The money in poker comes mostly from the way you handle people, read them,
manipulate them, and relate to them. As the old adage goes, “Poker is not a game
of cards played by people, but a game of people played with cards.”
That’s why I talk so much about the image you should take to the poker table to
extract the most profit. Image is at the core of all the potential profit you’ll
earn at poker. How your opponents see you will largely determine how much money
they will give you. That’s so important that I’ll say it again. The way your
opponents see you determines how much money they will give you.
Do you want to figure out how you can dramatically increase your profit? Fine.
Doing that starts with your image.
THE ROAD TO PROFIT
The key to walking away with bigger wins is not how many pots you win, but
the size of the pots you win. Your end of day profits come down to how much you
win overall. To maximize this, you want to adopt an image that opponents feel
comfortable paying off. That’s right, your opponents are more comfortable
surrendering their chips to some personalities than to others. Certain players
who think they know the most about poker are very off-target with their images.
They actually tempt opponents to play better against them.
This is exactly what you don’t want to happen. You don’t want to seem as if
every decision you make is well calculated and designed to do damage to your
opponent. What? Yes, that’s right. Your decisions should be well calculated and
designed to do damage, but they shouldn’t seem so.
Some of you know that I often advocate the wild image. This image includes a lot
of advertising, especially when you first sit down in a game. I have
experimented with many different images—even for months at a time—but I can tell
you that nothing will bolster your profit so much as a playful, unpredictable
This image confuses opponents and causes them to play poorly. But because you’re
playful, they don’t mind giving you their money as much as they mind giving it
to others. It makes losing to you as painless as possible. I don’t use the wild
image all the time, and it might not be right for you. If it’s not, there are
other ways to establish yourself as the force to be reckoned with at the table.
TURNING IMAGE INTO PROFIT
When evaluating the importance of poker concepts, there is one that I rate
very highly. That concept deals with the image you present at the poker table
and how much it affects what you can expect to win.
Could I be more specific? Sure. I believe that finding and conveying the right
image is so important that thousands of players who are capable of making a
life-long profit are, instead, broke and miserable.
Here are six elements that should comprise that image.
This is incredibly important. Many players think that they can intimidate or
irritate their opponents into handing over their stacks of chips. They think
they can win just by presenting themselves as angry and rude. While this
demeanor may occasionally lure a call, the overall effect is to win less money.
Yes, you might sometimes put an opponent on emotional tilt, and, I guess, that
is a rational argument in favor of being unfriendly and intimidating.
But, in general, you’ll make more money by being friendly instead. When you are
mean-spirited, when you criticize your opponents, when you snarl and snicker,
when you badger and berate, you’re making your opponents feel uncomfortable.
They will not enjoy losing to you. Just remember: You’ll earn a lot more if your
opponents enjoy playing with you. That way losing won’t bother them as much.
So, be friendly. Make the poker experience rewarding for your opponents. If they
don’t mind losing to you, they’re more likely to hand over their money and enter
pots against you when you have the edge. They’re also more likely to come back
and offer you another chance at their money on the days that follow.
Casinos are in the business of making a profit. To maximize their potential,
they don’t aggravate their customers into making wagers. Instead, they lure them
into making wagers by creating a pleasant experience for gamblers—so that their
customers don’t feel the pain of losing as much as they might otherwise.
As a poker player intent on making a profit, you should treat your customers the
You need to go one step beyond just being friendly. It’s also important to seem
playful. Act as if you’re enjoying the poker experience, too. Show that you
don’t mind losing pots to your opponents. Laugh and giggle and have a good time.
It’s easy to do if you know you’re going to end up with the money eventually.
This is what I mean when I talk about my favorite wild image. Although the image
may not be one that you’re personally comfortable presenting, you should at
least let your play suggest recklessness.
What does this mean? It means that you should seem to not care about money and
seem willing to throw your chips into the fray at the slightest provocation. The
benefits of this are twofold: First, you will get many more callers when you
have the best hand; second, you won’t have to worry about being bluffed as
often. Because players fear that money means nothing to you, they will hesitate
to try a bluff and you’ll actually be able to make more quality laydowns than
you might otherwise.
Additionally, if you appear sufficiently reckless to your opponents, you won’t
have to face as many raises and check raises. Opponents will tend to fall in
line and call with their weak hands while frequently failing to raise with their
stronger hands. In other words, adding recklessness to your image can turn
otherwise competent opponents into perfect opponents—that is, they’re loose and
timid—they call too much, and they don’t punish you with a raise when they have
the best of it.
Remember, though, that recklessness is an image, not a fact. You must establish
this image by playing only a few selected pots that seem bizarre to your
opponents. Then, you must convince those opponents by your banter and your
mannerisms that this is something you do all the time, even though it isn’t.
Establishing recklessness without being reckless is an art form, but it’s worth
Your opponents are intimidated by your confidence. So, you should tend to make
all your actions crisp and assertive. Let your opponents wonder what you know
that they don’t. When confidence is coupled with the other elements that go into
the right winning image, your opponents become completely bewildered and very
easy to beat.
There is nothing that scares typical opponents more than the thought that you
might be lucky. That’s why you should never complain about your bad luck at the
table. If you do complain, opponents won’t give you the sympathy you’re seeking.
Instead, they’ll just think, “Hey, there’s someone even unluckier than I am.
Maybe I can beat him.” And they’ll be inspired and play better against you.
So, it’s important to make opponents think that you’re lucky. Emphasize the
fortunate things that happen to you. You might simply tell your opponents how
lucky you are. I do. Many players like to present themselves as unlucky. Then
they brag about being able to overcome misfortune through skillful play. Most
opponents are not intimidated by these boasts. What they instinctively fear is
that you’re lucky, and you should bury your ego and make them think that luck is
why you win.
This final element is one that is best illustrated with a little story.
You’re thirsty. Cautiously, you sneak up to a soda vending machine, put money
into its slot and down slides a can of Coke. Amazing! What’s so surprising about
that? Nothing, really, and that’s the point. Barring a malfunction, your next
confrontation with a vending machine will be awfully predictable. Don’t give it
enough money, you get silence. Give it the right amount, you get your Coke.
People don’t waste much time “playing” vending machines. They have better things
Now take your typical slot machine. Feed it five quarters and who knows what
could happen? This mystery, this unpredictability is what makes so many lose so
much while maintaining their good spirits.
It’s time to talk about poker. When you sit down to play, you’re exactly like a
slot machine, aren’t you? Do me a favor, just say yes. Okay, don’t say yes, but
you’ll be sorry. You’ll be missing a great truth about poker. That truth is
this: If you conduct yourself as a slot machine, you’ll win more, if you conduct
yourself as a vending machine, you’ll win less.
You must make opponents bet more on impulse than they normally would. You do
that by taking advantage of their human tendency to wager more carelessly at
worse odds when they see the outcome as suspenseful.
That’s why I spend so much energy convincing students to polish their table
images. A correct image is a friendly image. If opponents don’t have fun losing
to you, you’re surrendering one of the great psychological advantages in poker.
That’s one secret of a slot machine. It never threatens you. A hostile image at
a poker table is a very destructive thing.
A second secret of a slot machine is that its image is unpredictable. If I
devised a slot machine that had only a two percent edge, you’d suppose it would
be popular. But what if every single time you wagered a dollar, it returned 98
cents? Nobody would play after they realized this. But if I extracted the same
two percent edge by sometimes returning $2, $5, $25, $100, or $10,000 and
sometimes nothing, I’d get action. It’s the issue of predictability versus
You, too, must be perceived as totally unpredictable when you play hold ’em. If
your opponents occasionally (but very rarely) see you playing hands no one else
would play, if they see you bluffing when no one else would bluff and betting
when no one else would bet, then this will make the right kind of impression.
Once that impression is made, it won’t fade quickly. Then you can play the best
solid strategy you know. Your slot-machine image will fill your opponents’ heads
with hope. And they’ll lose more to you than they will to anyone else.
CARO’S FUN PRINCIPAL
They Come to Play
Always remember that your hold ’em opponents came to gamble. They came for the
excitement. They came to feel their pulses race in the face of an unpredictable
fate. Some of them drove all the way from Ventura to play hold ’em in Gardena.
Some of them drove all the way from Panama to play in Las Vegas. But, wherever
they drove from, they didn’t go to all the trouble just to be bored. They didn’t
come hoping to throw hands away.
Your opponents crave the unexpected. If you learn to understand that
principle, you’ll be a better player. You’ll probably be a better person, too,
but that’s another topic.
Your opponents drove fast, locked their cars, walked briskly across the parking
lot, put their names on a waiting list, paced the lobby until that name was
called and finally sat in your game. They expect something in return for their
effort and they don’t want to be bored.
When you play a very predictable game—when you act like a vending machine—you
spoil their fun. Sure, you can play a routine strategy against average opponents
and still win. But you won’t win much. In order to achieve maximum gain, you
must encourage your opponents to bet more money on impulse than they normally
You’ve learned that it’s possible for a human being to play better poker than a
vending machine. Who else would tell you that?
Unpredictability is a key ingredient in your winning image. Put all six
ingredients together and you’ll have a powerful winning edge every time you play
Mike Caro, the legendary “Mad Genius of Poker,” is the world’s foremost
authority on poker strategy, psychology and statistics. Excerpted from his new
book, Caro’s Most Profitable Hold’em Advice.