Playing Poker with Fish

I often see decent poker players get crushed by fish.

These players do fine against other “thinking” poker players, but when they come across a nonthinking fish, a player who will pay the big blind no matter what two cards they’re dealt, they get flustered and lose money.

This is because strategies that work against skilled players don’t work against fish. They don’t notice your carefully crafted bet-sizing. They aren’t thinking about the cards in your hand.

To be clear, when we say “fish” we’re referring to calling stations, players that call just about any bet and rarely raise.

In order to beat fish, you have to understand their thinking and exploit the mistakes that logically follow.

The “see the flop” strategy

If given the chance, a fish will play virtually any two cards they’re dealt.

This is the “see the flop” strategy. Fish love it.

Since any two cards can form a great hand, they’ll tell you, focus on seeing as many flops for as cheap as possible.

We know this is a losing strategy.

Good players lose against this strategy because they don’t consider bad cards within their opponents range. Fish are tough because their range can include virtually anything. When the flop comes in 266, you don’t expect a skilled player to be holding a 26 for a full house or a 35 for a straight draw—but a fish might be. You end up moving stacks and losing to unthinkably bad cards.

Knowing this makes your work easy: get in the way of their strategy as much as possible.

Specifically, exploit the following tendencies:

  1. Fish don’t handle pre-flop bets well
  2. Fish get attached to marginal hands
  3. Fish rarely raise

Fish don’t handle pre-flops raises well

The “see the flop” strategy only works if you’re seeing as many flops as possible for as cheap as possible.

So raise. Bet 3bb and up. Don’t give fish the chance to see the flop for cheap.

When you wake up to hole cards you intend on playing, make the fish pay to play their mediocre strategy.

One of two things can follow.

One: the fish folds their garbage or marginal hands. They call with better hands. While fish aren’t great at recognizing the value of their hands, they know a face card when they see one. You’ve successfully narrowed their range, making your future decisions easier.

Two: the fish calls your bets with a garbage or marginal hand. In this case, you’ve failed to narrow their range, but you still come out ahead. The fish strategy relies on getting lucky monster hands and taking your stacks. Getting lucky is more likely when you’re seeing more flops. And by charging 3bb and up, you’re reducing the number of flops a fish can see by 2/3rds at least.

Further, a fish that calls with a marginal or garbage hand will be growing your pot and contributing to your future winnings.

Fish get attached to marginal hands

The whole point of the see the flop strategy is to connect to the board. As soon as a fish connects to the board, it becomes unusually difficult to induce them to fold.

Good players lose in these situations because their big bets, which would scare a thinking player, don’t have an impact on fish.

Fish generally only think about their own hand. Further, they don’t understand their hand value or bet sizing very well. So they don’t notice your bet size that indicates strength. They don’t see the hand you’re representing. They don’t notice scare cards.

As a result, good players get stuck in one of two situations:

  1. They’re trying to bluff and push the fish off of their hand by displaying strength. They lose when they go to showdown and the bluff fails.
  2. They assume the fish has a better hand than they do and back off. They may not lose to the fish every time, but less betting means the pots they win are smaller.

Make two changes to your strategy here.

First, don’t bluff.

Second, take advantage of your strong hands. Extract as much value as possible. Fish won’t see your two-pair, set, flush draw, or straight draw. Hell, some fish might not even notice your overpair. As long as they connect with the board, they’ll call your bets and pay you off nicely.

Bet as big as the fish will call every time and build a big pot to take home.

Fish rarely raise

This is a quick one. If a fish at your table raises a meaningful amount, and you aren’t holding the nuts, clear out.

Because fish rarely raise, it’s important to get out of their way when they do. Fish make money when good players pay them off.

There’s not much risk of getting bluffed here. Fish rarely have the confidence to bluff, so don’t bother with hero calls. Just get out of their way—it’s that easy.