The way you are perceived at the table - and your ability to astutely perceive others - can be one of your most powerful weapons or biggest shortcomings as a poker player. Mastering how to create, sustain and read table image can be tricky, but I'm here to help.
Anyone who has played more than a few token (or drunken) hands of poker can tell you that table image matters. The way you are perceived at the table - and your ability to astutely perceive others - can be one of your most powerful weapons or biggest shortcomings as a poker player. When most people think about the 'luck' or 'chance' factor in poker, they're usually thinking about the cards. What cards you’re dealt, how they're dealt, when you're dealt them, etc. However, one of the biggest chance factors in poker - and arguably THE biggest chance factor - is the human element. In other words, you and the people you are playing against.
To truly understand how table image can be both a help and a hindrance, we need to talk subtleties.
Table Image is NOT Fixed
First, let’s get into the perhaps deceiving singleness of the term ‘table image’. Despite what an initial understanding of the term may have you believe, your table image is not static, the same as you are not static. You change, however subtlety, in response to your environment, physiological state and yes, your company. Your table image will change as well. In fact, it has to if you want to survive. You can't take on a hard line image of tight-aggressive, for example, and expect to be able to thrive through the ever-changing flux of the game. Sometimes, you'll find yourself in a tough spot and need to loosen it up. Other times, you'll need to back down. It's adapt or die at the tables. The most successful poker players approach the idea of table image with a pretty Buddhist view of the self: the self is always changing, evolving, transforming, even in almost unrecognizable ways.
This said, ‘almost unrecognizable’ are the operative words when it comes to creating a useful table image.
The Illusion of Stability
Your table image needs to create the illusion of a certain stability. Your opponents are going to be counting on it, and if they are counting on you to act a specific way, then you can use this to your advantage by pulling the proverbial rug out from under their feet. Sounds sneaky, right? Well, it is. It’s basically bluffing, but if you bluff in a blatant, ham-fisted manner, it is only going to work once. Your opponents will identify you as a bluffer and be heavily on guard. Overly wary opponents aren’t your ideal opponents. Most poker strategies - ranging from c-betting to slow playing to value betting - absolutely DEPEND on your opponents trusting in the table image you’ve created for yourself. If, for example, you are trying to pull off slow playing but have been pretty loose or outright maniacal up to this point, your play won’t work. In the hands of a loose, passive player, the slow play practically screams its intention and you won’t get a chip out of a single opponent. This isn’t to suggest loose, passive players cannot slow play, but if you want to pull it off you are going to have to start subtly changing your style at least a few hands before you try the strategy. Again, it’s all about creating the illusion of a certain table image; you can push the boundaries of this image and even play outside it if you have transitioned there without sounding the alarm. This almost imperceptible shifting is not something that can be learned from reading a blog; it is only something you can achieve through logging countless hours at the tables, watching your opponents, and learning about yourself.
You Don’t Know Jack
Your table image or your opponent’s table image is not necessarily a reflection of who you or they are in the ‘real’ world. You’ll find some of the most calm, considerate, empathic people in day-to-day life turn into total maniacs when they’ve got cards in their hands. Likewise, just because a person is usually uptight and infuriatingly methodical doesn’t mean they won’t loosen up at the tables. It is important not to take preconceived notions of your opponents to the tables if you have not seen them in action before. Even if you HAVE seen them in action before, never, ever think you have someone figured out. As soon as you think you’ve got their number, you stop watching them as closely, and when you stop paying attention, they’ve got you where they want you.
Watch Your Mouth
Even if you’re playing tighter than a fresh facelift, your mouth could run away with your game. Creating the illusion of consistency depends on projecting a certain harmony between actions and words. So, if you're given to talking a lot, chatting it up and generally gabbing, your words could outplay your hand. Your opponents could assume that you are there for the entertainment and social aspect of the game and not take your playing as seriously as you may want (and need) them to. Remember, you are relying on your opponents having a certain perception of you to play strategically. Likewise, you are relying on them to play a certain way in order to predict their actions and make the best calls for your hand.
In the end, there are no clear cut boundaries when it comes to creating a table image. It’s a complex and intricate construction, having to be equally fluid and unanimous at the same time. It’s a concept that is perhaps best understood by thinking about atoms; even in solids, they are always moving, vibrating, upholding the structure. This is what you have to do to create and use a successful table image, and it’s what you have to comprehend if you want to get a handle on how others are using their table image to play you.
Photo Credit: Play Among Friends Paf | Flickr