Aggressive vs. assertive in poker

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In poker, it is generally accepted that aggressive play is the opposite of passive play. The passive player rarely raises; whereas, the “aggressive” player often raises and even re-raises when he feels it appropriate.

The player may be raising to build the size of the pot or to encourage opponents to fold their hands – to protect his vulnerable hand or perhaps in a bluff attempt. He may be raising to gain position by forcing out opponents behind him. There are many good reasons for raising; but, is this really being aggressive? Perhaps, it’s actually being assertive.

I recently attended a very interesting group discussion on assertiveness and aggressiveness at the VA in West Los Angeles. Dr. Stacy Eisenberg, a psychology postdoctoral fellow at the VA, led the discussion. She noted that aggressive behavior is likely to lead to anger, which often results in stress that can harm the individual mentally and health-wise.

It can also lead to inappropriate behavior at the poker table. We have all seen a player violently throw his cards at the dealer when his great starting-hand failed to materialize. That got me thinking about the applicability to the game of poker.

In poker, when we speak of playing aggressively, perhaps we should be calling it assertiveness. Assertive people have the skills to state their opinions – verbally or by actions – to others in a respectful manner, while those who are aggressive attack others and force their opinions on them, according to the article “Assertive Versus Unassertive and Aggressive Behavior,” published by the Mountain State Centers for Independent Living.

Assertive people usually gain the respect of those around them as they are able to stand up for themselves while considering the views of others. On the other hand, according to a recent article in “Psychology Today” on “How to Be Assertive, Not Aggressive,” aggressive people can be intimidating; others may begin to avoid them. Is this your intent at the poker table? In that regard, note that top poker players like Doyle Brunson and Daniel Negreanu seek a more pleasant and friendly environment.

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Let’s reflect on some of the characteristics of aggressiveness:

• Tending toward unprovoked offensives, attacks, invasions, or the like; militantly forward or menacing. Consider: Aggressive acts against a neighboring country.

• Vigorously energetic, especially in the use of initiative and forcefulness. Consider: An aggressive salesperson.

• Boldly assertive and forward; pushy. Consider: An aggressive automobile driver.

In the game of poker, perhaps “maniacs” who bet and raise and re-raise almost every hand would best fit into the category of aggressive. But, the player who raises when it’s to his best interests would better seem to satisfy the definition of being assertive. Let’s further explore this issue.

According to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. Expressing confidence is a key element of the Esther Bluff, when you seek to convince your opponent you have a much better hand than he does. In that case, aggressiveness is more likely to challenge him to strike back at you – to get angry!

The textbook “Cognitive Behavior Therapy” (2008), states: “Assertive communication (is) the behavioral middle ground, lying between ineffective passive and aggressive responses.” Such communication “emphasizes expressing feelings forthrightly, but in a way that will not spiral into aggression.”

In contrast, “aggressive communication judges, threatens, lies, breaks confidences, stonewalls, and violates others’ boundaries.” Is this what we fully intend when we raise the bet?

Assertiveness is a learnable skill and mode of communication. Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defines assertiveness as: “a form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof.” Isn’t that exactly what we intended when we made that raise?

I realize this topic may well be debatable. What’s your opinion – and why?

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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