06/07/2006 12:00AM

Keep opponent on his heels, but also keep him guessing

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There's an old poker adage that the person who wins in no-limit poker is the person who bets the most - the cards settle the ties. That's why good players hammer home the importance of always being aggressive in no-limit games. I recently spoke with Daniel Negreanu, one of the leading professional poker players, and asked him why this is.

"There's just no way you can win one of these major tournaments without aggressive play being a part of your game plan," he said. "You just can't do it, because aggressive play is simply another word for more optimal play. Basically, the math is behind an aggressive style of play. Books that have been written in the past simply didn't have it all right as far as what hands to be playing and what hands to be folding. The newer, younger approach - the more smash-mouth, in-your-face, raise-it-up style - is just a lot closer to what the math dictates is correct. So without playing that style, you'll basically depend on getting really good cards. And when you're depending on getting really good cards on a regular basis, you're going to be disappointed, because they don't come often enough. You have to manufacture good hands and manufacture good cards."

This advice makes perfect sense, and you could see how it would be particularly true playing against players like the ones who frequented the World Series of Poker in the old days, guys who played like rocks and would try their best to not risk their whole stack unless they were certain they had an advantage. I asked Negreanu if this same type of aggression is important in cash games as well as tournaments.

"In a different way, yes," he said. "In a cash game, you're generally dealing with more sophisticated players. You can't be seen as somebody who's transparent. Everybody knows if you're an ABC player, you're never going to make enough money on your hands. And conversely, because they can pinpoint your hands, they're going to take shots at you with what I call bust 'em hands. And they're going to get you that way. So being unpredictable, or creating a table image that keeps people off balance, is just as important in a different way for cash play. In cash play, you're not going to be putting stack pressure on people, and by that I mean in a tournament you're going to be heavily aggressive against shorter stacks, bullying them because they're short. In a cash game, you're not going to be doing that necessarily. You'll just want to be more chameleon-like."

Part of being chameleon-like means having a strategy to deal with those players who are just obviously, ham-handedly aggressive, the ones known in the poker world as maniacs. Since "passive" is essentially a swear word in the poker vernacular, this strategy is called by another name - trapping. Trapping is just what it sounds like: sitting on a huge hand and hoping your over-aggressive opponent makes a big mistake.

Poker pro Liz Lieu describes it like this: "When I have a huge hand, I'm not going to lead out. I'm going to act like I have a very weak hand. I'm not going to play aggressively when I have a huge hand. In no-limit, I'm not aggressive all the time. There's only certain times where I put pressure on people when I feel that they have a weak hand."

Knowing when not to be aggressive can also be a key to success. How, then, do you balance the inherent need for aggression with the concept of trapping? From the players I've spoken with, the general idea they give is that against the more unsophisticated players, aggressive play should be enough. For sophisticated opponents, mixing in some traps is probably a good idea. Just don't overuse trapping, or you'll be pulling your hair out when your three-of-a-kind consistently gets busted by that flush on the river.

Really, the answer to this question is like everything else in poker - it all depends. What's your image at the table? How will your actions be interpreted? Based on what you've seen of your opponents, how are they likely to act? I asked Padraig Parkinson, the renowned Irish player, for his advice about this issue, and he made an important point.

"If you're known as an aggressive player, you don't have to trap as much," he said. "The more conservative players have to do an awful lot more trapping than the aggressive players. If you're playing against a known aggressive player and he starts checking and calling, the alarm bells start ringing straight away."

In other words, if you're not careful, setting a trap can signal your trap. Or looked at the other way, if handled deftly against a good opponent, even passive play can be aggressive.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is co-author of "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors" (DRF Press).