In the poker ecosystem, there are fish and there are sharks. And just like in real life, the sharks eat the fish to survive. Poker fish are the players who consistently lose in the game (cash games and tournaments), which allows the sharks to consistently profit. If you're looking to win at poker, the easiest way to make money is by targeting the fish.
What Is a Fish in Poker
A "fish" in poker terms is a player who consistently makes egregious mistakes, leading them to consistently lose in the games they play. These mistakes can include playing hands that should always be folded such as 72o, betting wildly too big or too small for their hand strength, or playing incredibly passively.
These are players who just play for fun and aren't looking to make money long-term from playing poker.
You will often hear players talk about "fish" that they've found at the tables, saying how big of a fish they are or how bad they are - you could be forgiven for thinking they're talking about actual fish! The reason long-time players are obsessed with finding poker fish is that these kinds of players are the easiest to win money from.
The thing that separates poker fish from your average player is the consistency and magnitude of their mistakes. Poker is a complicated game and players will often be making mistakes. But the best players will limit the number and severity of the mistakes they make. Meaning that when they do make mistakes it doesn't cost them as much. On the other hand, fish will make mistakes in almost every hand, and their mistakes will be much costlier over time.
The bottom line is, it's easier to win against someone who makes more mistakes and makes them often!
Common Poker Fish Moves
Poker fish are easy to identify due to the severity of the mistakes that they make. Keep an eye out for these things at the table - if you see a player do them, they're likely a poker fish.
Having a Wide Range
The most common mistake poker fish make is playing too wide of a range from pretty much every position. These players are here to have fun and splash around, they don't want to be folding because folding isn't fun! They'll come up with any excuse to play a hand if they're bored enough and often can show up with any two cards in any situation.
As a winning player, you should be looking at every showdown you can to identify if a player is playing too wide of a range. Whether you see a hand that shouldn't have been raised from that position, or a hand that shouldn't have been called on the turn, it's all information that can identify the players who play too wide of a range.
This is the most fundamental mistake players make as your preflop ranges are the baseline from which you build the rest of your game. If your range is too wide preflop it will lead to you becoming unbalanced post-flop as you will end up with too many bad hands in your range.
That means that when you're playing against a poker fish whose range is too wide preflop, you can either:
- call down more often against an aggressive fish (as they'll have a lot of hands to bluff and they aren't afraid to bluff them), or
- bet against a check from a passive fish (as they'll have a lot of weak hands that didn't bet).
This is another popular play amongst poker fish and something you'll see a lot of if you play live poker. Limping is closely linked with playing too wide of a range preflop and is mostly done by passive poker fish. These players will limp because they recognize their hand isn't strong so they don't raise, but they want to play it anyway so they'll try and play for the minimum.
Limping is one of the easiest things to spot at the poker table and if you see a player consistently doing this - especially if they're doing it with weak hands - then you can safely assume that they're a poker fish and can start to adjust your game accordingly.
If you see a player who's consistently limping in with weak hands then it will be very profitable to raise to a large size when you have a good hand. This can achieve a couple of things. It will either make everyone else at the table fold, awarding you the pot straight away, or it will isolate you against the weaker player, putting you in a profitable position post-flop.
Some players don't like to raise limps as they're worried that the limping player could be trapping with a hand like AA or KK. While this will happen sometimes, it doesn't happen nearly enough to make raising a limp unprofitable.
Unusually Sized Bets
What separates a poker fish from a good player is their lack of understanding of the game. This lack of understanding leads to them making mistakes, which in turn loses them money. This lack of understanding will often manifest itself in the sizing of bets and the hands with which they bet.
It could be that a player is betting 1/10th the size of the pot with the nuts on a draw heavy board, or is betting 2x pot with the second pair on the river. This can sometimes be hard to identify as it requires a strong understanding of the game yourself and things that may look strange can actually be game theory optimal.
It's best to look for the players who seem to have no set strategy and are making things up as they go. A good player may do something that looks odd to you, but it's something they've researched and have a reason why they're doing it and will do it consistently. On the other hand, a poker fish won't have a reason for why they make a certain action and are likely making their decision at random or based on 'how they feel' at the time.
Plays as a Nit or Maniac
Any player who plays on the extremes of the VPIP scale is going to find it very hard to be a winning player. While you may think that a nit might end up being a winning player due to them only playing when they have a top 5% hand, those hands don't come around often enough to avoid losing money to the blinds and if they're playing against observant opponents they won't get a lot of value from their strong hands.
VPIP stands for "Voluntarily Put $ in Pot". It is a term used in modern poker tracking software and HUDs (e.g., Hold'em Manager, Pokertracker) and describes the percentage of hands a poker player plays. The VPIP scale informs on the style of poker a given player tends to lean towards.
Nits might take a bit longer to spot than regular fish as they hardly play any hands! If someone isn't participating at the table it's easy to forget they're there so you don't end up noticing how tight they're playing - which is what they want to happen.
Maniacs on the other hand are much easier to spot as they play almost every hand they can! These players don't even know the fold button exists and will raise every hand preflop and try to win as many pots as they can post-flop by firing off bluffs.
Maniacs end up losing more money in the long run as they're actively giving their money away whereas nits have their money slowly drained from them by the blinds and antes. If you can choose between a table full of nits and a table full of maniacs - choose the latter!
Exploiting a Fish
Now that we know how to identify a fish, what should we do if we have one at the table? As fish make a lot of mistakes, they're easy to exploit if you know what to do.
Use Value Bets
One of the most common leaks that poker fish have is that they don't like to fold. Not preflop, not on the flop, not on the turn, nor on the river. Against these players who won't fold or "calling stations", the best way to make money is to value bet thin and value bet often.
If a player doesn't like folding, then bluffing them is just giving them money. A lot of players will try to bluff a calling station and then berate them for calling down light - what did they think was going to happen?
Punish their tendency to call by value betting as often as you can. If you think you have the best hand, make a value bet. Don't be afraid to value bet with marginal hands, these players will find any excuse to call if they think you're bluffing so value betting hands such as 2nd or 3rd pair will be profitable.
Pick off Constant C-Bettors
Poker fish who are overly aggressive will often try too hard to win a pot post-flop and one of the ways they do that is to c-bet every single flop. By c-betting every hand on the flop, their range is heavily weighted towards weak hands (even more so than usual as they're likely playing too wide of a range preflop) which means that we can exploit them and there are a couple of ways we can do that.
One thing we can do is decide to raise their c-bet more often, at risk of being 3-bet. When the fish faces the raise they're either going to have to fold all of their bad hands, meaning they're overfolding to our raise and we immediately make money, or they have to call with some of those bad hands meaning that we're up against a weaker range on the turn.
Another option is to call the flop c-bet with a wide range, with the aim to bet if our opponent checks the turn. This will depend on the type of player we're up against - some players will try a bluff on the flop and give up if it doesn't work and some will fire all three streets. We want to be up against the first kind of player if we're going to try and exploit them this way.
Take Advantage of Positions
One thing that poker fish don't have in their game is positional awareness. This is the concept that the position you're in at the table should influence the number of hands you play. Instead, what these players will do is play all kinds of hands from every position, meaning that their range is going to be weaker in most spots than a good player's range.
To exploit this we want to be trying to isolate these players and play a heads-up pot against them, where we can maximally exploit them. To do this, we want to be raising the pot if they come in with a limp or re-raising if they come in for a raise. Fish often don't like folding once they've already put money into the pot.
By making an aggressive action after them, we discourage other players from joining the pot and we exploit a fish's tendency to over defend if they have money invested in the pot.
Profitable Strategies Against Fish
We've covered how to identify a fish and some exploits you can use, now we're going to look at a simple 3 step strategy to profitably play against poker fish.
Step 1 - Identify Your Target
Know your enemy. If you don't know what kind of poker fish you're playing against, how can you exploit them? Identifying exactly what mistakes your opponents are making is the only way you're going to be able to maximally exploit them.
Step 2 - Set Your Strategy
Now that you know what type of poker fish you're up against, choose the exploit that works best. This could be value betting thinly and often, but not bluffing, against a calling station or calling down often against a maniac bluffer. Just make sure that your exploit matches your opponent type.
Step 3 - Don't Overcomplicate
Once you know the exploit to use, don't get fancy. These players are easy to make money from as they don't change up their game. This means you shouldn't change your exploits against them. Don't start bluffing a calling station because you think they're going to start folding against you. Spoiler alert - they're not!
Fish In Poker: FAQ
We've collected and answered the most common questions about fish in poker.
What is a poker fish?
A "poker fish" is a player who consistently makes large mistakes when they play poker, leading to them often losing in the games they play. These are players who don't win in the long term and often play poker just for fun.
Are fish the same as beginners in poker?
Not necessarily. While a lot of fish are beginning players who are just learning the game, there are a fair number of long-time players who haven't taken the time to learn the game and play the same way they did as a beginner.
Can a professional player turn into a fish?
If a professional player stops playing poker for a long time or stops studying the game, there will be some games in which they're considered a fish. However, even with a decline in skill, they will still have enough skill to beat the lower-stakes games.
What is the opposite of a poker fish?
The opposite of a poker fish is a shark. These are experienced players who know the waters well and use their knowledge to exploit the fish and profit from their mistakes. Long-term, these players are winners in the games they play in.
How to profit from a fish?
The best way to profit from a fish who calls too much is to value bet against them thinly and often. Don't check hoping they'll bet as most fish are passive. If you do find an aggressive fish the best way to profit is to either call down when you have a good hand or raise their aggressive c-bets.
Poker fish are the lifeblood of any poker ecosystem and knowing how to exploit them can be the difference between you being a winning player and a losing player.