Ability to read another player is what separates consistent winners from the rest. Perhaps one of the single best ways to improve your game is by improving your ability to read situations. The only thing better than that, is improving your table character so that you make sure that they cannot read you. Sitting with more advanced players than yourself makes it tough to read what they have because of the sophistication of their play, however, they most likely have a read on you. If you follow a few simple strategies, you can make it tough for them to read you, thereby, presenting a table image as a hard to read player: a tough player. These techniques mostly apply to players from beginner to intermediate, but will make any great technical poker player even better.
Be Consistent. This is the best strategy for being tough to read. Be consistent in everything that you do, whether you have a monster or rags, bluffing or betting, in the hand or observing. This rule guides all other rules. It has been said that you always want to mix up your play so as not to be read. This is true. I am not advocating that you always play your hands the same way, but your behavior should be consistent.
Maintain the Same Body Posture. This has to be consciously done, and practicing your poker posture is a good idea. A while ago I sat down at my kitchen table with a mirror in front of me: I squirmed around until I found a very comfortable and practical position that I liked. I keep this position at all times no matter what. Two feet on the floor shoulder length apart. Right elbow and wrist laying flat on the table and my left elbow on the table, left hand plays the chips when betting, otherwise it is always on my lower face in a fist so not to play with my face in any way. What your posture you choose is not that important, but it is critical that you assume it every time minute that you are at the table. Every time I would sit at a table I would consciously go into this posture. My winnings went from an average of 30 dollars an hour to almost 80 dollars an hour. Good players first look at your posture when trying to get a read on you.
Bet the same amount. This is applicable to mostly no-limit, where the amount you bet can be almost anything you like, compared to limit poker where the betting is regulated. When you site down at the no-limit table, always bet the same amount no matter what your betting hand is. It is more advisable to pick a relative amount rather than a fixed amount: that is always bet an amount the same size as the pot, or always bet double the pot, etc. This is more advisable to a fixed amount, say always betting 30 dollars, as a 30 dollar bet on the river into a 200 dollar pot is not advisable in many betting situations. Good players will always consider your bet amount when trying to get a read on you. Even good players can subconsciously give away important information in the amount they bet. Until you master the psychology of betting, consistent betting will ensure you won’t be giving another player any advantage.
Remember Your Cards. This tip is mainly for beginners, but it is surprising how often even good players make this mistake. Re-looking at your cards usually means that your are on a backdoor draw, that is cards came out that gave you a possible straight or flush that you initially did not think about. It is also a good idea to look at your cards as soon as you get them rather than only when it is you turn to play. There are good arguments for both card peeking strategies: looking right away or looking when it is your turn. For our purposes, looking at your cards when you get them means the dealer is still passing out cards to everyone and players are less likely to be watching you, thus limiting their opportunity to see your reaction to your cards.
Your Table Vocabulary: “Raise.” Declaring your raise is the only time you are legally obliged to speak at the poker table, and sometimes not even then. You do not even have to declare the amount you raise. When you call, fold, or are involved in anything else at the table you are not obliged to verbally respond. You fold by tossing your cards in the muck, and you call by placing the appropriate number of chips in the middle. “Coffee Housing” or talking to players for the purposes of gathering information is one way that beginner and even good players lose a lot of money. You do not have to respond to anything a player asks or says to you. Even when they ask you how much you have left, you are not legally obliged to respond. If a casino has a rule that a possible better has the right to know exactly your stack (usually in a no-limit tournament) you never have to respond, the dealer will count your chips and respond for you. Most reads from great players get off of good players if through what they are, or are not saying. The answer to this is to say nothing at all, except “raise.” Do not talk at a table, not one word, and you will never give up important information to better players, and what is more, your table character will be seen as tough.
Minimize movements. Scratching the face, playing with chips, playing with cards, squirming in the seat, are all movements that can potentially give information away to better players. The simple rule is the less mannerisms you have the less they can hurt you. Be comfortable at the table and this “stone” table character can be achieved and will be effective. Wear comfortable clothes, and make sure that you have had enough, but not too much to eat or drink before sitting at the table. Being hungry, or worse giving into that feeling and having food or drink at the table will inevitably give rise to many patterns of body, mannerisms that the better players will catch, and break you with. As well, needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of a big or tough hand will have you squirming like a chicken, thus giving up information that you never want to give up. Having a player call your bluff thinking you were squirming because of weakness, when it was only your full bladder that you were thinking of is regrettable and avoidable.
Although these techniques are mostly aimed at beginner to intermediate players, they can, and are, used by even masters of the game. Whenever you are in the tough game against players who are as good, or even better than you, it is best to first assume this style of play, until you get a read on the other people at the table and can switch gears.
Being inconsistent in your play once in a while is an excellent way of trapping players by giving information intentionally. However, if you are up against tougher opponents, “putting a play on them” sees you as the loser more usual. Once you master these techniques and move from intermediate to advance play, you can then mix it up, using inconsistencies to gather information or trap players, thereby making you a consistent winner.
One of the most respected players ever, Mike Caro has devoted a career, and entire books to argue the complete opposite of these strategies. In a nutshell he argues that:
All players give off tells, no matter how good they are. The more like a rock a player is, the easier it is to spot the tell when it comes, as the inevitable raised eyebrow looks like he is doing jumping-jacks compared to his normal play. The only way to not give off information with your tells is to act as wildly as possible all the time so that your calculated outlandish behavior disguises the raised eyebrow.
This is a very powerful strategy from a very powerful player. However, in some regards it requires more attention to detail and greater effort than trying to play like a rock. I have seen few players effectively use Mike Caro’s strategy, but when it is used effectively, those players are usually going home with a lot of money.