The beautiful thing about the game of poker is that no one specific playing style can be considered ideal, or "the best."
There are players like Chris "Jesus" Ferguson who play a conservative math-based game; on the other end of the spectrum there are ones like Gus Hansen who employ a seemingly maniacal style.
These two pros play poker completely differently but they've found what works for them and they are both extremely profitable. The key to their success is they're acutely conscious of their table image and of how their opponents will react to it.
Be Aware of Your Changing Table Image
Table image boils down to how your opponents perceive your play. Your table image is constantly in flux. Your image may be completely different a few orbits on from what it happens to be in a given moment.
For example: you may have gone on a sick heater, getting AA, KK, QQ, A-K all in succession. If you raise every hand pre-flop and win each one before showdown, despite the fact you had monster hands you still won't have shown any of them.
Another image that works well: Best player in the world.
Your opponents are going to think you're running over the table and raising anything and everything.
While this might not be the case, it's what your table image will appear to be. So you must always be vigilant in knowing what the table thinks given the information they have. That's what will shape not only how they play against you but also how you will play against them.
Exploiting Your Perceived Image
Once you get into the habit of paying attention to your image, you must constantly monitor how your opponents react to different playing styles.
When faced with aggression, do they slow down and wait for a hand, trying to trap, or do they play back at you? When you're playing tight do they try and run you over? Do they get out of your way when you're betting?
Whichever style you're playing, if you know how your opponents will react you can exploit them. If you're playing loose-aggressive (LAG), which is becoming the standard style in online play, you especially need to pay attention to your table image.
This strategy involves raising and re-raising pre-flop with a wide range of hands. Such aggressive play often leads to your opponents becoming frustrated. When they get frustrated, they're going to make mistakes.
Once people see you as a maniac, you can kick back and watch them call you down with much worse hands.
This is the payoff for the LAG strategy. When you are viewed as a maniac, they're going to start calling you down with worse hands because they know you're raising them all the time.
Some players are going to start re-raising you with less-than-optimal holdings. You have to be aware of how you're being perceived at the table. If it's your first hand at the table, you hold K-Q on a king-high board and you're check-raised, you should probably fold.
However, if you're involved in a pot with a player whom you've been pounding with aggression and he's been showing his frustration, berating you in the chat, then you may as well start counting your money now because this guy is going to be willing to stack off much lighter than normal.
The tight style works great as well. Once you're perceived to be a tight player you're going to get a lot of respect. Your continuation bets are going to be folded to much more frequently and your opponents are going to be much less likely to play back at you when you're in a hand.
You can use this to your advantage! If you've cultivated a tight solid image you can steal pots because you're going to be given credit for a hand the majority of the time. So get out there and start stealing until they start to reclassify you in their minds.
Switching gears is extremely important. The flow of the table is always changing and you should be able to change with it. If you can vary your play enough, you're going to be a very difficult player to play against.
He may be conservative , but you don't win as much as Jesus has without switching gears at the right times.
You should be able to move from playing ultra-aggressive to ultra-tight when the situation dictates. If you're going to be playing the LAG strategy, you have to be able to put the brakes on.
If your table image becomes too entrenched, though, you'll lose your edge. If you're getting played back at every time you raise then it's best to lie back and play a more ABC-style TAG game.
If other players don't notice you've switched gears, they're still going to be willing to stack off versus you. Once your image calms down again, you can get back into the action.
Similarly, if you've been playing tight for a significant period and you start taking advantage of that tight image by stealing pot after pot, eventually they're going to reclassify you as a loose-aggressive player. At that point they'll start to play you differently.
The trick to playing successful poker is to seamlessly integrate these styles (as well as others) into your game and be able to switch back and forth as your opponents' perception of your image dictates.
If your opponents are unsure of how you are playing, they're going to make mistakes. Those mistakes will translate into dollars in your account - just ask Jesus or the Great Dane.
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