When you’re trying to win at poker, it can be helpful to place your opponents into categories. You can customize your approach to playing the players based on these categories.

This isn’t meant to imply that once you’ve categorized a player, you’ve gotten an edge over that person. Poker players are individuals. They have good days and bad days. They can be moody. Their moods can change over the course of a single session.

But familiarizing yourself with some of these categories can be a useful starting point, especially if you’re new to the game and want to improve your chances of winning.

I’m Just Here to Have Fun

A large percentage of the players you face at a casino, or even at an internet cardroom, are purely recreational players. They’re just there to have fun. Nothing is wrong with that approach to the game, by the way.

That doesn’t mean they love poker less than you do. It just means they have no aspirations of ever playing professionally. A hobby is a hobby, and fun is fun.

As hobbies go, poker is a good one, by the way. If you’re a reasonably good player, you can easily break even over time at most casinos. You can even profit if you’re a little better than average.

But the distinguishing characteristic of this type of player is her lack of urgency when it comes to winning. She’s okay with losing some of the time or even most of the time because she’s a recreational gambler.

And a lot of recreational poker players are really bad at poker, too. They might as well be playing slot machines. You should be glad to see anyone who plays like this at your table.

A few months ago, I spent some time at one of the low-stakes Texas hold’em tables at the Winstar Casino in Oklahoma. One of my opponents literally played 90% of his hands preflop. (I clocked him.)

He was obviously a recreational player.

A lot of skilled poker players might pretend to be purely recreational players. Watch out for them.

I’m a Regular Here

I once spent a week in Las Vegas playing poker at the Excalibur cardroom every day. At the time, the cardroom was flooded with regulars. These were mostly older men who knew each other and probably played there every day. I had a lot of fun, and one thing I learned fast was that most cardroom regulars play a predictable game of poker.

Not all cardroom regulars are old men looking forward to a free lunch provided by the casino, either. They can come from all walks of life. They might be rich and just enjoy talking to other card players. They might work for a living but make enough money to chill out at the poker room regularly.

This doesn’t mean that every cardroom regular is a better player than every recreational player. But if you’re new to the game of poker, chances are that a regular at the cardroom has more experience at the table than you do. This often, but not always, gives them an edge.

Most of the players you meet will fall into one of these two categories, though—recreational players and cardroom regulars.

Prop Players

A prop player is a poker player who gets paid a salary by the casino to start games or keep games going by making sure there are enough players at the table. (They’re “propping up” the game.) They play with their own money, though, and the casino doesn’t have a stake in whether prop players win or lose.

Some prop players are professional players, but some are just cardroom regulars who have gotten to know the manager. Most prop players are there during the off hours to make sure that games are happening. Also, most prop players don’t talk much about being a prop player. Other players are put off by prop players.

Professional and Semi-Professional Poker Players

You won’t usually find professional or semi-professional poker players at the lower-stakes tables. They can’t make enough money per hour at those stakes to afford any kind of reasonable lifestyle.

The expected earnings per hour for a limit pro is one big bet per hour. That means if they’re playing at the $4/$8 tables, they’re probably only earning $8/hour. They’d be better off getting a job at In N Out Burger.

Most people need to earn at least $20/hour to live with any kind of decent lifestyle. So, most of the pros you meet will be playing $10/$20 or above.

Not all of the players at the higher levels are pros, though. That would be impossible, in fact, or the pros wouldn’t be able to make any money.

Most pros won’t admit to making their living playing cards. They want you to believe that they’re just recreational players, in fact.

But if you pay attention, many pros give away how good they are by how seriously they take the game. They’re often attentive and quiet.

If you suspect one or more of your opponents play professionally, be a little more careful about what hands you take into a showdown with them. If they’re playing aggressively, they often have the goods.

Aggressive Players Versus Passive Players

You can also categorize poker players according to their general tendencies when betting. This is called “aggression.” Generally, aggressive players win more often than passive players.

An aggressive player tends to bet and raise a lot. They almost never just call a bet. They want to win a lot of pots by bullying their opponents into folding.

Aggressive poker can be a winning style, especially at a table full of tight players.

Passive poker is never a winning poker style. Passive poker players check and call a lot, but they seldom bet or raise. When they have a hand that isn’t as good as it could be, they usually get beat by players who might have folded if they’d put a little pressure on them. When they have a good hand, they don’t win enough money with it because they didn’t force the other players to put more money into the pot with bets and raises.

Loose Players Versus Tight Players

Aggression is only one tendency to look at when sizing up your opponents. How many hands they play, regardless of their behavior when playing them, is how you measure whether your opponent is loose or tight.

A loose poker player gets involved in a lot of pots. They play a large percentage of hands.

A tight poker player doesn’t play in a lot of pots. Tight players usually fold in the face of aggression.

Tight poker isn’t always better than loose poker, but generally speaking, it’s better to play your hands selectively.

When you combine aggression levels with looseness, you get 4 useful categories of players:

  1. Maniacs
  2. Rocks
  3. Calling Stations
  4. TAGs

A Maniac is a loose and aggressive player. He might or might not have a good hand, but by golly, if he’s involved in a hand, you can count on him to bet or raise with it. Since he’s a loose player, he’s often involved in hands with substandard cards, but unless you have really good cards, you usually can’t afford to raise him.

The best approach when playing a maniac is to wait until you get a good hand. When you do, let him drive the action, but feel free to bet into him and raise him. He’ll often raise you back.

Maniacs are often drunks. Sometimes they’re young and/or on tilt. Some maniacs are good at reading their opponents and actually turn a profit via their playing tendencies.

A Rock, on the other hand, is just the opposite of a maniac. He doesn’t play many hands, and when he does play a hand, he plays it timidly. He almost always has good cards if he’s involved in a hand, but he won’t bet or raise with those cards. Instead, he just checks and calls.

Rocks aren’t much of a threat, but when a rock raises into you, fold anything that isn’t a premium holding. He’s usually got you beat.

Rocks might sometimes break even or make a small profit, but this isn’t a great playing style at all. It’s fearful poker, and the players who profit at the table are the courageous ones.

A Calling Station plays a lot of hands, but usually just checks and calls. This is a loose, passive player. These are the best opponents you could ask for.

Calling stations see lots of potential in all their hands, and they want to give their hands time to develop. Sometimes they get lucky and draw out on you. Smart players are glad when they draw out on them because they know that this outcome will convince the calling station to keep calling his bets and raises, ensuring the smart player’s profits.

A TAG is an acronym for “tight aggressive” player. This is the approach that seems to win the most money at the poker table. TAGs don’t play a lot of hands, but when they do get a hand they consider worthwhile, they play it aggressively—betting and raising with it.

TAGs make money when their opponents fold against them, but they also make money when players call them and they wind up with the best hand. Most professional poker players play tight aggressive poker.

I once announced to a table at Full Tilt Poker that I was a tight aggressive player. “That’s my style,” I said.

I got a lot of laughs from the other guys at the table because they thought I was a newbie who’d read a few poker books.

That was exactly what I wanted them to think. I was more playful in those days, and I enjoyed toying with their expectations.

Player Tells

If you’ve watched a lot of television or movies with poker players in them, you’ll probably think that tells are an incredibly important part of the game. Tells aren’t as important as you think, though.

Most players do have tells, though. They’re not as useful as you might think in individual hands, but they’re often helpful when categorizing a player.

One example of a tell is how a player manages his chip stacks. If he keeps his chips stacked in a neat, orderly fashion, he’s probably a serious player with some conservative tendencies. He’s probably tighter than most other players, and he might even be a rock.

On the other hand, you might face an opponent like Minneapolis Jim Meehan. He tends to stack his chips in various stack sizes. He often stacks chips of different denominations in the same pile.

A player like this tends to be looser and more aggressive. Don’t try to bluff someone like this. He’s liable to re-raise you and force you to make a tough decision.

But even tells like these are generalizations. They might be true 75% or 80% of the time, but the rest of the time, the player has the opposite approach to what you’d expect based on this.

You can find a number of books about poker tells, but the best one is still Mike Caro’s book on the subject, Caro’s Book of Poker Tells. It features images that can be really helpful, but you have to get past the fact that most of the photos were taken 30 years ago and the players dress accordingly.

No Amount of Player Categorization Can Substitute for a Lack of the Fundamentals

No matter how accurate you are at putting players into categories, you can’t win at poker if you haven’t mastered the fundamentals. You need to know the hand rankings by heart, for example. You also need to understand the rules of any specific game you’re playing.

Here’s an example:

You’re playing Omaha 8 for the first time, and you’ve put every player at the table into a category of some kind.

But you don’t remember that in Omaha you must use exactly 2 cards from your hand and exactly 3 cards from the community cards.

It doesn’t matter how well you’ve categorized your opponents. You’re so far behind on the fundamentals that you can’t possibly beat this game.


Categorizing your opponents can be a useful skill in any kind of poker, but it doesn’t replace good old-fashioned solid play. If you want to be in a specific category yourself, focus on becoming a TAG. That’s your best chance of becoming a winning player in the long run.

Remember that a TAG is a tight aggressive player. You’ll only play good hands, and when you do play them, you’re going to bet and raise with those hands.

You might make some exceptions based on the specific circumstances of the game. If you have a rock to your left, and you get the chance, you might bluff more often against him so that you can steal some blinds.

But every player is an individual, and customizing your play to fit both your opponents AND your cards is the key to succeeding at poker.

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