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Play Your Image

by Andrew Brokos |  Published: Sep 19, 2012

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Andrew BrokosTable image is the way your opponents expect you to play. Less sophisticated opponents will use simple classifications: they may think of you as tight, loose, or bluffy, for example. Other opponents will form more specific reads, perhaps that you three-bet aggressively, bluff with your busted draws, or give up easily with one-pair hands when raised.

Though it may vary from player to player, your table image determines what you can get away with. Of course it won’t affect whether you bet the nuts last to act on the river, but it can determine whether you should attempt a triple-barrel bluff or a value bet with third pair. Thus, it’s important to know your table image and how to use it.

Cultivating an Image

The natural question that arises is, “Which image is the best to have? Should I prefer to be perceived as tight and passive or aggressive and bluffy?” Note that the question here is not whether it’s better to play one of these styles or the other, but rather whether you’d want to be perceived as playing that way by your opponents.

I don’t think there’s a right answer. With a tight image, you can get away with more bluffs but fewer value bets. With an aggressive image, you can make more value bets but fewer bluffs. And in a game where your opponents aren’t paying any attention to your image and just playing their cards, then you can ignore your image as well and take advantage of whatever mistakes you see them making.

Consequently, I am of the opinion that it is rarely worth going out of your way to cultivate a particular image. Rather, you should simply play each situation as it comes along and periodically assess how your opponents are likely to view you based on what they’ve seen.

Think about it this way: to cultivate a particular image means playing one or more hands in a way that you otherwise consider less than ideal for the sake of a projected payoff in future hands. However, your opponents will form an image of you no matter what you do, and no image is intrinsically better than another. Thus, it’s usually better to take the immediate value inherent in making the best possible play at each opportunity and take whatever image comes along with that.

For example, if you’ve had a run of good hands that you’ve been betting and raising, and you’ve won a lot of pots without showdown, don’t feel compelled to pass up a thin value bet in the interest of showing down a good hand. Don’t turn over your cards after an opponent folds to show him you weren’t bluffing. Let them think you were bluffing and use that image to make more value bets in the future.

Conversely, if you’ve had a run of bad cards and have played few hands, look for opportunities to widen your three-betting range and play a little more aggressively. Your tight image should earn you a disproportionate amount of folds. Just don’t try for any razor thin value bets.

The Cheap Way

The important thing isn’t for your opponents to perceive you one way or another, but rather for them to misperceive you. Whatever they expect from you, you want it to be the opposite of what you’re doing.

The problem is that whatever benefit you can derive from your image is rarely worth the price you pay to create it. Making a bad bluff or call “to show that you will” is expensive, as is showing your cards when you don’t have to.

But what if there were a way to cultivate the image you want without changing the way you play at all? That would be worth doing!

Turns out there is. The way you look, talk, and act at the table does at least as much as the way you play to determine how people will perceive and play against you.

Don’t try to swim upstream. As we discussed above, it’s better to work with the image you have. You can change the way you play a lot more easily than you can change the way you look.

If you’re a 68-year old retiree, or if you just look like one, people will expect you to be tight and passive. Rather than fighting against that by donning oversized headphones and gaudy jewelry, play up the nit image but don’t play like a nit. Put on a cap from your favorite golf course, pass around pictures of your grandchildren (or someone’s grandchildren, no one will know), and then rake in pot after pot as your opponents fold to your preflop three-bets and river raises. If, on the other hand, you’re a pale-faced male in his early twenties, then put on your favorite hoodie, shuffle chips like it’s your job, nit it up, and profit when someone four-bet shoves 8-5 suited over the first three-bet you’ve made in three hours.

Capitalize on Your Own Mistakes

The other cheap way to build a misleading image is to let people see your mistakes. Many people get embarrassed when they play a hand badly and want to avoid letting anyone see it, but that’s just ego talking. When you make a mistake, you can’t take back the money that you lost, but you can at least mitigate your losses by getting some image out of it. Don’t be ashamed to let people see that uncharacteristically bad call you made. If it’s really uncharacteristic, then they’re going to form the wrong opinion about how you play, and you can profit from that later.

Suppose that you make a bad turn call. The board is Q-8-5-3 with two flush draws and you call with 4-3. All the draws brick on the river, and your opponent checks. You have the feeling that he puts you on a busted draw and is trying to induce. But you’re also embarrassed to show your turn call, because you decided it was bad almost as soon as you made it.

The fact that this is a bad call you wouldn’t ordinarily make is more of a reason to check. Turn it over proudly, like you’re sure have the best hand. Let the table think you are a fish who can’t fold any pair. Now you won’t have to worry about bluff-catching anymore, because they will be a lot less likely to bluff you.

Conclusion

To be clear, I’m not saying you should make a bad call like this for the purpose of building an image. The whole point of this article is to argue against that logic. In this case you’ve already made the bad call, and you’re going to lose the chips either way, so you might as well take the fishy image that comes with that and make the best of it. With so many good opportunities to mislead your opponents for free, it rarely makes sense to make a bad play on purpose just to build an image. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He’s a member of Poker Stars Team Online and blogs about poker strategy on ThinkingPoker.net. Andrew is also interested in education reform and founded an after-school debate program for urban youth.