One of my all-time favorite movies is Charade, the 1963 classic mystery-suspense-romance-comedy film starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. For anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie (or the far-inferior 2002 remake titled The Truth About Charlie), the male lead in the story is a mystery man. When Audrey Hepburn’s character, Reggie Lampert, first meets him, Grant’s character is called Peter Joshua, and he is obviously an upstanding good guy. But Reggie — and the audience — soon discovers that “Peter Joshua” is really named Adam Canfield.
Well no, his actual true name is Alexander Dyle. And while all this name-switching is going on, Grant appears to flip from being a good guy to a bad guy, and then back again a couple of times. Poor Reggie keeps having to change her assessment of Grant again and again, until she’s so flustered that she doesn’t know what the heck to believe about this man. Not until the final moments of the film do we discover that this man’s authentic name is Brian Cruikshank, and he is a good guy after all.
What in the world does this have to do with poker? Plenty. Poker is a charade. Players at the poker table are constantly posing, putting on masks, trying to create false impressions. Even at the lowest levels, players will usually pretend to be strong when they’re weak, or weak when they’re strong. They may be really bad at it, but they’ll be trying anyway. That’s the essence of the game — fooling your opponent so you can take his money. Good poker players take this to the next level, by deliberately crafting a specific table image, to coax their opponents into thinking the wrong thing at the right time. The table image they create might be actually quite close to how they play, or it might be the opposite extreme, but that’s not what matters. Because what determines the profitability of any table image is not your playing style and personality, but theirs.
Of course it begins with the type of game you’re in — cash game or tourney, low limit or high, fixed limit or not. Obviously your opponents in any low-limit game will for the most part be far too clueless to even notice what you’re doing, let alone process that information. So don’t waste your energy throwing pearls before donkeys. Just play a solid game. Where a good table image can really pay off is in the bigger-limit games. And most especially, in tournaments.
But crafting a table image is only the first step. The mark of a truly advanced poker player is the ability to slip in and out of different personas during a poker session — always at just the right moment. Commonly known as changing gears, it’s a skill that takes much knowledge and experience to develop. Timing is everything. Depending on the texture of the game, a good player should be able to switch from impersonating a conservative rock, to posing as a crazy maniac on tilt, to then to acting like a bona fide skilled player.
You know what they say about first impressions, and it’s true that as a general rule people love to place other people into neat categories. And keep them there. That’s why the ability to change gears, to seemingly morph from one personality to another just as Cary Grant does in the movie, can be such a powerful boon to your game. Your opponents — the ones who are actually smart enough to watch how you play — will be paying attention to you for awhile after you first sit down in the game. Trying to figure out which label to place on you: Calling station, rock, maniac, shark, whatever. At some point, say after a half-hour or so, they’ll think they’ve got you pegged. They’ll slap that label on you with confidence. And this is when so many players will make a critical error. They get complacent. They get lazy. After all, they’ve watched you and figured you out; the job is done now. They’ve got your number and it’s carved in stone.
So this is precisely the time when it would be good to switch up your play. Once an opponent has slapped a particular label on you, most of those opponents will stubbornly keep you in that category, regardless of what you do afterwards. Perhaps it’s an unwillingness to admit they were wrong before, but those players who pegged you as a tight-conservative rock earlier in the session will almost always continue to see you as that same tight-conservative rock — long after you have begun to play like a maniac. When this role-switching is done right, you should be able to bet and raise with pure trash, but get credit for having a strong hand, because, after all, your opponents “know” that you’re conservative. Eventually they’ll catch on to your new identity, and that will the time to change your playing style yet again. In short, you want to be playing Cary Grant to a table full of Audrey Hepburns. Changing your identity again and again, keeping your opponents constantly off balance, until they don’t have the faintest clue who you really are as a poker player.
The most common (and some would say the most profitable) way this is done is the example described above — switching from slow and conservative to fast and loose. Begin your session by posing as a rock. Once opponents have been lulled into complacently believing that you only play premium cards, you can use that belief to steal pots. Something like 9-8 offsuit can be a powerhouse hand if opponents think those cards are two aces. And if you’ve done an effective job of impersonating a rock, it should be easy to convince the other players that you’re betting and raising with big hands. After all, that’s what rocks are known for. That’s the essence of the charade: What opponents think you have in your hands is more important than the reality of the cards you hold.
In tournaments, this personality switch can be extremely profitable. Playing tight in the early rounds is usually what you should be doing anyway. The blinds are still low, and survival is the name of the game in these early stages. So posing as a tight-conservative player early on is not only a sound playing strategy, it also dovetails nicely with your plan to change identities later. Because later in the tournament, there will critical times when the ability to steal a lot of pots can be a massive advantage. Namely, when the blinds get large enough to be worth stealing, and also when the tourney gets near the bubble stage. That’s usually the point when your opponents will start tightening up like clams in a sea of superglue — afraid that one bad call could cost them any chance at making the money. So now is the prime time to steal pots, and getting credit for a good hand when you actually hold garbage is a great way to do that.
Again, please don’t try this in the low-limit games, or if you do, don’t expect great results. And don’t use changing gears as a rationalization to play bad poker. That’s an easy trap to fall into. Don’t pretend to be a rock, or a maniac, to such an extreme that you really are playing like a sucker — or at the very least, only do so for a very few hands. Just long enough to create the desired impression. Never lose sight of your ultimate goal: To fool your opponents so you can take his money. It’s fun — and profitable — to play out different roles at the poker table, but don’t get lost in the part.
This article orginally appeared in the print version of Woman Poker Player Magazine 2006