Don't Let Imitation Compromise Your Game

Phil Laak

There's a time and a place for emulating your poker-player heroes, but take it too far at the table and you could be harming your chances of winning. Why do people do it?

We Homo sapiens are an imitative species. A trip to the zoo will reveal that we share this tendency with our closest relatives (as in "monkey see, monkey do"). Infants imitate others as soon as they can; three-day-olds will stick out their tongues if they see an adult do it.

A huge amount of what we learn comes from observing others and, as we grow and mature, our role models become touchstones for our own developing selves. We like movies and television and love to imagine ourselves as our heroes; we want to be like that dude up there on screen.

But imitation has limitations. It works best when learning something new. It helps you get started because you focus on the important stuff and there is less to learn on your own. But if you hope to become an expert, you must leave off copying others and develop your own skills --- and this brings us to poker.

The poker landscape has undergone seismic changes in just a few years, much of it due to TV. The exposure has created stars. Guys who, a couple of years ago, were crawling the dusty roads from one underground game to another now have agents, personal trainers and their own Web sites.

Twenty-somethings who were sitting in front of their computers in their tighty whities eking out gas money in $1/$2 games are now tooling around in Porsches. This is great and I wish them the very best - and I hope they're doing the right thing for their futures, 'cause it's real tough to stay in the limelight for long.

Of course, then he folds. There are reasons for this act. It has a touch of drama. Sammy and the unlit cigarette stay on camera and it has secondary gain in that it annoys opponents who are likely to tilt.

I'm tired of Sammy's act but I understand it. But I've had it with kids imitating it in my game. There is no camera my friends, no air time and no agents will be calling. You're wasting everyone's time and you're not gaining an edge on me. I have labeled you a "bozo" and I like to play with bozos.

And, while you're at, stop tying to dress like Phil Laak. Dump the hoodie.

The Stare

Phil Hilm got himself a lot of TV exposure during last year's WSOP finals. I suspect he's a decent enough player (he apparently has done well in European events), although his meltdown at the final table was stunning.

But no matter. The fascination with Hilm was "The Stare." Every time he had to act he would turn and rivet his opponent with an icy, focused glare. Like Sammy's Hollywood gambit, it got him air time.

Hilm's stare isn't anything new, of course. His was just the most recent and one of the more penetrating of the genre. But these peering, leering, staring, glaring clowns keep showing up in my games.

If you've become a practitioner of The Stare, here are some things to know. First, as noted in an earlier piece of mine, few if any tells are picked up this way. Tells are garnered from patterns of betting, talking and larger physical bodily actions.

Second, staring this way is a tell. It usually reflects uncertainty.

Third, I think it's funny and I have taken to snickering when opponents do it.

And, while contemplating this, please dump the shades. If you haven't noticed, many pros who wear them take them off in critical moments when they need to get all the information they can. I watched a poseur with aviators get stacked when he misread the board. The glasses went into his pocket on the very next hand.

Hand Reading

I love watching Daniel Negreanu smile, lean forward and say something like, "Man, you called with J-9o and hit that second pair." And, of course, because we know the hole cards, we see that he was exactly right. In fact, the commentators often remark about Daniel's seemingly occult hand reading skills.

Daniel is good at this, among the best. It is an important element in his success. But, keep in mind that the show you are watching is edited and a dead-on read like this is a "TV moment." Missed reads aren't.

Hand reading has a lot in common with picking up tells. It's based on detecting patterns over time. It is also not aimed at putting an opponent on a specific hand, although occasionally that is possible.

Hand reading begins with educated guesses about a range of hands an opponent could be holding and, as more information becomes available, progresses to a gradual narrowing of that range. When you know precisely what an opponent has, your grandma knows too.

Take-home message: Imitation is, indeed, a sincere form of flattery. It helps develop skills, and picking the right role model can be critical in the life choices we make.

But to really excel in anything we must go beyond emulating others. Find your own way. Stop the Hollywood gambit, dump The Stare and don't make a dunce out of yourself telling me I'm playing A-Js when I'm on a stone-cold bluff.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and co-author of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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Sean Lind 2008-05-21 17:27:00

Yeah, I agree with how annoying this is. It's unfortunate that calling the clock is viewed the way it is. It should be an option for situations like this, but it makes you look like a twit if you do it.

The best solution I know, taught to me by a friend who just employed it while playing heads up in a large mtt. The other player was going into the tank for a couple min on every action... literally. Just staring at my buddy looking for tells I guess. So my buddy resorted to this:

When it was the other guys turn to act, he'd just sit still and stare straight down at his chips. Not move or look at anything until it was his turn to act, where he's act in a few seconds. After the slow player realized what was going on he cut his time down to 20 seconds.... before losing.

Other than that if you think of any good ideas let me know. If it's a friend I'll just pull out a line my dad used to say to me:
"Make your mistakes quickly"

Eyal 2008-05-21 16:07:00

The worst part about the contemplation and the stare is the wasted time. It can drive you crazy waiting for the same nutjob to deeply contemplate throwing away his missed straight. How can we keep these guys from putting us on tilt?

What about finding something else to do? A poker room won't let us bring magazines to the table. Write an SMS on your cell phone. Better yet, practice working out outs and pot-odds in your head. As a bonus, this keeps you busy so there is less to read on you.

What about fighting back? The dealer probably won't pull out a stopwatch for you, so complaining won't help. Plus, you'll look like a whiner. How about wasting his time when it's your turn and he's in a hurry? Just sit there and do nothing obviously. If he gets a kick out of being the center of attention while everyone waits for him, how will he feel losing the spotlight?

Any better ideas? Anyone?

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