How intimidation works and fails in poker

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Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Bluff magazine.


Oliver was a tough guy – at the poker table and beyond. I met him in Gardena, California in the early 1970s, where he had a reputation as a barroom brawler.

The old Gardena poker experience is legendary. It is a suburb of Los Angeles where, until about 1980, it enjoyed a worldwide monopoly for serious poker. They called it – and indeed it called itself – “the poker capital of the world.” Sure, you could play poker in Las Vegas, but the offerings there were insignificant when measured against Gardena’s six licensed card casinos, each with precisely the legal maximum of 35 tables.

This was the battle ground for professional poker players back then – a place where fledgling pros like me and Oliver honed our skills. The weirdest thing about Gardena in those days was that the only form of legal poker was five-card draw. If you wanted variety, well, you could play it either high or low. I played both, but specialized more in the traditional high-hand-wins games, because that tended to be more sociable, where tells abounded and where you could use psychology to crush unsuspecting foes.

Oliver also tried to use psychology to crush foes – but failed. And I’ll tell you why. Nobody liked to play against him. He’d belittle his opponents whenever they made what he considered weak calls or unreasonable wagers. I remember sitting at his table one day when he got caught bluffing and became abusive.

Ask your mommy

“Keep making those calls, moron, and you’re going to have to ask your mommy for more money!” he ranted. The poor businessman who had dropped by to play during lunch break squirmed in his seat and said nothing. Oliver always broadcast the image of a man on the edge of violence, and nobody ever talked back to him.

I noticed how this businessman became intimidated and avoided pots when Oliver was involved. I was beginning to form the foundation of my theory regarding the most profitable image at the poker table. In fact, I was just starting to realize that image mattered much more than I had initially guessed. And one of the first things that became obvious was that there was a large group of semi-skillful poker players like Oliver who were using intimidation to their disadvantage.

This had been only a vague truth, formulating within me, until that day when five players independently approached the floorman and – quietly, so as not to make Oliver aware – asked to be moved to another table. One by one, they left us, quietly evaporating. Among them were not only the businessman, but several of the loosest and weakest opponents, the ones that supplied the bulk of my profit. The deserters all had one thing in common: They didn’t want to play against Oliver. What really banged enlightenment into my brain was when the businessman came back to our table minutes later, leaned over my shoulder, and whispered into my ear: “Why don’t you come join us two tables over?”

He wanted to play against me! But why? Wasn’t I winning more money than Oliver? Wasn’t it well-known that I was a professional player, just like Oliver? Wasn’t I just as intimidating in my own way as Oliver? You could quickly answer yes to each of those questions. But the secret was in the type of intimidation.

The key

Make no mistake, intimidation was the key. Oliver deliberately tried to intimidate, not just because it was his nature, but because he believed it put him at an advantage at the poker table. He’d told me so. Away from the table a few days earlier, he’d explained how, if he could get his opponents upset, they’d start playing much worse and make terrible decisions.

Well, intimidation can spell success, but not if it makes others dislike you. That kind of intimidation can make an opponent comply in the short term, but it has long-term glitches. If you use this overt, hostile intimidation at poker, you’ll make opponents fear you, and sometimes that may result in immediate gains. You might even be able to bluff more effectively. But, in the long run, it makes the weaker players uncomfortable. And when that happens, two notable things occur: (1) The worst players who supply your profit often will avoid your games in the future; and (2) Even when you do find yourself against these weak and loose foes, they’ll be less likely to voluntarily commit themselves to your pots. When that second thing happens, call it a catastrophe.

You see, in order to profit from the weak play of opponents, not only must they be in your game, they must be involved often against you specifically. That way, you multiply the times when you profit from their mistakes. What many tough-image, sarcastic-speaking players seem to overlook is that all players have a broad spectrum of hands that are discretionary. Poor players will play weak hands, but they’ll choose to play more of them – and even weaker ones – if they enjoy playing against you. And poor players will make weak calls when you have the best hand, but they’ll do it much more readily if they believe losing to you will be less painful than losing to Oliver – if they won’t be ridiculed for a bad decision.

Superior intimidation

Put it all together and you can see why the intimidation I advocate is superior. An opponent can be intimidated because he’s confused and bewildered. An opponent can be intimidated and still not feel humiliated. An opponent can be intimidated into losing without feeling he’s a fool. And if you can intimidate that way, rather than through a mean and discomforting disposition, you’ll benefit from the same opposing mistakes made more often.

So, don’t be like Oliver. Giggle, have fun, do unexpected things. Lose pots graciously. Lie to your opponents: Tell them that you make the same bad mistakes they do, except don’t describe those as bad or as mistakes. Just say you sometimes get inspired and make those same plays and that sometimes they succeed for you. Let your opponents remain happy and confused. That’s the type of blissful intimidation that permits foes to like you. And when they like you, they pay you.

Try it; you’ll see. — MC


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Published by

Mike Caro

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mikecaro FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/caro.mike Known as the "Mad Genius of Poker," Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority of poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full biography at Poker1.com.

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  1. Thank you Mike for another great posting of yours.

    I have to say, I wasn’t surprised at all when I first read this.
    each time I play poker with friends, i find that the “table bully” is the one that gets less people involved in pots.

    However, it may also provoke certain players to get more involved with that person just because of his bad attitude.

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