto-rating colors or symbols will appear in the HUD of your opponents once a minimum sample size has been obtained. Note: I often use symbols instead of colors. A mouse for Nits, A phone for Calling Stations, etc. It doesn’t matter which symbols you use, as long as you remember which one goes with each player type. See the screenshot below to see how it might look.
Identifying Opponents in Anonymous Games
If you play on a poker site that does not allow long-term note-taking or is completely anonymous, such as Ignition or Bovada, you will need to form reads as play progresses during your session. Here are a few things to look out for in order to quickly assign a profile to your opponents.
- If you see a player seemingly raising every pot and 3-betting erratically, go ahead and assume it’s a Maniac
- If an opponent limps in early position or more than once from any position, assume he or she is a fish
- Whenever you see a person complaining in chat about the way someone is playing, assume they are a weak TAG player.
Now that you have the process to profile players to keep your thoughts on track and opponent types to look out for, you can use your forensic analysis to focus all your attention on forming strategies and tactics to attack every different dynamic you might face. Now go forth, young sleuths, start gathering intel and attack your tables with confidence. Hopefully, the game just got a whole lot easier (and maybe even a lot more interesting).
Jim James has over 15 years of experience playing professionally and is the author of the best-selling book called Automatic Poker. Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, he has won 7 figures at the poker table. Jim is well-known as the world’s leading expert on playing short or mid-stacked poker.
Today, he helps other players demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em and has helped countless people become winning poker players through his Online Poker Academy.