By Rolf Slotboom
A lot has been written about some of the difficult situations you will encounter when there's an extremely aggressive player, a maniac, at your table. Most poker writers have claimed you should try to sit to his immediate left, so you will be in position to isolate him. That is: when he raises before the flop, you can re-raise with your good hands to shut out the entire field and play heads up, in position with a hand that figures to be best. In my opinion, choosing this seat is not necessarily the best way to neutralize the maniac's power. In fact, I think that for quite a few games the advice given might even be dead wrong. I would contend that in some cases the seat to the maniac's immediate left might be the absolute worst seat at the table. (Note that I said in some cases, not in all cases). In this article, I will take a closer look at some of the problems you will face, sitting on the maniac's immediate left.
The best seat in pot-limit Omaha.
In pot-limit poker, one of the most important considerations in choosing your seat is the size of your, and your opponents', stack. If you are playing a small stack, then the best seat is almost always the one on the maniac's immediate RIGHT. You will be able to create some monster pots by either limp/re-raising before the flop or by check-raising after the flop. Because you can almost always count on him to do the betting for you, you have basically given yourself last position. You can let the actions from not just the maniac, but from the other players in the middle as well, dictate your best course of action (fold / call / raise). Had you been sitting on the seat that is recommended by a lot of writers (on his immediate left), you would indeed have been able to isolate him on a few occasions. By re-raising pot you would have been able to shut out the others and have the maniac all to yourself, while having position on him. There are a few problems with this strategy, however:
* By re-raising, you will usually be able to get only 20 to 40 percent of your stack in before the flop (depending on the size of the blinds and your exact stack size). Therefore, the maniac can put a lot of pressure on you later in the hand; when it looks like the flop hasn't helped you, but might have helped him. He may semi-bluff you out of the pot or make you pay off when he does have the goods.
* The advantage of a good hand over an average hand is not as big in Omaha as in hold'em, for example. It's pretty easy for someone to beat aces or kings when holding a random hand, especially a no-pair random hand, and this is exactly the type of hand the maniac might be holding.
* If you re-raise the maniac with an excellent hand like KKQJ (you would definitely re-raise with this hand, wouldn't you?) and someone behind you comes over the top, you are almost certainly facing aces. If the maniac chooses to fold, you will have to call an extra 60 to 80 percent of your stack with a hand that is very good, but a big dog heads up against aces. (For the exact match-ups of aces vs. either kings, high cards or medium rundowns, see my article "Defending against aces"). Had you been on the maniac's right, you would have been able to let go off your kings without it costing you too much, or you would have been able to see the flop rather cheaply in a multiway pot (which is desirable in the situation described here, because if you hit the flop you figure to have a nut hand, and you don't mind being up against a lot of opponents).
* The hands you do win by isolating the maniac will not be that big- you will either double up your small stack or lose. In pot-limit Omaha, it is possible to do a lot better than that. You can easily turn your $200 minimum buy-in into $700 or $800 if you try to maximize your winnings by sitting on the maniac's immediate RIGHT. (For more on the exact strategies required when playing a short or medium stack, see my article "Pot-limit game conditions"). Of course, after you have tripled your initial buy-in you have to change seats immediately- you don't want to play a medium or big stack with the maniac having position on you. But if you are playing a small stack sitting to his left and your strategy works (i.e. you isolate the maniac and double up through him) then your stack is still relatively small- and you still face the same problems you had before you doubled up.
The best seat in limit hold'em.
Of course I know that most poker literature is aimed at limit hold'em, and that the advice given (sitting on the maniac's immediate left) is meant for that game and not necessarily for pot-limit Omaha as well. However, even in limit hold'em I usually try to avoid the seat to the maniac's immediate left, for the following reasons:
* In the games I play in, most of my opponents tend to adjust their play to special circumstances fairly quickly. If they see me sitting to the maniac's immediate left, they know I will try to isolate him with any decent-looking hand; they know I won't need aces or kings to three-bet before the flop in this situation. If someone is sitting behind me with a relatively marginal hand like AQ (which he would fold for three bets under normal circumstances), he will probably not fold now- in fact, he might even cap it at four bets (and if he doesn't, the maniac might). What happens now, is you are sandwiched between a highly aggressive player who will bet after the flop with anything, and a serious player behind you who has shown strength- now, this is not an enviable situation to be in.
* Most players know that if there's a maniac in your game, you should tighten up considerably, simply because it will be more expensive than usual to see a flop. (This is common knowledge, and I generally agree with this reasoning). Now, if you are sitting on his immediate left, you will be seeing even less flops than that, exactly because of the seat you have chosen. When you have a hand that looks good enough to play, you will usually three-bet to shut the others out and to give your hand the best chance to hold up unimproved (hands like AQ or 88 come to mind). However, if you get any action behind you after you have three-bet with hands like these, you are in deep trouble. In fact, you will have paid three or four bets with a hand that clearly has negative EV for this situation: the player behind you almost certainly holds a better hand than you do. This doesn't mean that your three-bet was wrong; based on the information you had, it seemed like a reasonable play (your hand was quite likely to be best on this given deal). However, this does not change the fact that you have now paid three or four small bets for a hand that may barely be worth one, and in the long run your hourly rate will suffer. But flat-calling with the hands I mentioned is no option, either. If you get any callers behind you, you are in the same (bad) situation as described above: sandwiched between a highly aggressive player who will bet with anything, and players behind you who may or may not have received help from the flop.
* In limit hold'em, the expert player is able to make or save money because of the information he gets from his opponents' betting actions. If serious players have raised or re-raised when the action gets to him, he will almost certainly pass a hand like AQ, while this same AQ might have been a calling or raising hand for him under different circumstances. When sitting on the maniac's immediate left, you will not have a lot of information to rely on. Had you taken the seat I usually recommend for limit hold'em (three or four seats to the maniac's left, preferably with some weak callers in the middle), you would have had more information available to you in making your decisions. Also, you will have this information on exactly the type of hands where you need it most (pocket pairs, suited connectors), in the position where you are most likely to play them (the last four positions). By choosing the seat I recommend, you will have neutralized the maniac's power to a large degree, while still having position on him on the hands that count most (on or near the button). Now, because of the actions of the players in the middle, you will know whether you have the right odds to play your ten-nine suited, and if your pair of sixes might be profitable or not. Sitting on the maniac's immediate left, you would have had no other choice but to fold these, potentially profitable, hands.
* The other people in the game will certainly adjust their play because of the maniac's presence. Almost all players, even the ones that aren't usually very imaginative, will try to check-raise the maniac on the regular basis, and by doing this they will be bagging you as well. Therefore, isolating the maniac after the flop will not be easy either. If everybody checks to the maniac who bets, you are once again in the middle. You will have to fold a lot of your marginal hands that may in fact be good, simply because you don't know if the checks by the other players mean "I have nothing" or "I am waiting to trap the bully".
* Not only will you play very few hands, the pots you win will also be relatively small. On top of that, you are risking three or four bets instead of the usual one or two. Unless you are fortunate enough to pick up kings or aces, you will also lose a rather high percentage of the hands you three-bet against the maniac, simply because he receives help from the flop and you don't (or when he does have a better hand than you. The fact that he raises so often, doesn't mean he cannot hold aces or kings now- even a maniac is entitled to his fair share of premium hands, just like any other player). There's a lot of luck involved in hold'em once the flop comes and while it's not easy for him to outdraw aces, it is not that difficult with some of the other hands you might three-bet with (AK, AQ, AJs, KQs for example). Also, if the maniac raises and you three-bet, he knows the type of hand you are holding, but you know nothing about his hand. If the flop comes AKQ, he will definitely fold to your bet if he has nothing, but what do you do, having three-bet with AK, when three small cards flop and he comes out betting? Remember, there is hardly a maniac who is highly aggressive before the flop, but timid after. Most likely the maniac will put a lot of pressure on you when the flop is unlikely to have helped you. By playing like this, you will of course make money when you have him beat, but he will also force you to lay down the best hand every now and then, and he will often get paid off generously when he has a real hand.
Some final words.
What all these points illustrate, is that the seat to the maniac's immediate left isn't necessarily the best or most profitable one. I know that equally valid points can be made in favor of this seat, and I think that in some cases (especially when your opponents respect your re-raises and fold all but the very best hands) choosing this seat will be profitable for you. However, in quite a few of the games I have played in, the problems associated with this specific seat outweigh its benefits by far, and I guess that in your game they might too. Therefore, I suggest you take a closer look at the exact type of game you're in, at the tendencies of your opponents, the atmosphere at the table, and in pot-limit games at the amount of money at the table as well. You should take all these factors into consideration when choosing your seat and then use this seat as a starting point to a) neutralize the power of the maniac and b) to exploit his weaknesses.
Take care, you guys, and good luck.