How to Survive as the Underdog

Final Table
No matter how good you are, sometimes the players across the felt are just that much better.

In a perfect world, you would dominate every player ever to sit at a table with you. Unfortunately, from time to time you're going to find yourself the underdog.

Whether it's unfortunate tournament seating, jumping to a stronger limit or just being new to the game, there are times when you're going to be the least experienced player at the table.

Although this is not an ideal situation to be in, there are things you can do to help level out the odds.

Table Image/Respect

Poker is a game of information. You extract and deduce the most information you can from a player, or hand, to make informed decisions. As an unknown coming to a table of known professionals, you start your game with more information than your opponents.

Just having the knowledge of the level of game your opponents are playing will give you insight into how they're going to play each hand. At the same time, they have no idea who you are, or how you play. In this situation, I suggest cultivating a rock table image to exploit.

Most amateur players who sit with professionals rock up, and try to wait for that perfect hand to pick them off with. If you don't feel confident playing hands against the other players, then chances are you're not going to play anything other than the nuts.

If you sit down and quietly fold hands for a few orbits, only showing down monster hands, they'll assume you're one of these players and will forget about you at the table. Once they have you pigeonholed as a super tight rock, they will bully you but fold to any large bet you make.

The image the professional creates of you will give you free rein to make bluffs at will. The size of the bluffs and pots you'll be bringing in will be small compared to the action hands on the table. If you're not good enough to butt heads with the pros, then be happy to make smaller money with a lower amount of risk.

The "Well, that was a mistake" expression can help you create your fish image.

Value of a Buy-In

One thing you have to keep in mind is the value of one buy-in. A $10,000 buy-in cash table will be a significant amount of money for most people. It's a lump of money most players can't afford, or really don't want, to lose.

If you can't afford to lose the money in front of you, then you'll be playing with scared money. Scared money means you'll be unwilling to act on the right decision, balking at the fear of losing your stack.

At the same time, a $10,000 buy-in can be average to low for many of the top professionals. Even if you make what seems like a brilliant bluff, players may make large calls against you simply on the possibility you're bluffing. They may be willing to lose the pot to see your hand.

If you really are not at peace with losing the money in play, then you shouldn't be playing with that money. If you're still at the table with that money, then the best you can do is convince everyone else you're not afraid to lose it.

To do this, I'd make the same move Doyle Brunson talks about in Super/System 2 in the No-Limit tourney section. When you're in a situation where you know you're ahead, or the other player won't call, it's good for the table to see you move all-in.

If you're sure the other player won't call, moving all-in can convey the image you're willing to take a coin flip at any point. Having this image will force players fearing a call to think twice before making moves on you.

Fish Factor Scare Cards

If you're the obvious amateur at the table, every other player in the game is going to underestimate you. If they think you're a fish, they'll open up their game to try and net you. Let them believe you're worse than you are, then rob them blind.

Most fish share common characteristics in their play. The most obvious of these are they will chase flush draws for almost any price, and love to call with and hold onto an ace. This makes sense, since an ace is the highest card in the deck. Can't beat the highest card - it's the highest!

Bellagio Hotel and Casino
The Bellagio poker room has the world's top players come out to fish almost nightly. Are you one of them?

Keeping this in mind, you can use these traits to make a scare card bluff. If you're on a straight draw and miss, and the flush hits at the same time, it can be really easy to convince the other player you have the flush.

Believing you're a fish, along with you playing the hand like a draw, will make it very difficult for them to call this bluff. It can be the same thing with an ace. A very good player who believes you're a fish will lay down big hands at the sight of an ace.

When I'm playing at a lower-stakes table with multiple fish, I live by this rule:

"Do not play against an ace."

I'll almost automatically shut down holding KK with an ace on the board. Against stronger players I'll need to have more information before I'll assume I'm beat in the same situation.

If you are viewed as one of the fish, you can play on the ace. If you play as if you always have the suited cards and the ace, you can find yourself bluffing many pots in a session. The more pots you take in this manner, the more the people will think you are playing those cards.

Always remember, if someone stands up to you and you allow the table to see you don't have the flush or flush draw, the gig is up. It's time to adjust your game at that point. You want to change gears just as the other players relax, thinking they have you figured.

Don't Out-Play Yourself

It's easy to get caught up in the mood of the table. At a table full of gamblers, it's common to find yourself jumping right into the mix. You need to play in a style and at a skill level that you're comfortable with.

No one can hit the ball out of Wrigley the first time they pick up a bat. Don't think you can outplay a professional your first time to the game.

Amateurs will commonly be found trying to make elaborate bluffs, or hero calls, trying to prove their worth. Wait until you're sure you have the best of it, and when you can only hope, make a good laydown.

Poker is a game of skill with an element of luck. Your goal at every table you sit should be to remove as much luck from the game as you can. The person who does this best forces the other players to surrender, or play at the mercy of luck.

The only edge you can gain being an amateur against high-caliber players is to make them believe you're playing a slightly different game than you really are. It will be a small edge, but it might be just enough to keep you in the black.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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nate 2009-12-26 05:07:25

I think this is very good advice. I often intentionally loose a couple of cheap hands to portray bad decision making. It makes it more sweeter when someone tries to re-raise you or even thinks you are bluffing and you got the nuts. I also really like the information about running at the sight of an ace. I have seen too many flops in which I had a mid or high pair and someone raises because they flopped an ace. It really hurts to lay down a KK against a greener playing with an A and 4 off suit, but it is cheaper. And it also fuels an even worse mentality for the newer people that they make good decisions to play those hands and even blind raise in the first positions.

I play a tight game. I get aggressive when I spot weakness and usually I try to have the table image of a rock. I absolutely abhor blind raising, but it can be profitable if you know who you are up against. But for the most part, that is the gambling mentality that you find in casinos among people looking to have a good time and gamble.

Again, very informative article. A lot of people know that reading players is important but they have no idea it is easier to read someone based on betting and raising techniques rather than body language at the table. And of course the gloaters who show their bluff after you fold.

midnight 2008-03-13 18:41:00

Good write up here. I think this strategy can be used almost at any table even when it isnt a huge stake game with all pros. I think you can implement the sneakiness when u are new to the table just because people usually think the new person is automatically a fish - just cause they dont recognize him/her and because a fresh face usually automatically leads to the (false) assumption that it is also fresh fish blood

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