The standard advice for playing against players who call too often is both straight-forward and common-sensical: value bet more hands and do not bluff. This is a solid, profitable strategy, and it is not my intention to turn it on its head. However, I do not believe that you will maximize your profits by adhering to a strict rule of “Never bluff a calling station.” In fact, because loose players are more likely than tighter players to hold weak cards, they can sometimes be bluffed profitably in situations where tighter players could not. All it takes is persistence and good timing.
Are You Getting Outplayed?
Players who call too often are generally considered to be bad players with a losing strategy, and in fact, most of them are. However, particularly when they are in position, their tendency to call pre-flop raises and flop continuation bets with almost anything can actually be quite devastating to a player employing the tight-aggressive (TAG) style of play advocated by most poker strategists. Consider that a standard TAG strategy in no-limit hold ‘em is to enter the pot pre-flop with a raise, bet the flop whether you hit or miss, and then give up on the turn if your opponent has not yet folded and you don’t have a strong hand. This strategy, if employed against a loose player who has position on you, will cost you quite a few pots when you either check and fold the best hand on the turn or allow your opponent to show down a weak but winning hand.
Worse, even a loose player who is accustomed to seeing you give up on the turn may eventually get away when you do have a monster and keep betting. Although the TAG will still probably show a profit in the long run even when out of position against a calling station, he will be leaving a lot of money on the table if he does not adapt to his opponent’s loose play.
Exploiting The Calling Station’s Mistakes
As the name implies, the calling station’s exploitability lies in the fact that he calls too much. In other words, he plays too many weak holdings, consistently putting more money into the pot than his hands are worth. This is bad for two reasons, one more obvious than the other.
The obvious reason is that the calling station will put in too much money from behind. That is, he will call bets when he has the worst hand and improper odds to improve. The equally obvious way to exploit this error is to bet more hands for value, confident in the knowledge that your opponent can and often will call you down with worse.
But the risk of already having the worst hand is not the only reason why calling with a weak holding is expensive. It is sometimes correct to fold a weak hand even if you suspect it may be best simply because you have little hope of improving and cannot stand further action. Against players who will not fold these ‘hopeless’ hands to a single bet when they should, firing a second and sometimes a third barrel is going to be profitable.
I’ll give you an example from a recent tournament I played. I had just been seated in a weekly $1000 online no limit hold ‘em tournament and was checking my notes on the other players at my table. Most of them, including the player to my immediate left, were fairly strong, well-known tournament players. The notable exception was the player two seats to my right, on whom I had a note that read, “Ridiculous calling station.”
As it happened, the calling station was given the button for the first hand, which meant that I was in the big blind and the strong player to my left was first to act. With blinds at 10/20, he came in for a pot-sized raise of 70 and got four callers, including the loose player on the button. The action was on me in the big blind with AJ.
Ordinarily, I would fold AJ against a first position raise, even coming from a player such as this one who is well-known to be loose and aggressive. Although my hand was too weak to call, I decided that there was a very wide gap between the hands this player would raise in this spot and the hands with which he would continue against a sizeable re-raise. I further suspected that most of the other players at the table would have re-raised when they had the chance if they had a big pair, so it looked like a good spot for a squeeze play.
The only player who I thought might call me would be the loose player on the button, but with AJ, I didn’t figure to be in bad shape against his calling range, especially with so much dead money in the pot. So I re-raised to 420, and sure enough everyone folded except the button, who called. That is, after all, what calling stations do best.
A call from any other player at this table would have frozen me, and I would not have put another penny into the pot without a very favorable flop. My big re-raise against a first position raiser was representing a premium holding, and even though most of these players were savvy enough to realize there was some chance I was making a squeeze play, they would also recognize that I would have a strong hand often enough that they could not call me profitably without a very strong holding of their own.
But the “ridiculous calling station” was a different story. With so many players in the pot already, his first call could be almost anything. When it came to my re-raise, although he was loose, I didn’t think he was calling with just anything. More likely, he had a ‘pretty’ hand like 88 or AQ that he just couldn’t bring himself to fold despite the strength I was representing.
The flop came out K95, all different suits. No help for my AJ, but a good flop to fire at against a player whom I expected to be relatively weak. Because I knew this player could show up with so many hands that were really too weak for the situation, I expected a flop bet to be profitable. I bet 600, and the stubborn SOB called me again!
The turn brought a Q, giving me a gut shot, which was not very much help. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this guy’s hand was not as strong as it should have been to take this much action. Smart, reasonably tight players are not calling a big reraise pre-flop and a big bet on that flop without a monster holding. But this guy was not a smart, reasonably tight player. I knew, from past experience, that he would give more action than his hands were worth.
Obviously, this does not sound like the ideal player to bluff. But on the other hand, I was now looking at a big pot and an opponent who likely did not have a big hand, and that does sound like the ideal situation to bluff. Calling stations need more convincing than other players to fold, but with enough convincing, they can be bluffed in situations where others cannot. For instance, I would not even think of moving all in on this turn against any other player at the table, because any other player could not have gotten to this point without a hand that would happily call my all in.
But in this situation, I moved all in for my (and my opponent’s) last 2000, and he folded.
Making It Work
I speak in very broad terms here, but as with most things in poker, it really comes down to the player. Different players, all of whom could easily be labeled calling stations, call in different situations for different reasons. Some can be bluffed in one way, some in another, and the most stubborn not at all. But there are a few principles to keep in mind when attempting to bluff a calling station:
1. Maximum pressure is important. It is not a coincidence that my example comes from tournament play. There are a great many players who are much too loose in general but much too tight when it comes to the last of their chips in a poker tournament. These players can be bluffed very profitable provided you are willing to put them to the test for everything they have and provided that ‘everything they have’ is enough that they will feel they still have a shot at winning if they fold. This works particularly well in the early stages of major live tournaments where stacks are deep and players have traveled great distances and paid great sums of money to enter.
2. Don’t bluff a short stack. This is the corollary to rule one; you can’t put maximum pressure on a player with very few chips. Players who get short in tournament play are often ready to double up or go home and are not in the mood to fold anything that could be a winner. Similarly, players who buy in short at cash games do so precisely because they do not want to face the difficult decisions that come with deep stack poker. They don’t have enough chips to make a situation tough, so don’t try putting them to one.
3. Use caution in fixed limit games. You can’t apply maximum pressure when your opponent is getting 6:1 on a call. However, there are comparable situations where a player’s willingness to play weak hands creates situations where he can profitably be bluffed. In Razz, for instance, a player who will call 3rd street with a face card showing or will peel when he bricks on 4th can often be bluffed on later streets simply because it will be very obvious to you that he cannot possibly have a hand stronger than, for instance, K-J-x-x-x. As long as your board looks reasonably strong, this player is asking you to keep firing at him even if you’re actually double paired.
4. It’s okay to get caught. But don’t try it again. Calling stations look for excuses to call. Once they’ve seen you bluff, even if it wasn’t against them, don’t expect them to lay anything down. In their minds, you are a bluffer. Now it really is time to tighten up, value bet more hands, and never bluff.