“How should I play when there’s a maniac at the table?” Good question! We all know what a maniac is. He is overly aggressive, and that’s putting it mildly. If “be selective but be aggressive” is poker’s underlying mantra, the maniac is the guy who’s half way there. He’s aggressive, all right. But he missed out on the selective part of this lesson entirely.

 

Although even casual players realize that unmitigated aggression is a blueprint for losing money — at least it will be in the long run — a maniac’s presence at the table really does affect one’s choice of starting hands as well as other strategic decisions during the play of a hand. Moreover, maniacs seem to intimidate many players, and even though these players realize they’ll make more money in the long run because of a maniac’s presence in the game, many of them long for quieter games with less visceral impact.

 

Maniacs, or course, thrive on this sort of thing. They love running over other players and the more they can intimidate their opponents, the happier they are. If it sounds like the prototypical schoolyard bully, you’ve got a pretty good picture of a maniac at the ligaz11 poker table. But even though you realize that maniacs play incorrectly — and are thereby playing into your hands as a consequence — when someone constantly raises, or makes it three-bets by reraising every chance he gets, it can be disconcerting as well as intimidating.

 

When a maniac raises, you’ll seldom know what he has. Is it legitimate, or is he bluffing? Since a maniac is capable of raising with absolutely anything — or even nothing — conclusions are hard to draw with any certainty. When someone constantly raises, you know he can’t have the goods all the time. That’s not the issue. It’s figuring out when he has a real hand that’s the toughie.

 

Let’s describe the characteristics of a typical maniac. If you bet, he’ll raise – even when he doesn’t have a hand to support his action. If you check, he’ll bet. He, on the other hand, seldom checks, unless he is in early position, really has the goods, and is trying to trap a number of opponents by checkraising.

 

When someone bets, the maniac usually raises. If you reraise, he is more likely to make it four bets than give you credit for a big hand and simply call. He is the embodiment of an action player – albeit one who consistently shows too much speed by overvaluing and overplaying his hand. He wants to get as much money in the pot as often as possible, and frequently does. Maniacs are ego driven. Betting, raising, or reraising are the measures of a maniac’s manhood. He’d rather bully you out of a pot than beat you in a showdown. Maniacs also self-destruct and go broke quite regularly, but they frequently take a number of others down with them.

 

With a maniac at your table, you need to be aware of the changes his presence invariably brings. Because of his proclivity for raising and reraising, more of your chips will be at risk. Lose, and you’re likely to lose more than you otherwise would. Wins also tend to be bigger. If you are a winning player, a maniac in your game will usually increase your average winnings over the long run.

 

While it is likely to be a measurable increase, it probably won’t be off the charts. On the other hand, there will be a dramatic increase in the fluctuations you can expect on an hourly basis. In the short run, you’ll find yourself susceptible to large swings — for better or for worse — since more chips will at risk whenever you play a hand. If you are on a limited bankroll, or have a hard time adapting to this kind of volatility, your best bet is to avoid games with maniacs in them.

 

This is a key point, and it’s one that many players seemingly ignore. While most players understand that poker is a very long-run game, and daily results are frequently meaningless in the grand scheme of things, they still have a desire — sometimes it’s almost a visceral need of sorts — to play until they turn losing sessions around. You see this in other forms of gaming too. Horseplayers are always looking to “…get out for the day,” even though their game is a long-run affair too, just like poker. Sports bettors use the Super Bowl to balance their books at the end of the year. While some gamblers do get out for the day, others just get buried further. And the irony of it all is that none of this really matters. Beating the ponies, or beating the sports book, or beating poker, is a skill that’s entirely independent of whether you get out for the day, for the week, the month, or even the year.

 

But when some poker players find themselves buried because a maniac caught cards and took a big chunk of change off the table, a burning desire to get even and get out forms in their guts. That’s not so bad in and of itself. What’s bad is combining this desire with ill-advised actions and untoward risk-taking in order to dig out of a maniac-induced hole. That usually exacerbates the bleeding; it seldom stems it.

 

When you’re playing against a maniac, you have to make some adjustments in your playing style as well as in your attitude and perspective. Starting hands change in value dramatically when most of the pots are raised before the flop. When you’re trying to get in cheaply from early or middle position with a hand like 9c-8c you’ve got a problem if there’s a maniac at the table. Holdings like these work best in unraised pots where you hope to flop a big hand against a relatively large number of opponents – who, presumably, will pay you off if you make a hand that holds up. The only time you can play smaller, suited connectors against a chronic raising machine is from late position, when the maniac has already acted and hasn’t raised, and you figure to have a good chance of seeing the flop for one bet against a big field.

 

You’ll find yourself passing up a lot of the hands you’d probably play in a less frenetic game, and this frustrates many players, probably because it flies in the face of their comfort zone and runs right up against expectations for what their poker game ought to be like. Nevertheless, you can’t commit two bets on longshot holdings – regardless of how fond you are of them — particularly when fear of a maniac’s raise often constricts the number of opponents you’d otherwise expect.

 

Pairs and big cards go up in value, and so does your position at the table. If you’re holding 9-9, and the maniac raises before you act, you must reraise, in order to minimize the number of opponents you’ll play against. If you’re lucky, you and the maniac will play the hand heads-up. When you’re heads-up against an opponent who raises on anything – or nothing – you are favored when holding a pair. Sure, there’ll be times when the maniac really has a big hand, but there’ll be many more times when you’ll find that he raised just because his desire to intimidate his opponents superceded any other considerations about playing strategically sound poker. That’s when you’ll capture the pot.

 

If you hold a hand like A-K or A-Q, you can also reraise and try to get heads up against the maniac. If you flop a pair, you’ll probably have the best hand. That’s not the problem. The problem is what happens when you flop three rags. If you’re holding A-Q and the flop is 8-6-3, what should you do when the maniac bets? Since he frequently raises on anything, he’s just as likely to have caught a pair – or even flopped a set – than he is to have missed the flop entirely with a hand like J-9.

 

You can’t be certain. Since the maniac may well reraise if you try to define your own hand by raising, you’re in a guessing situation. These are hands where you might decide to gamble with him, or employ a strategy of sometimes releasing your hand when the flop doesn’t fit, and sometimes hanging in there – so he knows he can’t run you off the pot every time you raise and catch a ragged flop. It’s a judgment call, and not an easy one either. Sometimes you have to call, or bluff-raise, even though you are an underdog to capture the pot simply because you’re giving up too much of an edge if you allow him bet and take the pot every time you’re heads-up and the flop is unfavorable to you. Even if you’re holding A-K, you’ll flop a pair only about one-third of the time. But the maniac is subject to these same probability parameters too. And if you go into the flop with the best holding, chances are that you’ll come out of it with the best one too.

 

If you’re lucky, you’ll catch enough flops with your bigger hands so that you will be able to check and call on the flop, and try for a checkraise on the turn or river. This might even slow down the maniac a bit, since he should eventually learn that a check on your part doesn’t always imply weakness. There are, however, many maniacs who just ignore these subtler features of the game. They prefer a bludgeon to a foil. When you’re playing against a maniac of this magnitude, forget all about subtlety. It won’t work. You’ll need to make some big hands, have him do the betting for you and build the pot -which, of course, he’ll gladly do – and then snap him off with a checkraise that he’ll invariably call.

 

Seat selection is critical against a maniac. Always position yourself to his left. This is the single most important strategic adjustment one can make with a maniac at the table. Since maniacs raise with lots of weak hands, you want to be in position to reraise whenever you have a strong hand. Anytime you are able to make it three bets before the flop, you stand a good chance of playing heads-up against the maniac. Since you will usually be reraising on hands that are significantly stronger than those he raises with, you will hold the advantage much of the time.

 

But — and this is the downside to playing against a maniac — sometimes you’ll go up against him with the best of it and lose, and this might happen four or five times in a row. By that time you’ll have burned through a number of chips. But you can’t allow this to influence your play. You have to continue to invest chips in the pot when you have the best of it, or when you’re getting the right price from the pot to continue with a drawing hand. If the numbers begin to bother you — if you are losing more money than you’re comfortable with — then consider packing it in for the day. If you don’t, you’re likely to allow an already big loss to take you off your best game. This is the time to remember that getting out for the day is not important at all; what is important is playing your best game all the time, and getting up from the table when you aren’t.

 

If you can situate yourself to the left of a maniac, and continue to play correctly against him regardless of the results, other opponents may recognize that you’re a very aggressive as well as a highly selective player. Your actions will demonstrate that you have no fear of the maniac.

 

Although your opponents will seldom admit it, many of them are apprehensive when a maniac joins their game. Since you will only reraise before the flop with hands that have some intrinsic value, other opponents will respect your raises – regardless of whether or not the maniac is active in the hand. This, of course, provides excellent support for an occasional bluff, particularly on those occasions when you’re involved in a hand with fairly tight, weak, or timid players. Remember, they’ve been watching you slug it out with the maniac, and show down a real hand whenever you’re called.

 

While maniacs can raise your stress level and blood pressure, it’s important to bear in mind that they’re ultimately no stronger than the cards they hold. And frequently those cards are a lot weaker than yours. As long as you position yourself to act after the maniac, and can withstand the highly volatile nature of the game, you’ll be favored in the long run. After all, a maniac’s worst enemy is himself. They are essentially one-trick ponies. They sing one tune, and one tune only – though they do so incessantly and wield it over their opponents like a whip. But their lone strength is also their greatest weakness, and when you learn to deflect their one-note strategy and use it to your advantage, the sound of their whipsong will destroy them.