Is it possible to learn aggression in poker?

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What is aggression? Can it be learned? Is it a personality trait? Is aggression the most successful strategy?

Kyle Siler of Cornell University, published Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker in the Journal of Gambling Studies. It’s an important piece on the nature of aggression in poker for a number of reasons: First, a reputable academic journal published an article on poker, and the article articulates the skill aspect of poker. Poker being a game of skill is important to all legislation regarding poker.

It’s also important because Siler analyzed a database of millions of hands played online in six-max no-limit poker.

Siler finds poker is “a complex tapestry of skill and luck, rationality and intuition, mathematics and psychology, fraught with uncertainty over outcomes, best practices and their relationships to success.” Even as I write this, I think it’s a mouthful, but still one of the best descriptions I have seen of poker.

The study found that aggression is a profitable strategy in poker. But there are some counterintuitive results. The aggression that works best is refined aggression and the tight-aggressive style is most profitable for most people. Loose-aggressive play, however, produces the best results for a limited number of people and the worst results for a much larger number of people. Refined aggression in a tight aggressive strategy involves more betting and raising and folding than calling and limping. It involves raising when you have an advantage: cards, position, stack, image and read.

It also suggests as folks move up in stakes, competitive edges shrink. So what does this say for most of us?

Tight aggressive play is the most profitable style over the long run. Loose-aggressive play may produce the biggest wins and biggest losses. The study found there’s an overrepresentation of LAG players among the biggest winners and losers.

“A high win percentage (that is the percentage of total hands won by a player) is negatively correlated with win rate,” Siler wrote. Basically winning a lot of pots does not mean you will win a lot of money; in fact in his analysis of more than 26 million hands, Siler found big winners tend to win fewer, but bigger, pots. This is why we’ve concluded that tight-aggressive play is the most successful strategy.

Aggression in poker can be learned. It’s a tactic/strategy that involves betting and raising when you have an advantage. This can be when you have better cards, better position, better ability or a read; what I have defined as refined aggression.

So now we have scientific information that confirms TAG is the best way to grind out a profit in poker. LAG may be more exciting and produce intermittent reinforcement, but it can lead to more (and bigger) losses.

Use this info to help you keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. Email him at editor@anteupmagazine.com.