Best Defense in Poker
How the right defensive tactics can position you to conquer the poker table
By Jim Feist
The NFL playoffs are one of the most exciting and competitive times of any sports season for players—and bettors. The teams are more evenly matched, there is a history of accumulated stats to compare from the regular season, and weather and playing surfaces come into play, such as grass versus artificial turf. Plus, just as in poker, there is always a chess match taking place between coaches, regarding personnel and strategy.
Many times I’ve seen coaches like Bill Belichick and Andy Reid junk the running game in the playoffs against a strong run defense and instead throw all game long, essentially playing the percentages by taking an opponent’s strength away, or at least trying to limit it. One of the best clashes you see in the playoffs is the age old question: Is it better to have a strong offense or defense to win championships?
In poker, most people think about offense: getting the cards, going on the attack, raising even if it means bluffing. This is all part of the cat and mouse game between players vying for that glistening pile of colored plastic in the middle.
But it’s not all about offense. Poker is a game of survival, something you need to accomplish before you get a chance at funneling those chips into your Brinks truck, or at least enough to stuff in your pockets to play another day.
There are several ways to utilize defense in poker. One is raising to get a free card. It’s not really a free card, as you have to buy it with a small bet, but you get to see the next card. For instance, if you call $5 on the flop and $10 on the turn, you’re risking $15 on two calls. A defensive alternative is to raise and make it $10 to call on the flop, as many times opponents will check on the turn. Their thinking is they don’t want to raise again as you’ve put it in their minds that you are starting with a good hand – whether it’s true or not. When they check you can also check behind them, so you’ve risked $10 to see two cards instead of $15.
This may seem like a small financial point, but it ties into money management, which is essential in all forms of gambling. You must manage your money prudently, with just as much skill and thought as playing the cards. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.
Another defensive tip is changing the tempo. In football you see this all the time. A defense is playing well, shutting down an opponent and is in control of the game. All of a sudden the opponent suddenly shifts to a no-huddle offense, snapping the ball quickly, firing off passes then racing to the line of scrimmage to do it again on the next play.
Just like that, the defensive players are sucking wind. The opposing coaching staff can’t substitute important personnel because there isn’t enough time, with the other team using ten seconds of the 30-second clock instead of 29.
In poker, if you’re comfortable playing a fast game, you can shift the tempo to try to gain an edge. You can raise with a speculative hand because your opponents may likely check the flop to you, giving you another free card and you can fold rather than mix it up in a pot. Changing the tempo forces others at the table to play your style, which might not be theirs, tilting things in your favor.
Just like the old saying, “The best offense is a good defense,” another way of playing defense in poker is utilizing a short stack. Essentially, this means making significant use of a small amount of chips at the flop. The gamble is, you have less room to make plays at the poker table—so it should be used with strong hands, rather than smaller hands that might have bigger potential. One advantage is that others at the table with more chips can get cautious with an aggressive short stack player, giving you an edge to siphon off their booty quickly.
However, I would not recommend doing this with marginal cards. That would be like a football team throwing the ball deep on every play; you run the risk of going three-and-out, or having the ball picked off ending your game (or season) quickly. Winning sports coaches, like successful poker players, understand the importance of defense and how to use it to tweak the odds in their favor.