An unpredictable image can make a difference

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

When evaluating the importance of poker concepts, there is one that I rate much higher than do many other authorities. That concept deals with the image you present at the poker table and how much it affects what you can expect to win.

Could I be more specific? Sure. I believe that finding and conveying the right image is so important that – right now, as we speak – thousands of players who are capable of making a life-long profit are, instead, broke and miserable. You keep hearing me stress again and again that you need the right kind of image to win big at poker. Here are six elements that should comprise that image:

1. Friendliness. This is incredibly important. Many players think that they can intimidate or irritate their opponents into handing over their stacks of chips. They think they can win just by presenting themselves as angry and rude. While this demeanor may occasionally lure a call, the overall effect is to win less money. Yes, you might sometimes put an opponent on emotional tilt, and, I guess, that is a rational argument in favor of being unfriendly and intimidating.

But, in general, you’ll make more money by being friendly and intimidating, instead. When you are mean-spirited, when you criticize your opponents, when you snarl and snicker, when you badger and berate, you’re making your opponents feel uncomfortable. They will not enjoy losing to you. My teaching has always been that you’ll earn a lot more if your opponents enjoy playing with you. That way losing won’t bother them as much.

So, be friendly. Make the poker experience rewarding for your opponents. If they don’t mind losing to you, they’re more likely to hand over their money and to enter pots against you when you have the edge They’re also more likely to come back and offer you another chance at their money on the days that follow.

Remember, casinos are in the business of making profit. In general, they don’t aggravate their customers into making wagers. Instead, they lure them into making wagers by creating a pleasant experience for gamblers – so that their customers don’t feel the pain of losing as much as they might otherwise.

As a poker player intent on making a profit, you should treat your customers the same way.

2. Playfulness. You need to go one step beyond just being friendly. It’s also important to seem playful. Act as if you’re enjoying the poker experience, too. Show that you don’t mind losing pots to your opponents. Laugh and giggle and have a good time. It’s easy to do if you know you’re going to end up with the money eventually.

3. Recklessness. This is what I mean when I talk about that favorite “wild” image of mine. Although the image may not be one that you’re personally comfortable presenting, you should at least let your play suggest recklessness.

What does this mean? It means that you should seem to not care about money and are willing to throw your chips into the fray at the slightest provocation. The benefits of this are twofold: First, you will get many more callers when you have the best hand; second, you won’t have to worry about being bluffed as often. Because players fear that money means nothing to you, they will hesitate to try a bluff and you’ll actually be able to make more quality laydowns than you might otherwise.

Additionally, if you appear sufficiently reckless to your opponents, you won’t have to face as many raises and check raises. Opponents will tend to fall in line and call with their weak hands while failing to raise with as many of their stronger hands. In other words, adding recklessness to your image can turn otherwise competent foes into perfect opponents – loose and timid, the ones who call too much, but don’t punish you as often with a bet or raise when they have the best of it.

Remember, though, that recklessness is an image, not a fact. You must establish this image by playing only a few selected pots that seem bizarre to your foes. Then, you must convince those foes by your banter and your mannerisms that this is something you do all the time – even though it isn’t. Establishing recklessness without being reckless is an art form, but it’s worth the effort.

4. Confidence. Your opponents are intimidated by confidence. So, you should tend to make all your actions crisp and assertive. Let your opponents wonder what you know that they don’t. When confidence is coupled with the other elements that go into the right winning image, your opponents become completely bewildered and very easy to beat.

5. Luckiness. There is nothing that scares typical opponents more than the thought that you might be lucky. That’s why you should never complain about your bad luck at the table. If you do complain, opponents won’t give you the sympathy you’re seeking. Instead, they’ll just think, “Hey, there’s someone even unluckier than I am. Maybe I can beat him.” And they’ll be inspired and play better against you.

So, it’s important to make opponents think that you’re lucky. Emphasize the fortunate things that happen to you. You might simply tell your opponents how lucky you are. I do. Many players like to present themselves as unlucky. Then they brag about being able to overcome misfortune through skillful play. Most opponents are not intimidated by these boasts. What they really fear is that you’re lucky, and you should bury your ego and make them think that luck is why you win.

6. Unpredictability. This final element is the one I want to explore today. But instead of writing something new, I’ve decided to share what I wrote a long time ago. In 1986, I wrote a column for Poker Player newspaper. It carried the heading: Today’s word is “SLOTS.” This is what I said back then…

You’re thirsty. Cautiously, you sneak up to an everyday vending machine, spin 70 cents into its slot and down slides a can of Coke. Amazing! What’s so surprising about that?

Nothing, really, and that’s the point. Barring a malfunction, your next confrontation with a vending machine will be awfully predictable. Give it 65 cents, you get silence. Give it 75 cents, you get a nickel change with your Coke. Hardly anyone wastes much time playing these machines if they have anything better to do.

Now take your typical slot machine. Feed it five quarters and who knows what could happen? This mystery, this unpredictability is what makes so many lose so much while maintaining their good spirits.

It’s time to talk about poker. When you sit down to play, you’re exactly like a slot machine, aren’t you? Do me a favor, just say yes. Okay, don’t say yes, but you’ll be sorry. You’ll be missing a great truth about poker. That truth is this: If you conduct yourself as a slot machine, you’ll win more; if you conduct yourself as a vending machine, you’ll win less.

Why they come.
Always remember that your opponents came to gamble. They came for the excitement. They came to feel their pulses race in the face of an unpredictable fate. Some of them drove all the way from Ventura to play poker in Gardena. Some of them drove all the way from Panama to play poker in Las Vegas. But, wherever they drove from, they didn’t go to all the trouble just to watch paint dry.

Your opponents crave the unexpected. If you learn to understand that principle, you’ll be a better player. You’ll probably be a better person, too, but that’s another topic.

Your opponents drove fast, locked their cars, walked briskly across the parking lot, put their names on a waiting list, paced the lobby until that name was called and finally sat in your game. They expect something in return for their effort; and they don’t want to be bored.

When you play a very predictable game — when you act like a vending machine — you spoil their fun. Sure, you can play a routine strategy against average opponents and still win. But you won’t win much. In order to achieve maximum gain, you must encourage your opponents to bet more money on impulse than they normally would.

Suspense is the secret.
Repeat. You must make opponents bet more on impulse than they normally would. You do that by taking advantage of their human tendency to wager more carelessly at worse odds when they see the outcome as suspenseful.

That’s why I spend so much energy convincing students to polish their table images. A correct image is a friendly image. If opponents don’t have fun losing to you, you’re surrendering one of the great psychological advantages in poker. That’s one secret of a slot machine. It never threatens you. A hostile image at a poker table is a very destructive thing.

A second secret of a slot machine is that its image is unpredictable. You, too, must be perceived as totally unpredictable. If your opponents occasionally (but very rarely) see you playing hands no one else would play, if they see you bluffing when no one else would bluff and betting when no one else would bet, then this will make the right kind of impression.

You are the machine.
Once that impression is made, it won’t fade quickly. Then you can play the best solid strategy you know. Your slot-machine image will fill your opponents’ heads with hope. And they’ll lose more to you than they will to anyone else.

In summary: You’ve learned that it’s possible for a human being to play better poker than a vending machine. Who else would tell you that?

That’s what I wrote in 1986. Unpredictability is a key ingredient in your winning image. Put all six ingredients together and you’ll have a powerful winning edge every time you play poker. I say so. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


7 thoughts on “An unpredictable image can make a difference”

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  1. Hi, Mike,
    I've always followed your advice as best I could, and it's enabled me to win a lot. I'm indebted to you for all your poker wisdom, and I'm eternally grateful. What's strange to me is that many people, perhaps of lesser intelligence, don't and/or can't understand several of your most important concepts. For instance, the paragraphs under "Luckiness." This is a powerful truth that I try to live and play by. The better I understand it, the more I "own" it as you say in your book, the better I do.
    You're poker's greatest psychologist, Mike. :)

  2. I think it’s even more important in tournaments. In a cash game you can afford to be more patient, assuming you have a decent stack, and rebuying is an option. In a tourney, at some point your chip stack and the blind structure can have a dramatic impact on how you play. If you combine that with somebody that is gunning for you because you are acting less than friendly, or people that are willing to make a quiestionable call when you’re all in short stacked, this can have a dramatic effect on your results.

    I don’t know if that’s “right”, but it makes sense to me.

  3. Your “friendliness” refers to cash games. Should I be a little less friendly in tournaments and have the same effect?

  4. Thank you Mike for confirming my style of play, be friendly and let a win look like a piece of luck unless your start hand suggests you played correctly.

  5. The nicest thing about unpredictability is the chips and money it has saved me. I have a reputation for betting a lot and being aggressive, and I am, but I try to choose my spots. A couple of months ago in a monthly tourney I play in my hometown I was to the left of somebody that plays pretty solid, straight ahead poker. 2 hands in the same tourney he hit the nuts on the turn. We both checked the flop, the straight card hits on the turn, he checks to me and I check behind on both the turn and river. He looks at me, incredulous, and turns over the nut straight and says “why didn’t you bet??”.

    Also, having fun with things like raising blind early when it doesn’t cost much and then hitting a full house on a flop of J 2 J ( I had J2) can go a long way in helping. People still talk about that stupid play (it was, I admit it wholeheartedly! :-) and it was months ago.

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