My poker confession: Too much flair vs. focus

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.

At poker, you should adapt a table image that’s most comfortable for you. Fine. But I teach that in most games, a quiet conservative image doesn’t extract the most profit. That’s because the biggest mistake most opponents make is that they call too often. And the money that excellent players earn is directly related to this one overwhelming opposing mistake.

Sure, you can play against other solid opponents and still win sometimes, because you’ll find weaknesses in their games. Maybe they’re easily bluffable in key situations or maybe they don’t get maximum value from their hands. But when you try to earn a living from other players who are also trying their best to make rational decisions, you’d better be exceptionally talented. And even if you are, I believe you still won’t average as much profit as you would against non-analytical players who simply make too many calls.

That’s why I teach that the biggest secret to winning at poker is to create a wild and playful image. Your image can even be bizarre, one that encourages opponents to think you’re playing much worse than you really are. That way, they’ll be less likely to exact full advantage when they have you beat, because they’re worried about what you’re going to do next. And, at the same time, they’re going to reward you with even more weak calls than they give other opponents, because you’re fun and playful and losing against you is less painful.


If you’re uncomfortable being onstage, this isn’t the right image for you. There are other demeanors you can bring to the poker table, and I teach those, too. But the wild image remains my favorite. It’s a very dangerous image, and you can easily get caught up in the chaos and end up playing a losing game. I know; I’ve done that.

Consider this a confession. Years ago, I’d go overboard with the wild image. I played 14 years as a professional poker player before ever writing a book or delivering my first seminar. I won but didn’t get rich. My profits were much less than they should have been, and they fluctuated wildly. You see, the main thrill I was getting out of poker wasn’t the profit; it was the attention. I observed how totally influenced my opponents were by my bizarre plays, and I enjoyed it.


In my draw poker days in old Gardena, I’d call an opener with a garbage hand and stand pat, choosing to draw no cards after the opener drew three. He’d check. And then, when you’d expect me to complete a bluff, I’d just turn that hand face-up on the table — no full house, no straight or flush, not even a pair. At the moment, all eyes at the table would be focused on my hand as I spread it. And there would be this thrilling short silence and then some stunned player would invariably ask: “Why didn’t you bet?” And I would say, “I thought he had me beat,” which brought about titters and stunned expressions.

That wasn’t a bad play; it was a great play. It convinced my opponents I was crazy and didn’t care about money. And they rewarded me with extra-weak calls when I subsequently had them beat. And unlike other “advertising plays,” this one only cost a single bet! Okay, so what’s the problem?


The problem is something I named Fancy Play Syndrome (FPS). It’s the disease that presents itself when you believe you’re so superior to your opponents that you need to prove it. So, you choose the fanciest and most unusual play, rather than the one that is apt to earn the biggest profit. Beware of FPS.

You’re not going to be able to prove you’re the best player in a single session. No matter how good you are, your opponents may never acknowledge that you’re the best. Now, it’s true that the best players might not win the most money. They may be capable of winning the most, but — instead — they may choose to play exhibition poker, as I did. They become to poker what the Harlem Globetrotters were to basketball — Playing for the show, rather than the points. The Globetrotters still won — and I still won — but not by the big margins we should have.

I’d rip up $100 bills at the table, and sometimes I’d burn them. I did this in bigger games, because it got attention. The first $100 bill burned may have been profitable advertising. It suggested to opponents that I didn’t care about money and made them more likely to call and to make mistakes against me. But I overdid it. Sometimes I’d destroy many hundred dollar bills in one sitting. If you’re in a retail business, it often pays to advertise, but you can buy too many ads and not be able to sell enough merchandise to cover the cost. That’s what I did. Often I made too many bizarre plays and didn’t have enough legitimate hands to sell and overcome the expense.


I remember playing all my hands open heads-up — showing them face-up on the table — for half an hour. And I’d almost always play like a maniac the first 20 minutes I entered a game. I wanted to establish an early image and then tighten up and reap the profit. I’ve often joked that opponents could have gotten rich just following me around and sitting down for the first 20 minutes wherever I played.

Showmanship can win money. It’s the image I advise for those who have keen psychological skills. But too much showmanship can ruin your bankroll.

Why am I telling you this? It’s because I don’t want players who follow my advice about poker image to get caught up in the act. Remember, the object isn’t to get attention. Getting attention is only a tool for making money, which is the object. So, advertise, but be stingy with your budget. — MC

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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 “My poker confession: Too much flair vs. focus”

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  1. What about online poker? Does it pay to get attention on the first hands of a ring game or a 1 table sit’n’go?

    I know it’s less effective, because more players pay less attention to the game. But can it still be a winning strategy?

    Vincent Martin

    1. Hi, Vincent —

      It can still be meaningful. But, you’re right. Many players tend to approach the game as if it were bingo and pay less attention to their opponents. You don’t have the advantage of physically acting in manipulative ways online.

      Also, players seated at multiple tables simultaneously are less likely to be influenced by — or even notice — your advertising plays.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  2. Hello,

    Love your site and your advice. I have been playing poker part time for about three years now and fell like I am on a platue. I have read books and tried to apply what I have read. I play 1-2 no limit, but really enjoy tourneys. I don’t do as well in cash games. I am still building my bankroll, but I want to take my game to the next level. Should I play in bigger tourneys or stay at the lower buy-ins ($65-$200). Usually make it to the money but have yet to win one. I will buy in for the min. at 1-2 and if I lose, I am usually done due to building the bankroll. If I am winning, I can’t seem to get above 400 without losing it all and then I just frustrated with myself so I bail when I hit 300-400, but I would like to overcome that and turn my sessions in to 800-1000 sessions. What should I do? Any advise would be greatly valued, and I know you can’t just tell what is wrong and what to do so anything would be fine.

    1. Gee, I wish I saw this in July. Probably not going to actually read this now, but what has worked for me is limiting my sessions. I would often run into the same thing. When I started tracking my sessions, hours played, etc. I found that after a few hours at the table, I would start getting tired and then making bad decisions. When I go to the casino I limit my sessions to about 4 hours. I have lots of other things going on (job, family, coaching, etc.) and I need to be up and alert for those too, so by limiting my time at the table, I get to have some fun, make some money and enjoy all those other things that Mike alludes to in his response.

      I think the best thing you can do to get higher paying sessions would be to build a bank roll to allow you to play in a bigger game. Assuming you take Angel Largay’s claim of $100/hour session at 1/2 NL seriously, that’s a 10 hour session to get to $1000. 10 solid hours of playing your very best poker day in and day out is not easy, especially if you play relatively frequently and have other things on your plate. And they all aren’t going to be winning sessions, anyway.

  3. I agree I am not going to give up school to play full time for sure, but I am going to continue to study the game very hard until the day comes and I decide to go that route one day. Thank you very much for the advice I value your opinion greatly and will definitely be asking for your advice in the future.

  4. I just started playing seriously the last two weeks playing 1/2 no limit and came upon your site from Doyle’s book and it’s been amazingly helpful I love it you are the man. I learned from you to create a wild image so I show a ridiculous bluff when I first get a chance and everyone cannot wait to get in a pot with me they even tell me that. I’m only 19 and I’ve made 2300 the last two weeks playing and one day hope to play with the big shot’s like you. I think you should make me your protege and bring me down to the Ozark’s to be hermits together so I can take in as much poker knowledge as possible before I go back to OU that would be amazing haha

    1. Hi, Colby —

      First, I want to thank you for making your first comment. You’re now a member of our Poker1 family.

      You’re going to think this is strange advice, coming from me, but here goes. I believe young poker players like yourself should be reluctant to play full time. First, you need to explore all the other avenues toward success that life offers.

      The reason is that, until you have real-world experience with handling money, it’s hard to relate to the cash that comes and goes in huge poker tides and understand how it fits into your life.

      I had that problem, and so did every friend who pursued poker at a young age. Some went on to be top-name players. Some faded. But all of us failed to understand the full meaning of money, because it was only a measurement of the size of game we could play.

      I’m guessing this might not apply to you, because you’re wisely beginning at a $1/$2 level. But be cautious, and when you use that “wild” image, make sure it’s for profitable reasons and not for the thrill of being on the stage.

      Good luck in all your future poker adventures.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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