Poker gurus like to talk about the different levels of thinking in the game. Level one — the level that is occupied by fish, donkeys, and turkeys — is essentially: What cards do I have? Level two, where better players live, is where you start thinking: What cards does my opponent have? Level three, where it starts to get advanced, is a place of: What does my opponent think I have? Level four: What does my opponent think I think he has? And so on. Theoretically the levels can keep going on forever, as the psychological game-playing gets deeper and deeper. But for all practical purposes, most players never get beyond levels four or five.
These same levels can also apply to table image. We all know that our table image is crucial, and yet table image itself is not such a simple thing. Like the cards we hold, perception matters just as much as — if not more than — reality. Most of us have a type of image that we are trying to project whenever we sit down at the poker table — tight, loose, maniac, etc. But, are we really being perceived by our opponents the way we think we are being perceived?
That’s not necessarily an easy question to answer. In life, it can be extraordinarily difficult to see ourselves truly as others see us. Ego gets in the way. We dearly want the rest of the world to view us a certain way. And admitting that perhaps this is not the case can be excruciating. Bringing this back to the game of poker, the point is that in order to play our very best games we need to know, with some degree of accuracy, what our true table image is at any given moment. To play poker at a highly skilled level, you must be able to read your opponents. And a huge part of reading your opponents is knowing how they are reading you.
Just as with the cards we hold in our hands, there can be many levels here. On the most basic level, there’s the type of player we really are, how we actually play. Then there’s how we think we play — which may not be the same thing at all. Quite often, it’s not. The most obvious example would be players who think they are much better at the game than they really are. This is so common I would venture to say it’s the rule, rather than the exception. And then on the next level, there is the table image that we believe we are projecting. If you think your opponents see you as a super-tight rock or a super-aggressive maniac, or whatever. Then of course there’s the table image that we truly are projecting — what they really think of us.
We can take the levels even further. How do they think we think they see us? In other words, if they see us as a sucker, do they think we know they see us as a sucker? As we’re raking in a big pot and the player across the table mutters an utterly insincere, “Nice hand” — does he think that we think that he really means it? And how do they think we see them? Does a table bully on a rush really believe he is respected by the other players? Does a rock who only bets with the nuts think we’ll call him because we haven’t noticed that he never puts money into the pot without the best hand? There are so many images reflected back and forth at the poker table — how we think we appear to them, how they think they appear to us, how we really appear to them, how they really appear to us, how they think we think they appear to us — it can be like a house of mirrors, full of so many false images that it’s almost impossible to find the reality.
Cards are solid, definite. Images are not. But again, poker is a game where perception is probably more important than reality. So, in this game we would like to manipulate our opponents’ perception of us. But you can’t manipulate something unless you know what it is in the first place.
Poker players love to type each other. Whether it’s based on age, race, body type, manner of dress, or the size of your chip stack, the other players at the table will certain assumptions about your style of play — before they even see you play a hand. Then of course there’s gender typing. Anytime a woman sits down at the poker table, a lot of male players are going to make some automatic assumptions about her play. Almost certainly the biggest stereotype about women poker players is that we are conservative. We play too tight. We never bluff. Now, whether or not this perception is actually true for the majority of female players is another discussion for another time. What matters here is that a great many poker players of the male persuasion will assume this is true — absent any evidence to the contrary.
In poker, as in life, making assumptions based purely on image can get you into a lot of trouble. Here, your dastardly brilliant plan should be to let the assumptions of your male opponents get them into trouble. Against this particular type of male opponent, let them assume you are a timid player who never bets without a great hand. Play along for a little bit. Then, when the time is right, switch gears. Go ahead and bluff and semi-bluff your hiney off, and watch them fold to you again and again, because they are so sure you would never bet or raise without a great hand.
Of course, there are countless variables that you should always keep in mind. The type of game you’re in is key. At small stakes, table image matters less. It’s when you start getting into mid and higher stakes — against smarter, more perceptive opponents — that table image (and the ability to recognize and manipulate it) really becomes a crucial part of your game. And just as your male opponents shouldn’t make assumptions about your style of play, just based on your gender, the reverse is also true.
To get past all the imagery and figure out how your opponents are really seeing you, try to forget all the stereotypes — including how you’ve stereotyped yourself — and look for hard evidence. For starters, how have you been running lately? At least in the early part of a session, much of your table image will be determined by the cards you get. Have you been folding, folding, folding because you’re getting dealt nothing but junk? Was Bill Clinton still in office the last time you won a pot? Or did you start winning as soon as you sat down? If so, how many of those pots did you win without a showdown? Exactly how often have the other players seen your starting cards, and what kinds of hands have you been showing down — premium cards or garbage? All of this will have a huge impact on your table image. Look at it from their point-of-view: What exactly have they seen you do? If you could switch seats with them, what would you think of you?
If you can answer that question accurately and honestly, that’s more than most players can do.
(This article originally appeared in Woman Poker Player Magazine)