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The four basic poker playing styles explained for football fans

By Emile Avanessian

poker playing styles explained using football analogies

Published: 17:38, 30 January 2022 | Updated: 9:03, 3 February 2022

In many ways, the game of poker is strikingly similar to football.

By and large, each game is an exercise in patience and discipline – more ‘marathon’ than ‘sprint’, if you will – that also requires selective, decisive and incisive aggressiveness at key moments.

The player at the poker table finds its closest footballing parallel in the manager, or head coach. They enter the fray with some degree of inherent, inborn philosophy, but must also assess the flow of a game and the opposition in real time, and be able to effectively adjust accordingly.

Building on this comparison, today we’re taking a look at what some term the four primary types of poker player – Tight-passive (‘The Rock’), Tight-aggressive (‘TAG’), Loose-passive (‘The Calling Station’), Loose-aggressive (‘LAG’) – and their stylistic and philosophical similarities to some of the great managers and sides from football history.

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1. Tight-passive (‘The Rock’)

The tight, passive player – or ‘the Rock’ (no, not that one), as one might call them – is largely content to sit back, observe and absorb the game and understand its rhythms (and those of their opponents) while minimising risk. This player, by and large, only looks to engage in a scuffle when holding a hand that’s overwhelmingly likely to win.

Such an approach requires an immense level of discipline and patience which, considering human nature and boredom, can sometimes be difficult to maintain. Beyond that, even when one both embraces and masters the strategy of folding all but the strongest hands, there are the other complications. Chief among these is the fact that other players at the table, once they’ve identified this style, are unlikely to engage very heavily in a battle of wagers, as this player’s very involvement is likely an indicator of a strong hand. Additionally, even if this player has got an excellent hand, whatever action they do get is likely to be muted due to other players’ knowledge of their risk-averse approach. 

Put into football terms, this strategy resembles the traditional (historically, at least) Italian strategy of Catenaccio, or the approach of a ‘good Jose Mourinho’ side playing away from home against quality opposition. In football, proponents of these strategies posit that a 1-0 victory is the ideal outcome. This approach values neither the assumption of undue risk, nor the maximisation of margin of victory. This is a strategy that looks for consistent, sustainable yet small victories.

It’s worth noting that when the strategy goes wrong, it can be a grueling and demoralising experience. By neither betting aggressively nor playing aggressively (selection of hands), if such a player endures a run in which they are simply not getting quality cards, they are forced to watch their chip stack slowly dwindle in something of a ‘death by 1,000 cuts’ scenario. This is not unlike an extremely conservative football team falling behind unexpectedly, without a considered plan for how to fire back. Ultimately, this can turn into a toothless performance, in which the clock (or a stack of chips) slowly ebbs, and the player is ill-equipped to do much about it.

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2. Tight-aggressive (‘TAG’)

Like the Rock, the ‘TAG’ does not get involved in an excessive number of hands. Unlike the Rock, however, the TAG rarely gets involved in a hand with the intention of simply matching the opponent’s attack (wager), or ‘calling the bet’. The TAG’s approach is a more aggressive one, and calls for a far more emphatic wagering. Combined with a tendency to play only quality cards, this more aggressive betting approach does allow this type of player to better maximise winning on the action that they do get. Additionally, this strategy opens the door for a player to ‘buy the pot’ with some degree of frequency. For the uninitiated, ‘buying the pot’ refers to raising the bet aggressively after multiple other players have bet, making it more expensive for them to see the next card(s) on the board, and thus inviting them to fold their hands, and allowing the player (in this case, the TAG) to simply collect the wagers already on the table, without needing to see additional cards.

When a TAG does get involved in hand, it is similarly an indication that they are holding a strong hand. Once again, as with ‘the Rock’, this self-imposed minimum threshold for starting hands is good in that serves to limit losses, but the assumption from opponents that the TAG will only play a hand with the odds firmly in their favour tends to limit action and, consequently, winnings. Finally, by taking more aggressive approach by concentrating them into a smaller number of hands, each individual victory and defeat takes on outsized significance for a TAG.

In football terms, the best way to think about such a player is as a counter-attacking side, comfortable to sit back and absorb pressure while reading the game and understanding its rhythm. This kind of team will, generally speaking, only behave aggressively and commit to the attack when the situation favours it.

But it is also an approach that simply cannot achieve its ultimate goal without, well, scoring at least one more goal. The best comparison is not so much a specific team but a situation. This type of player approaches poker like a team in the Champions League trailing quality opposition by the (now-defunct) away goals rule. This player’s normal strategy will keep them in the game, but they will, at some point, need to veer a bit from that core identity, and take big swings – sometimes at times that are not always of their choosing.

3. Loose-passive (‘The Calling Station’)

The ‘Calling Station’ – or, a loose, yet passive player – is an interesting sort. Their threshold for quality of a starting hand required to wager is not nearly as high as those of the Rock and the TAG. However, this player takes a conservative approach to wager. The thinking in this strategy is, in its simplest terms, that any two cards can win. To the Calling Station, if the price is cheap enough, even an awful hand – and 5 and a 2 of different suits, for instance – is worth seeing through to the ‘flop’. If the three cards that fall are a pair of 5s and another deuce, the hand is suddenly monstrous. These possibilities – and the possibility of these possibilities, which open the door for a good bluff – are this player’s lifeblood.

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If, after the flop, their substandard hand remains substandard, with no real possibilities for victory, this player is always free to simply fold the next time a wager is made. 

From a football perspective, this is strategy would involve holding on to possession, constantly probing all parts of a defence in search of a weakness, while still comfortable pulling back and regrouping, before looking for the next opening.

At its apex, this strategy is employed in the absence of other players who are aggressively raising the bet prior to the flop, and involves the player in question ‘catching cards’ – both in their pocket hand, as well as on the board. Proper execution, combined with an extraordinarily strong run of cards –Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and David Villa, for instance – this approach can recreate the glory of Guardiola’s peak Barcelona sides. Aggressiveness with devastating effect, with minimal concern for reprisal.

It must be mentioned that this approach is not for the faint of heart. When things go wrong with this strategy, they can get ugly. The not-quite-worst-case scenario, in which the player is seeing many flops but not catching card is akin to that of the Rock: a toothless performance, in which the clock (or a stack of chips) ebbs, only more quickly than in the case of the Rock.

Of course, there is another, more spectacularly disastrous downside scenario. In this case, our player is allowed to see many flops, and catches cards… but cards that are not quite good enough. The fallout here includes subsequent bets and involvement in larger pots, the most important of which do not fall the player’s way, and ultimately, a very-good-but-not-good-enough hand that wipe’s the player out in one fell swoop.

4. Loose-aggressive (‘LAG’)

The LAG (‘loose aggressive’) employs the most high-risk, high-reward approach of all of these player types. This is a player happy and willing to dictate the pace of play and aggressively seek out victory. At the same time, the LAG is willing to cede some control to the opposition, while sniffing out weaknesses, and counter-attacking incisively.

Whether on the front foot or the back foot, the LAG is constantly seeking out victory. At the poker table, this can mean frequently raising bets and taking part forcefully, sometimes without a ready-made winning hand. Either of these scenarios has the potential to lead to a certain level of friction — if not outright conflict — with opposing players.

At its best, this is the style of the great Liverpool teams of recent vintage, spearheaded in attack by Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, with the fiery character of Jurgen Klopp on the sidelines, and, for quite some time, by Sir Alex Ferguson’s great Manchester United sides, in which ‘attack’ was the top priority, and occasionally ruffling a few feathers came with the territory.

However, this style, employed improperly, can lead to disastrous results. In football, this can mean an emotional and unstable team that ships goals freely. At the poker table, this can mean a player whose chip stack swings wildly, seemingly without a plan.



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