Image is Everything

A non-poker player recently explained that she would be terrible at poker because she can’t bluff.

But she could still win. One approach would be to make sure everyone knows she never bluffs. Then bluff! This would require some practice, especially with breathing exercises, to maintain calm and stillness.

There’s another, easier way. With speech play, she could convince the table that she does bluff. A lot. Before mucking an obvious losing hand after a post-flop bet, she might cut out raising chips, only to return them to her stack and say (only if no one else remains in the hand) “I just don’t think you’re folding to a bluff here, so I’ll save it for later.” No actual bluffing required.

When she bets with a strong value hand on the turn or river, she can practice the breathing and poker face as if she were bluffing. If everyone folds, she could wipe her brow and exhale a sigh of relief, saying “I thought for sure I was going to get caught with my hand in the cookie jar that time.”

With practice, she can create doubt, and upsize her value bets to take advantage of players’ propensity to call too much and too light.

This works because image and emotion consistently triumph over fact and logic, a concept at the core of consumer marketing that explains why we buy crappy products based on ads featuring beautiful people, adorable animals, funny gags, or cute babies.

And what is poker if not consumer marketing and reverse marketing? We make judgments about the strength or weakness of each villain, often based on very thin slices of information. In other words, images.

But do we give enough attention to our own image? I try to…

First of all, I’m a clean cut white guy in my early 60s who tells Dad jokes. My starting image isn’t a blank canvas. So I generally choose to double down on that to emphasize that I play tight, my ranges are strong, and my big bets should be viewed as fearsome. Strategic dialogue helps get other players to reinforce the image.

Here’s an example from last night. After I had 4-bet all-in with KK, a player not involved in the hand commented “that’s the bottom of his range.” I nodded agreement. When I folded to a pre-flop 4-bet, I declared after the hand that I had made a huge laydown. “Ace-queen suited?” someone asked. “Better than that!” I responded, reminding the entire table that I’ve been called the “tightest player in the Triad” and consider that a badge of honor. Don’t they know my blog is entitled They Always Have It for a reason?

And so on. For several hours.

Late at night, one of the players was turning up the aggression with large straddles, light 3- and 4-bets, shoves with air, showing numerous bluffs, and calling all-ins very light just to gamble. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Ashton.” Despite being deep underwater for the session, he kept reloading with a deep stack, making himself a target and forcing other players to loosen up. With this dynamic, I decided to limp under-the-gun with AKo and back-raise if given the chance. Sure enough, Ashton raises. Big.

Then another player re-raises. Bigger. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Shaun.” He’s not crazy, but my first thought is that he wants to isolate Ashton with a range that includes many hands like ATs+ and 88+ that would have to fold when I come back over the top.

So I go all-in. Boom!!

Ashton folds, and Shaun looks like he’s going to shit his pants. We are heads up, and he asks the dealer to confirm that he can turn his cards face up while deciding what to do. Pocket kings!

running bad

I hope he’s been paying attention. At least he didn’t snap call. And sure enough, Shaun talks himself into folding, saying that against ANY other player at the table he would have called without even hesitating.

Image is everything!

Later, we get into a classic Ashton hand. There’s a raise and one or two calls pre-flop, then I call with A♣ J♣ from the small blind. Ashton makes a big re-raise to 50 BBs and gets two callers. I call, because… well what am I here for? Let’s play poker.

The flop is T♥ T♣ 2♣ giving me a nut flush draw on a board that could easily be a whiff for everyone else. They all check.

The turn 3♥ changes nothing. I decide to go for it with a semi-bluff of approx. 75% of the pot. Ashton calls and the others fold. Hmmm…

The river 6♦ again changes nothing. I don’t think Ashton has a T. He’s loose enough – and skeptical enough of bluffers – to call my turn bet with hands like 44-99, or worse flush draws and wait to see what I do on the river.

I silently and as confidently as possible slide the rest of my chips forward. Over 300 BBs.

He looks genuinely perplexed, replaying each street of the hand to try to piece the puzzle together, and makes the comment that there’s only one hand I can have – 33 – that beats him as he has a ten and doesn’t think I would have one, not even AT. (The fact that he eliminates AT from my range is a function of my tight image and the pre-flop action. He assumes I would simply fold AT out-of-position faced with such a large 3-bet. This is one of the drawbacks to cultivating an image that makes my ranges narrower rather than wider and another component of knowing my own image.)

Ashton counts out calling chips and ponders some more.

running bad     running bad

I start to panic. If he calls, I will have inflicted an unnecessary disaster upon myself. An own goal, so to speak.

As he’s considering his options, I decide to speak up, basically telling him that he knows what I have, and this is my chance to double up because I know he won’t fold. He had actually felted me twice much earlier in the session, so the “now it’s my turn” message might hit home.

Again he says he has a ten, but if it isn’t good, then it isn’t good. And eventually, agonizingly, he folds, without showing either of his cards.

Image is everything.

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