It’s gotten a bad name in poker – acting at the table. The best players aren’t influenced by it; the worst don’t notice it. When we see it in a televised poker game, we derisively call it “Hollywood.” It’s cheesy, ridiculous, and makes us groan. But you know what? It wins money when done correctly.
I’m not suggesting that you must act to be a winning player. Many of the best don’t. They focus on complete inscrutability at all times. That’s fine. And if that’s you, I don’t want to dissuade you from playing your poker in exactly that way.
But some of us – and I count myself among them – can add profit by posturing.
Three admittedly cheesy moves that I’ve found effective over the years against mediocre or worse opponents: Goading, feigned reluctance, and earnest alarm bells. Below I explain how and why each of these can work in the right situation.
1. The goad
Goading an opponent takes advantage of a slightly sophisticated player’s belief that strong means weak and weak means strong. Here’s an example from 2017 at the Orleans in Las Vegas: $1/$2 No-Limit with a $300 maximum.
I was dealt Q♥ Q♠ in late position. Three or four players called the $2 blind and I raised to $15. I had a $400 stack – the second-largest at the table. The big blind and a middle-position player called. Everyone else folded. $65 or so in the pot before the flop, which came 8♥ 7♥ 2♣.
It was checked to me and I bet $40. The very deep-stacked player called. $145 in the heads-up pot. I read her for someone who prided herself on her knowledge of the game, though she struck me as weak. I’ve noticed a lot of those players in $1/$2 and $2/$5 games all over the world.
The turn was the Q♦, giving me top set and, at least at the moment, the nuts. The board became 8♥ 7♥ 2♣ Q♦. The conventional play would be to bet roughly half pot to tempt her to incorrectly draw for the flush or straight with insufficient pot odds. Instead, I decided on some schtick. I looked at my opponent dead in the eye and said to her, aggressively, “I’m all in” as I slowly and dramatically shoved in all of my chips, keeping my stare on her. In essence, I acted as if I was daring her to call me.
Cheesy? Yes, I know. But I read her as someone who wasn’t going to be bullied by some obvious, aggressive move. Sure enough, she called. The river was another 2. I flipped over my full house and she mucked.
I know it’s always easy to feel like a genius with the nuts, but I’ve used the “goad” enough times to see it work against the right type of opponent in the right circumstances.
2. The reluctant bet
So too with feigning reluctance when betting. This is a simple weak-means-strong bluff that has caused more folds from mediocre players than I think I would’ve gotten without acting.
This is from a game in 2019 at the Aspers Club in London. I raised with a hand like A K preflop, c-bet the flop, and still had a caller on the turn. On the river, I made a show of looking like I was disappointed – a slight head shake and pursed lips. And then I said, “Well, I guess I’ll try a bet” or something equally weak-sounding. And I made a pot-sized bet.
My somewhat perceptive opponent, seeing this bad acting job, concluded that I had hit a monster and was looking for a call; he folded with a smile as if to say that he wasn’t fooled by my obvious (to him) acting job.
Again, this isn’t going to work on a really good player, who might well see through the charade. And a really bad player might actually be taken in by it and continue with their mediocre or drawing hand. But against the right player, I’ve found it works.
3. An earnest warning
Finally, there is this. It may even strike some as ethically questionable table talk. Maybe it is, but it’s worked for me against certain trusting, timid, and gullible newbies: I call it the earnest warning.
I was in a $1/$2 No-Limit game at Foxwoods in Connecticut. It was a daytime game and my table had a few people who must have been playing poker before the early bird special at the buffet. They were seniors and it seemed like some were playing bigger than they were used to. Surely that was the case with Louise, the nice lady to my left.
We had struck up a poker table friendship, having exchanged some pleasant details about our families and what we did. She was a retired teacher and had a daughter who lived near me who did not play poker. Sure enough, she had taken the bus down with a few friends who were playing bingo. She liked poker more, though she rarely played in a casino. This may have been her second time at Foxwoods.
We had been playing for a couple of hours. Through it all, I had been pleasant and sympathetic. I commiserated when she lost and complimented her on a few wins. Then she and I contested for a pot.
I had been leading the betting with my A♥ K♥. She had been calling. I had a flush draw, and there was a club flush draw on the turn as well: J♥ 6♥ 6♣ 9♣. I bet $35 or so on the turn and she paused a long time, smiled, and finally called. The 3♣ came on the river. I had a complete bust.
I smiled amiably at her and bet $100. She looked at me and then back at her cards. A few seconds later, as she was deciding what to do, I smiled earnestly and said to her, “Louise, I have a club flush. Unless you have a full house, I think you should fold.”
“I believe you,” she said. And, showing me her Queens, she folded.
Now I know that many of you may be reading this and thinking it absurd – that these tactics have no place in serious poker games. I can only tell you that you are mistaken. Many of your opponents are very gullible, very likely to read your overly strong behavior for weakness, and very likely to see your feigned weakness for strength. So take these three moves for what they are – useful against the right opponents.
Being inscrutable is all well and good, but acting can work even better in certain spots.