Whether you're playing live poker or want to transition to live play, creating and sustaining a strong table image will give you a major edge over the competition. 'Major' may actually be a bit of an understatement. What happens above the rail is just as - if not more - important as what goes down on the felt.
In a game where even the most air-tight mathematic strategy can lose to plain, dumb luck, being able to leverage physiological mastery over the competition is a serious advantage.
So how do you create a crazy solid table image?
Well, there are two main schools of thought surrounding this question, and I'll give you a run down on them here.
1. Conceal, Don't Reveal.
The less your opponents know, the better. Think Phil Helmuth. He wears shades, keeps his hand in front of his mouth, doesn't banter with his tablemates. It's a winning strategy, and one I suggest for people who don't dig interpersonal exchanges or aren't comfortable with the game yet. It doesn't matter if you’re anxious because you don't thrive in social situations, or you’re stressed because you are new to the game: your anxiety will give you away.
So, if this sounds like you, hide your tell zones. Use shades to cover your eyes and wear clothes that cover your throat and wrists (i.e. pulse points). You can also listen to music, which a lot of people do successfully, HOWEVER, in my experience, it takes me out of the game. The point is to limit distractions, not to limit your ability to absorb and interpret what's happening around you.
Another suggestion: earplugs! They tune out the clinking of chips, lull of background music, and rumbling of minor conversations, without interfering with your ability to hear the conversations that directly affect you.
The objective of this defensive tactic is to put up your shields so you are operating in your comfort zone, and by extension, are playing your best possible game.
2. Be Offensive.
Daniel Negreanu is a prime example of an offensive approach. Not that he is offensive, but rather he's on the offense, drawing people out, engaging in conversation and gathering valuable intel from his opponents. When done right (and for many, it takes time to master this), the offensive approach seems completely natural.
Now, this doesn't mean it is nice. Yes, one tactic is to subtly charm your table mates, which will make them more likely to let you get away with what they suspect may be a bogus call (so you can get away with 3 betting light pre-flop, for instance), and less likely to single you out as someone they want to knock out.
Then again, being the bad guy can have its perks, if you can pull it off. If you are donning an aggressive persona, talking smack and being cocky, opponents are more likely to go in with less than stellar holdings, just cause they are sick of the sight of you and want your arrogant ass out of the game. (Disclaimer: I am not encouraging being a total prick. You can maintain etiquette while still pushing people’s buttons.)
Of course, taking either of these tactics is not advisable for beginners or people who are not comfortable in the spotlight. You are putting yourself out there, and while you are gathering info about the competition, savvy opponents will also be able to gather info about you. So, you have to be clever, taking as much as you can and giving as little as possible. You may be feeding off bits of your personality, but you're an actor, and being a convincing actor takes skill and practice. I'm not saying you'd want to go through your actual day-to-day life like this, but as a table tactic, it's impressively powerful.
But you don't have to play any role to be a winning player.
As I already mentioned, you'll play best when you're comfortable and confident. This is when you'll make those primo decisions. The best role you can play is the role of you.
Double guns to ya'll – and happy grinding!