This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
As you know, I put a lot of emphasis on poker psychology. Sure, I'm the guy responsible for a lot of those poker statistics out there. To be truthful, when twice-world-champion Doyle Brunson's bible, Super/System – A Course In Power Poker, was in the planning, I sat in a room for weeks calculating the 50 tables for the statistics section. Just me, a pen, a notepad, and a calculator. No computers on my desktop back then in 1976. It was an obsession, and I'm proud to report that it was the first time such elaborate poker statistics were ever presented correctly – thousands of them. I was obsessed with getting it right.
And, yes, I've spent too much of my life programming computers to deal with poker in cold, analytical ways. But, my friends, that isn't where the money grows! It doesn't grow from statistics and not from computer analysis.
The money grows mostly from the way you handle people, read them, manipulate them, relate to them. That's why I have devoted so much energy to studying and writing about poker tells – the body language that often tells you when an opponent is bluffing and when he isn't. That's why I talk so much about what image you should take to the poker table to extract the most profit. Yes, how your opponents see you will largely determine how much money they will give you.
That's important, and I'll say it again. The way your opponents see you determines how much money they will give you?
But before you jump to the conclusion that just sitting at the poker table with the right image will make you rich, let me explain. You need that coldly calculated strategic information. You need to know when to raise in general, when to play a hand in general, when to bet in general, and much more – in general. Then – only then – can you get more out of the game by adding psychological warfare. Without those basics, you'll just be a losing player, and a conspicuous image could even cause you to be a bigger losing player.
So, don't be fooled. I don't want you to apply psychology before the basics. I want you to apply the basics and then use psychology. How important is psychology at poker? Well, once you've mastered the basics and a little more, you can probably win consistently against weak to average opponents.
Fine. I've said what I have to say on that. But now we get to the really important stuff. Once you've mastered the basics and a little beyond and you're making a reasonable profit because you always play your best game and maintain good discipline – once you're at that point, what's next?
What to work on after the basics.
Well, next isn't to sit down and study every nuance of the game. Technical analysis of why it's slightly better to raise than to call in a specific situation against undefined opponents will not help you that much. Sure, it might add pennies to your profit, but that isn't worth the time right now.
Right now you want to figure out how you can dramatically increase your profit. Quite likely, it's by adapting an image that opponents feel comfortable paying off. That's right, your opponents are more comfortable about surrender their chips to some personalities than to others. Certain players who think they know the most about poker are so off target with their images that they actually tempt opponents to play better against them.
This is exactly what you don't want to happen. You don't want to seem as if every decision you make is well calculated and designed to do damage to your opponent. What? Yes, that's right. I said, you don't want to seem as if every decision you make is well calculated and designed to do damage. Your decisions should be well calculated and designed to do damage, but they shouldn't seem so.
Now, some of you know that I often advocate the wild image. This image includes a lot of advertising, especially when you first sit down in a game. I have experimented with many different images – even for one year at a time – and will report on the results someday. But I can tell you that nothing will bolster your profit so much as a playful, unpredictable image.
This image confuses opponents and causes them to play bad. But because you're playful, they don't mind giving you their money as much as they mind giving it to others. It makes losing to you as painless as possible. In the past, I've talked about the components of that image, but that's off-topic for today. I don't use the so-called "wild image" all the time, and it might not be right for you. If it's not, there are many other ways to establish yourself as the force to be reckoned with at the table.
Don't go quiet.
But whatever image you use to make yourself known to the table, to show that you're willing to gamble and you're not just there to nerd out the profits from suckers, there's one thing you can't afford to let happen. You can't afford to go quiet.
What does that mean? It means that sometimes you will work very hard to establish an image. You will advertise, you will get opponents laughing, playing bad, ready to mail their money straight across the table and into your stacks. Now all you need is to play some decent cards.
But what if the decent cards don't come? The fact is, once you've set your image, you can now sit back and play conservatively and, usually, the money will just start coming your way. You don't have to keep advertising. You just need to maintain your playful image through carefully calculated table talk. Players won't even notice that you've stopped playing your frivolous game and have gotten serious about profit taking, unless….
Unless what? Unless you go quiet. What's this "go quiet" thing? I means that you can't find a profitable hand to play after you've set your image. The cards don't come. Ideally, you'd like to pick up some big hands right now. That will make all the psychological elements work. Maybe you've just raised with 10-6 offsuit in hold 'em and giggled while losing the pot (or winning the pot). You've made two or three similar plays. Now you pick up A-K and play it the same way as 10-6. Then Q-Q. Now J-J and A-Q suited.
You win most of these pots. People pay you off. Each win is worth much more than it would have been if you hadn't bothered to set your image. Often these hands don't win. But most of the time you don't have to show the loser, and players think you just played another 10-6, so you get advertising value for playing tight!
But what if you don't get any cards to play at all. Well, you can't just sit there. Then your plot becomes obvious and everyone sees through it. You need to stay active. You might be able to sit for 20 minutes, but if 30 minutes approaches and you haven't been able to splash any chips out there, you've gone quiet. It's a horrible thing to happen to an image.
Usually, it's worth entering a pot with a substandard hand or two just to avoid going quiet. That's right, you may want to call with K-10 offsuit against a semi-early raiser, even though this is a bad percentage play. You may want to raise with J-9 suited. Do something.
You won't always be able to escape going quiet, but all that advertising money you've invested is worth protecting if you can. Sometimes throwing a few more chips out there at a small disadvantage is all it takes to keep opponents from realizing you've shifted gears and are now playing dead serious.
Clarification and the point.
Bottom line: Once you've established a playful, confusing image, try never to go quiet. There is a bit of contrary advice I need to talk to you about. When players see you losing, they often become inspired. They play better. All your most aggressive plays designed to extract every penny of profit may now actually cost you money. You need to back off.
So, isn't that contradictory advice to saying you should avoid going quiet? No! When you're conspicuously losing, you often should abandon your most aggressive plays. But when you're in danger of going quiet at a time when your opponents are bewildered by you and ready to throw extra chips your way, you need to do something to make sure they don't think you've evaporated. Those are different concepts.
By avoiding going quiet, you are trying to keep the psychological advantage that you have worked hard to establish. When you've been losing for a long period, you no longer have that advantage, so you might as well go quiet or even quit.
Here it is, simple as simple can be. I first set the image. Then I try to sit back, play much more selectively, and let the good cards win for me. If the good cards don't come, I try to salvage what I can of my image by reluctantly and selectively playing a few substandard hands so nobody notices that I'm basically waiting for superior cards. I try never to go quiet.