“In actual fact I don’t have any clear preferences in chess. I do what I think circumstances require of me – I attack, defend or go into the endgame. Having preferences means having weaknesses.” – Magnus Carlsen

“The true master has no preferences, only abilities.” – Matt Sperling

Is a style anything other than a weakness? When working on your game, should style be cultivated or eradicated?

In poker we characterize players along two axes, tight-loose and passive-aggressive. The first describes how many hands you play, a lot or a little. The second describes how you play them, passively (mostly checking or calling) or aggressively (mostly betting or raising). It’s generally accepted that winning poker strategies tend to be aggressive. The two acknowledged winning styles are TAG and LAG, tight-aggressive and loose-aggressive. Historically there’s been a lot of debate in poker circles over which style is superior. My own suspicion is that tighter and looser strategies would have similar expectation against a good response; what playing looser really does is make the game more difficult for you and your opponents. It makes sense if you are better equipped to handle those difficulties.

Along those lines, style is valuable as a way of acknowledging weaknesses, both your own and your opponents’. The idea of “game theory optimal” play doesn’t really leave any room for a personal style, but you should keep in mind that you’re a human, playing against other humans. It’s not feasible to play optimally in all situations. Style could be seen as an attempt to prune down the game tree and focus on a particular branch to master.

Even if it doesn’t play into poker theory, style could be very valuable pragmatically. A boxer may switch to a southpaw stance to throw off his opponent. Few would argue that southpaw is fundamentally better than orthodox, it’s just a way of mixing things up, of searching for an edge. The ideal poker player would be proficient in many styles and be capable of throwing all of them at an opponent to find which bothers him the most. It would be a good sign for your game if different opponents would describe your style very differently. In this sense style is tied to nettlesomeness. It’s about having different routes to get under your opponent’s skin.

If used correctly, style isn’t a weakness, but rather a way of understanding and manipulating weaknesses, both yours and your opponent’s.


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