In one of Monty Python’s more memorable sketches, Eric Idle plays the cheesy host of a game show called “Spot the Loony.” Contestants watch short films featuring a variety of different people, and to win a prize they must correctly identify the “loony” as soon as he appears on the screen. The big joke here is that these loonies are always preposterously easy to find. Wearing big red fright wigs, dressed in long, ill-fitting clothes, their faces contracted into wild, cartoonish expressions, they stand out from the crowd like George Hamilton at an albino convention.
How does any of this relate to poker? Well, I’ll tell you. In many ways this sketch reminds me of finding a maniac at the poker table. Like the Python loonies, maniacs are almost too easy to identify. They stand out from the crowd so much because they want to stand out. Maniacs need to be the center of attention. Woefully lacking in any kind of self-discipline or control, they have a childish need for instant gratification. That gratification comes from provoking and upsetting their opponents, from making themselves in the center of the poker universe, and most of all from the action they create with their relentless bets and raises.
This shows in just about everything they do. Right from the start, poker loonies are apt to dress in bright colors, speak in loud voices, use dramatic forceful gestures, and buyin for much more than the normal amount, to arm themselves with a massive stack of chips. And as we all know, that’s only the beginning.
The real fun begins when the maniac starts raising. And raising. Pre-flop, post-flop, early position, late position, with good cards, marginal cards, total rages – it just doesn’t matter. Any time, any place, any circumstance, he’s in there jacking it up.
And let’s just get this out of the way right now: the majority of maniacs are men. More often than not, they are young men. Maybe it’s because of the way men are raised in our society, or maybe the poor guys are just slaves to their testosterone, who knows. Okay, so it’s easy to spot the maniac. But how do you read him? How do you make sense of his betting patterns?
Conventional wisdom says: you don’t. After all, how can you possibly read his cards when he’ll always raise the pot anything? One of the maniacs’ greatest strengths is that he is so impossible to figure out. Well, nearly impossible.
There are a few things you can look for. Not all maniacs are created equal. There are degrees of poker lunacy.
Some maniacs are true rampaging berserkers who seem to care about nothing g but their own overwhelming need to create as much action as possible. Others can exhibit a bit more control now and again. A few “maniacs” are just regular players on tilt. Some maniacs are furiously aggressive per-flop, but back off a little after the flop. Then there are some who stay relentlessly aggressive throughout the hand.
One thing you can watch for is what Jo-Ellan Dimitrius (jury consultant and author of “Reading People”) refers to as “rogue actions.” That is, whenever you see a person do something that is noticeably different form their usual routine – pay extra attention. It’s very significant. All of us, even maniacs are creatures of habit. Perhaps especially maniacs. Their normal routine is really very rigid. So if you see a maniac call a bet instead of raising or check instead of betting, put a flag on that action.
It’s also worth noting that since maniacs as a rule have such poor self-control , they are more likely than usual to telegraph their intentions. If you are sitting to the right of the maniac, it’s always a good idea to glance to you left before acting. Quite often, you can tell what that poker loony is planning to do nest.
But perhaps even more important to watch for is how the madman’s behavior will affect the rest of the players in the game. When a maniac sits down at a poker table, everything changes. Starting hand requirements need to be adjusted and strategy must be altered, but more than that, the presence of a maniac will have a tremendous emotional impact on everybody in the game.
All that hyper-aggression makes for a stormy, contentious atmosphere. It’s a rare poker player indeed who can remain totally cool, calm, and collected in the face of this.
Generally speaking, one of two things will happen. Some players will react by becoming very timid – barely ever entering a pot, never raising, etc. They morph into poker turtles, retreating inside their shells. (Getting back to rogue actions, if you see a player like this entering a pot against a maniac, that should be a huge red flag right there.) Quite a few other players will get fed up with being run over by the poker loony, and will respond by playing more loose and aggressive themselves. The mild version of this would be someone who makes a handful of bad frustration calls against the maniac. The extreme version would be a player who is so fixated on “getting” the maniac that he goes on severe tilt and starts playing like the maniac’s mirror-image.
In this sort of atmosphere, virtually all players at the table will become more emotional. This makes them easier to read. It’s one of the hidden benefits of having a maniac in your game.
Because the maniac is so good at making himself the center of attention, it’s easy to get so caught up in watching him that we forget to keep watching each other. Don’t let his happen. The maniac is providing you with an opportunity. Because of that annoying poker loony, the other players are liable to let their games deteriorate. Their control will slip. They will become more readable. Now is the time to exploit their maniac-induced weakness.
Anytime I see a belligerent maniac at the poker table, buying in for a colossal stack of chips, raising every single round to the max in an effort to run over the whole table, I am reminded of a line from the movie Shrek. When Shrek first views the excessively huge castle belonging to the evil Lord Farquaad, he comments “Do you think he’s maybe compensating for something?”
Yeah maybe. But in the end it doesn’t matter. All that matters I show we can use this overweening aggression – and the effect it has on everyone else – to our own advantage at the poker table.
This article originally appeared in Woman Poker Player print publication.