Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.
Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.
Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through www.poker1.com and www.doylesroom.com, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on those collaborative teachings.
I’ve lived a lot of years and seen a lot of poker. You never know how players will fit into the mix of personalities at the table. It’s poker chemistry. And like common chemistry, strange events can happen when you mix stuff together.
It might be pleasing or volatile or unexpected. It depends on people, on the images they bring to the table, and on how they interact. Some say I’m intimidating to play against. That’s not because I’m hostile or because I’m loud and silly. I’m not a chatterbox who seeks to profit from confused opponents. That’s not me.
But I know who I am at the table. And I know who my opponents think I am. And that’s important. Image does matter, and so does your style of play. But there’s not just one image or one style of play that’s correct.
Don’t use mine
The style of poker that works for me might not work for you. In the United States, there’s much more showmanship in poker than there sometimes is in Great Britain. Some British clubs forbid chatter about your hand during play. I can feel right at home, because I don’t chatter, anyway.
But the custom against chatting during the play of a hand isn’t honored everywhere in Britain. And in most other countries, you’re free to talk about your hands – to even lie about your hands — if you choose. I feel comfortable in that environment, too, and it’s the one you’re most likely to encounter now that Internet poker, complete with online chat, has made the game more international than regional.
Did you ever see those Old West movies where one cowboy was trying to talk the rancher out of his deed at poker? I don’t know if it ever really happened that way, but some of the world-class players I’ve met would be right at home with that psychological banter. Not me. I’m a sit-back-and-watch player.
I’m glad that some players try to talk and that they become animated and act bizarrely. As often as not, I’ll pick up some kind of tendency or tell. Yes, they’re trying to influence me to call or to fold, but what they’re really doing is something else. They’re giving me information about themselves.
I guess the best argument against forbidding players to talk, to showboat, to be animated is that those activities can’t possibly give them an advantage. (There are times, of course, in pots involving three or more players where talking about a hand truthfully could give one of the other players an advantage – so you shouldn’t do that.) If you feel you’re at a disadvantage because an opponent is talking you in or out of something, you can just switch on the mute. Ignore him. Any advantage is then neutralized.
So, either you can use the antics and talk to your advantage or you can ignore them. In one case you gain, in the other you lose nothing. So, I say, let them talk – that’s part of the intrigue of poker.
Your best style
But how should you play poker and how should you present yourself to your opponents? I have a simple answer. If you’re uncomfortable being the center of attention, just take on a staid poker personality. Keep it friendly and relaxed, but don’t go out of your way to trick people through your gestures or your words.
If you do have a knack for psychological warfare and don’t mind being in the spotlight, consider taking on an animated playing style. The personality you assume at the poker table doesn’t need to be the true you; it can be an invented you. But it has to be a you that you’re comfortable being.
Another word of advice here. Even if you choose a lively image, don’t use it much against studious opponents who aren’t influenced by it. Tone it down against these skillful opponents, because it’s more likely that they’ll get a read on you than that you’ll be able to grab their reins and steer them along your trail. Know which players you can easily control and which you can’t.
And finally, choose a style of play that is in contrast to your image! If you’re going out of your way to appear tight and stable, you can take unexpected shots and succeed. You’ll be able to bluff more successfully. But if you choose a flamboyant image that’s comfortable for you, keep in mind that your opponents expect you to play weak hands – so don’t! Surprise them by bluffing less and playing hands selectively.
Remember, choosing the right style of play means knowing what opponents think about you. Put yourself in their heads and keep a step ahead of what they’re thinking. — DB