We hear a lot in the poker community about game flow and tempo; if the game is running fast or slow, if the pot sizes are big or small, and where the chips seem to be flowing at the table. And, admittedly, it’s a good thing to recognize this.

But, what about actually applying this information and utilizing it? It seems like an incredibly complex and difficult concept to undertake, and it is; a lot of these spots are feel based more than anything. But, by beginning to see spots such as these in tournaments and cash games, you can find incredibly profitable spots that are completely and utterly non-existent to most players.

One such example came a few days ago in a small field rebuy tournament I was playing in on PokerStars. We were down to 7 players at our table, and had been for a few orbits. I had been playing with the players at our table for a considerable time, and had recognized most of them to be pretty tight, but competent players. We were all M7+, so everyone had some play left in their stacks. A peculiar thing had been happening with the pot sizes though that piqued my interest. There would be about 4 or 5 raise and take it type hands, then a slightly bigger pot, a few more raise and take it hands, then a big confrontation for a lot of chips. Immediately after that, it went back to “first in wins” for a few hands. After recognizing the pattern and getting some chips to use, I decided to test out the theory after a small blind/big blind battle that ended in AK getting cracked by 1010.

NLHE Strategy articleThe next hand, I was in the hi-jack with 26o, and I opened to 2.5x, and got 4 of the quickest folds you’ve ever seen in an online tournament. The next hand, UTG+1, I was dealt 56s, and again opened 2.5x, and again, the entire table quickly folded. Now UTG, I was dealt K5o, and opened for a third consecutive hand, again to 2.5x.

Again, everyone folded, and in three hands, I had picked up a nice chunk of chips to my stack with 3 hands that I would normally never open with. The patterns of the table and the tempo shift of the all-in confrontation, combined with the end of the tournament looming, made it a lot easier to be willing to open up and pounce on the table, especially given that the two players involved in the all-in pot were very likely to stay out of significant action for awhile. The cards that I held didn’t matter; the chips that were out there were meant to be stolen, given the tempo of the table.

You can use tempo against specific players, too. A lot of tempo has to do with staying one step ahead of the rest of the field when it comes to shifts in tempo. If someone has been opening light, you 3-bet light. If they recognize that and start 4-betting you light, you 5-bet light, and so on. A lot of people, however, will just continue to ramp up the aggression without rhyme or reason once the 4-betting light begins, without realizing that, a significant portion of the time, it’s the player that sees the big jump in the hand range of the opener and tightens back up that wins the monster pot when he gets A9s to 5 bet shove into his KK. You can off-balance a lot of players by simply keeping track of your aggression level towards that player and dialing it up and down before he can figure out what’s going on.

This is a wonderful concept live, as players are a lot more likely to show you, verbally or otherwise, their frustration with your constant aggression. At a $2/$5 game in Glasgow, KY, I was able to control the player on my right, a complete psycho and super aggro player, by leveling up and down to directly shift his own aggression. He liked opening to $25 (a 5x open) from almost any position. I waited until I had the button or cutoff on him, and when he opened the pot first, I 3 bet him big ($90-$120), with position, with a wider range than normal; any pair, suited connected, etc, and watched him generally fold to my big raise.

NLHE tipsI pulled this off about 3 or 4 times before I attempted it again with 89h and got immediately 4-bet to $400, with a stern, frustrated look on his face. I hemmed and hawed for a few seconds, then said, “Man, I don’t know if I can lay down nines here, you gonna show?” He didn’t say anything, and I flashed a single nine before folding. He then quickly turned over his QJs and raked the pot, saying nothing. Th table got a few chuckles, but I knew he had ramped up his aggression level, and all I had to do now is pick up a premium hand, and expect to get all-in with him. I had shown I was willing to 3-bet/fold, which had to register in his mind as a tempo shift for me; he’s now expecting me to flat hands like that and just 3-bet with monster hands, since he had just squashed my aggression level.

Or so he thought.

The next time he opened, I again 3-bet, but I changed the amount down to $70, a raise of only $45 more. When it got back to him, he paused for a bit, then folded, and asked to see my hand. I flashed him an ace and mucked the suited 4 that went with it, letting him reaffirm himself that I’m only popping him with monsters while keeping my level of tempo the same. He now “has my tempo” in his head, while I’m really completely the opposite in where I’m going. A few hands later, I finally got to set the trap. It folded to him on the button, and he opened to $30. I flatted with QQ and a stack of about $600 behind, and the big blind folded. I flopped a safe board of 4h5c9d and quickly checked to Mr. Aggro, who bet $80. I continued with the trap, flatting the bet from him, and checking the 4d on the turn. Mr. Aggro studied me for a bit, then slid $200 into the pot in two towers. A lot of players would simply put their last $320 in the pot here, but I knew this guy wanted to make the last bet, and I knew he thought my raises were strong and my calls were weak, so I tank-called the $200. Another 4 peeled off on the river, and after a brief tank, I checked to Mr. Aggro again. He immediately flicked 4 black $100 chips in the pot, and I couldn’t have beat him in the pot any faster. He turned over a pair of sixes, and I had successfully taken 120 BB’s off of my opponent by allowing him to think the tempo of the game was set to his aggression, not my deception.

If I had shoved the turn, Mr. Aggro would’ve read that as strength (like earlier, when I 3-bet and showed the ace) and could’ve gotten away from the hand there. My tempo shift earned me an extra $320.

These are just two examples of tempo shifting in hold’em; just look for spots where the chips are stagnating or shifting wildly, or players that are particularly aggressive or tight, and use the tempo of the game to keep yourself one step ahead of them.